Thoughts from Natassia Nettleman,
Communications Practice Lead at CōLab
16 November 2023
In the world of startups, founding teams are consumed by the pressing needs of product development, fundraising, and sales. With all of these priorities, communications feels more like a “nice to have” rather than a “must have” and often takes a backseat. Startups eventually scale and find themselves at a crossroads where they realize the indispensable role that an effective comms function can play in their growth journey. Unfortunately for some, this realization comes too late, resulting in missed opportunities, reputational hiccups, and even major crises.
To that end, we bring you a conversation about the importance of deliberate communications throughout a company’s lifecycle with Natassia Nettleman, the Communications Practice Lead at CōLab, the creative studio that sits inside strategic operating firm WestCap, and Svetlana Vaisman, a communications advisor to startups, as well as more established private and public companies, from Teneo.
Let’s start with the basics: what does each of you do?
Natassia: My goal is for our executives and comms leaders across our portfolio to think of us as an extension of their team. Our comms team works closely with our portfolio companies to support them with everything from media relations, crisis communications, funding announcements, hiring PR talent or agencies, narrative work, speaking opportunities, and more. Every portfolio company is in a different stage and has different communications needs to navigate. Sometimes we’re simply gut-checking a strategy and other times we get inside and lead a project entirely.
Svetlana: As a communications advisor, I spend a lot of my day speaking with leaders of both large and small companies, making sure that they’re presenting themselves as effectively as possible to the audiences who determine their success – that could be any combination of employees, investors, current and potential customers, suppliers, partners, regulators, or other business leaders. I help them work backwards from their business goals to determine where they should be showing up, what they should be saying, and how to get the most impact out of their growth milestones. I also see myself as a somewhat more objective third party that they can bounce ideas off, and I can share some of the lessons I’ve learned from other leaders who have faced similar challenges or decision points.
Why does a startup need a comms function?
Natassia: Communications can increase awareness, establish credibility, help build relationships and even generate leads – but most importantly, having a thoughtful communications strategy will help define and shape your brand’s identity in the market. It starts by being able to articulate your company’s mission. I often see startups use buzzwords and industry jargon to describe their businesses but no one understands what they do! Your descriptor has to be human and simplified – something that can resonate with a broad audience.
Svetlana: Ultimately, whether you are an early startup trying to define a new market, or a mature public company trying to maintain market share, a comms team can be the tip of the spear in helping do that. They are the only internal constituent that is thinking about the needs of all stakeholder audiences and how the company strategy and narrative needs to cater to each to meet your company’s ultimate objectives.
What do startups get wrong when it comes to comms?
Natassia: Every startup wants to be on the cover of Forbes, and they think that if they have a killer product or service, it will undoubtedly happen. That’s not how the world of media works. Founders need to understand that it takes time to get that kind of recognition. The story rarely appears because a reporter emails you out of the blue begging you to be on the cover. It’s a journey and often takes years of relationship building with journalists, investment in ongoing thought leadership and a documented track record of delivering against a business strategy. Journalists love receipts. They also hate cold emails from folks they haven't spoken to in years, especially with story ideas that aren't timely or relevant. The great startup stories you see in big media outlets are the product of a thoughtful pitch with a compelling hook, multiple background calls to educate the journalist, and generous access to the company’s executives.
Svetlana: Completely agree with you Natassia. I like to say that an overnight success is years in the making, and that’s definitely true when it comes to company reputation. It’s hard earned and built over many years. You don’t just stumble into it. I would add that “communications” is a lot more than “P.R.” Media coverage is great and can be incredibly helpful in raising brand awareness, but that’s just one arrow in a comms team’s quiver. For example, at a time when the war for talent is hotter than ever, startups need to have a strong mission-driven internal communications plan to attract and retain the best employees. We also see a number of startups looking to solve big societal problems who benefit from thoughtful collaboration with government agencies and officials. That kind of stuff doesn’t often turn into media coverage, but it’s so critical to a company’s growth.
How should scaling startups be thinking about preparation for the inevitable crisis?
Natassia: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but organization is absolutely critical. Plan to the extent to which you can. Have your response messaging, stakeholder lists, and action plans ready for any issues you see brewing ahead. But for the unknowns, make sure that you understand who the key internal and external decision makers and subject matter experts are. Comms is the bridge between those groups in moments of crisis, driving more effective decision making and outcomes.
Svetlana: I would also add that sometimes you have a communications problem, and other times you have a business problem, and you need to know what kind of problem you’re dealing with before you set out a strategy. You can’t “comms” your way out of a business problem, and conversely, a business that is fundamentally sound can manage through a bad press cycle. Often, a company’s reputation is affected not as much by the nature of the crisis itself, but by how they handle it. We can all think of times where a company wasn’t terribly forthcoming about a problem and it came back to bite them, or they responded in a way that was so tone deaf that the response became an entirely new crisis they needed to manage. Audiences want to know what happened, why it happened, and what you’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again – and they are often more understanding if that explanation is grounded in humility and sincerity.
What else should growing startups keep in mind as they scale?
Svetlana: As companies grow, there’s a temptation to move away from the founder’s voice into more corporate PR speak because the stakes feel higher and there are more people listening to everything you put out there. I am constantly pushing back against this instinct. So much of a successful startup’s brand value is the authenticity of the founder’s mission and his or her voice, and the moment that starts to fade, people start to wonder whether the company still has the “secret sauce” that got it to where it is. There is nothing less compelling than a faceless corporate voice, and I recommend every growing company hold on to the style that is core to its culture.
Natassia: 100%. Another myth buster: The CEO or founder does not always have to be the one storyteller for the company. A company has many stories to tell and we always recommend spotlighting various people on the team who can offer interesting points of view and expertise. Also, these spokespeople do not all need to have a C-suite title. Journalists like to hear directly from the expert team members who are hands-on inside the company. One of my favorite spokespeople I worked with was a Director of Conversation Design at a big tech company. He had a Masters degree in Linguistics and his narrative focused on human interaction with chatbots.
How does the changing media landscape influence the way startups need to communicate today?
Svetlana: The easy answer here is that traditional media outlets are no longer the sole gatekeepers of information. Social media and self-publishing platforms like Substack or Medium have given everyone a voice, but they’ve also created a ton of misinformation, hysteria and distrust, and a feeling of overwhelm from the information deluge. That’s why, in my view, the credibility that traditional news organizations provide is still essential - they’re just no longer the complete strategy. A comms milestone or announcement used to start and stop with an exclusive to TechCrunch or The Wall Street Journal, but now leaders need to think more latitudinally, incorporating owned, direct and social, across multiple formats in addition to earned so that they reach and engage all stakeholders that matter.
Natassia: All of this increases the importance of authenticity and transparency. Audiences are more discerning than ever, and they value genuine, trustworthy voices and information.They want to hear directly from leaders in a way that doesn’t feel too stage-managed. You’ll see a lot of leaders now go on a Twitter Space or post a video on social media that isn’t over-produced or edited. It gets back to our earlier conversation about maintaining an authentic voice – if it feels like it’s been through a million rounds of edits by lawyers and P.R. people, it’s not going to land.
KPIs and measuring success in the field of comms is tricky. How should a startup be thinking about measuring the effectiveness of a communications strategy or program?
Natassia: First and foremost, it's crucial to define clear and specific goals for your communication initiatives. What are you trying to achieve? Is it increased brand awareness, message penetration, or perhaps improved customer engagement? If your goal is to enhance brand awareness, you might measure success through metrics like website traffic, social media engagement, or media mentions. If it's customer engagement, you could look at metrics such as email open rates, click-through rates, or customer feedback. The key is to regularly monitor these KPIs and adjust your strategies and messaging based on the data and insights you gather.
Svetlana: We work closely with our clients to not only track the quantity but the quality of media mentions – when your name comes up in a story, are journalists actually getting the facts right? Are you getting a single mention alongside a bunch of your competitors or are you getting a few paragraphs that provide good context? Also, oftentimes, particularly in the midst of or on the heels of a crisis, the objective might be to keep your name out of the press, and the absence of noise is the KPI to track. That absence requires years of foundational relationship building, nurturing of sources and reputational goodwill.
What is one piece of advice you received in your career that you’d like to share?
Natassia: The editorial assistant will one day be the editor. Relationships matter.
Svetlana: Don’t feel the need to fill the silence. Listen actively and when you have something valuable to say, be concise.
Meet the contributors
Natassia leads the Communications Practice at CōLab. She has deep experience shaping and sharing the stories of companies across several industries and growth stages from Instagram to Salesforce. Natassia is motivated by working with people, products and company missions that are pushing boundaries and changing the world. To get in touch with Natassia, reach out to her on LinkedIn.
Svetlana is the COO of Teneo’s U.S. Strategy & Communications business, advising public and private companies, startups and NGOs on corporate positioning, executive profile building, and issues and crisis management. A founding member of Teneo, she helped grow the company from an 8-person outfit to the 1,600+ person global consultancy it is today. To get in touch with Svetlana, reach out to her on LinkedIn.