Al dente and lessons learned from early public relations

In November 2012, we started work with Nicole Sochen and her company, al dente PR. In the light of our SAB Innovation Award Seed Grant, she was to advise us on and establish our initial media collateral, such as a boiler plate, company info sheet and company profile, as well as compiling a media list, and to help us send out and follow up on our first press releases.

We started work together even before she was contracted to us, as we thought that we needed to spread the word about our matric exam campaign as soon as possible. We drafted our first proper press release – one with contact info, a personalised cover letter for each recipient, and so on – and dispatched it to the contacts in our small media list. From then on, we decided on quite a busy schedule of releases, media interviews and other things. While it looked like a lot of PR from our inexperienced perspective, it was actually quite a tame schedule. We could have, and should have fitted more in, especially seeing as many of the things we had planned, such as our two-city media roadtrip, never materialised. (Having complete control over PR, like we did when Marie joined the team in April 2013, would have helped us accomplish that far more easily.)

We also signed up for a Newsclip contract to monitor our media mentions. It was indispensable, but I would warn Newsclip that they better hope a good competitor doesn’t come along. While their staff were always courteous, the service was halting and unreliable. At the end of our contract with them, for example, in January 2014, they completely dropped the ball: they neglected to send us any media reports, and even forgot to tell us that our contract had come to an end.  Another frustration was that, during the six months we worked with al dente, Newsclip forwarded all of our media mentions to al dente, and not to us. As such, there’s unfortunately no real way to be sure that we saw all of our media mentions ourselves, unless, I suppose, we trawled through the University of Free State’s online media archive.

Over the course of al dente’s time working with us, we discovered a few, very important things:

Paperight has a very sellable story, but requires careful messaging in order to get the nuances of the system across. There were many things that could have been – and were – misunderstood by journalists covering us. An example of this was the Daily Dispatch journo who made enough errors in her piece for a reader to get the wrong impression about the terms of our service – specifically that it was meant for individuals to use – and have a letter printed in the paper the next day, accusing us of “false advertising”.

We also discovered that having “.com” in our logo gave people the impression that it was a website to be used by individuals, and not by copy shops for individuals, and that it was a consumer-facing website. Taking away the “.com” from our logo and company info tended to dampen those assumptions.

We needed to control our own media list. PR companies, al dente included, consider their media lists to be their intellectual property, which is fair enough, considering that it constitutes the core service of their business. For our purposes, however, it would have been better for us to control our media list ourselves, so we could have a better idea of where our releases were going, what the feedback was, and if we needed to follow up.

We needed to have someone working on our marketing and PR who was part of our team and shared our ethos, and didn’t just think we were a nice client to have in their portfolio. While al dente was a good collaboration, there didn’t seem to have much emotional buy-in above and beyond professional obligations. As al dente wasn’t integrated in our offices, there wasn’t a chance for them to keep close track on changes in our company and with our messaging, and we’d forget to keep them informed as things changed from day to day. As such, they were often two steps behind the game. In a fast-paced start-up setting, flexibility is important, and both the nature and structuring of al dente’s business model – whereby we were only one client out of many – meant that they often couldn’t keep up with our changes.

Specialised PR companies are expensive for start-ups. It might be more time-, effort- and cost-effective to hire a dedicated marketing manager.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *