As the African tech ecosystem is growing rapidly, with local and international investors signing cheques to bolster the growth of startups every week, it is also important for these companies to pay attention to telling their stories for audience engagement and posterity.
Beyond fundraising announcements, startups need to work with public relations (PR) experts that will craft pitches that journalists can find relevant or newsworthy.
Jessica Hope, the Founder and Managing Director of Wimbart—a pan-Africa tech PR firm that has worked with several African startups and VC firms including Paystack, 54gene, Moove, Andela, Flutterwave, CcHub, TLCom—discussed how startups and PR firms can cultivate professional relationships with journalists, what to consider when developing a PR strategy, and the effective approach to crisis communication.
What do you think about the relationship between the media and a startup?
Fundamentally, a CEO or startup founder cannot be best friends with a serious journalist because one day when there is a bad story to tell that journalist is going to put on the professional hat. And they might write a story that you do not like even though it is true, so it is really difficult to navigate the relationship—we have to respect each other's profession.
What's the place for paid media in PR?
There is a place for paid media but the trouble (especially in Nigeria) is that a lot of people will pay a journalist [to write about their brand] but the end result of the article will be a journalistic piece instead of promotional content. So, I am against that!
However, I think that there is a place for paid media especially if it is a company that doesn't necessarily have a news hook—some early-stage startups often struggle to understand what a news hook is and they don't understand the process of what it takes to put together a good story. So, sometimes there is an opportunity for startups to invest in paid media but the end product should be promotional not journalistic.
Side note: When you are pitching to a journalist, he/she is thinking if the story is interesting and if their audience is going to be interested in that story as well. As a startup, every single thing that you do is interesting to you but they're not necessarily newsworthy.
How do you see the future of tech PR in Africa?
I am bullish on the fact that more people need to specialise. I think there are a lot of people who are content marketers and that assume that they can do PR, but if you are a content marketer and you have a budget for media spending; that means you probably don't need to think of news hooks and news angles, you are basically just rewriting stuff that your client or the business that you worked for is rehashing.
There is a skill to content marketing but there's also a skill to doing PR and being able to hunt down, find out and articulate what the news angle is and to manage that relationship [with the journalist] and to make it newsy to tap into the wider news story.
I do not think that people who are good at content marketing will necessarily be good at PR and vice versa. As the [African] ecosystem matures and PR matures, people are going to have to specialise and get a lot better at certain aspects of marketing and communications.
When is the right time for a company to define a crisis communication strategy, and how can it be deployed?
We say to almost all of our clients when we're onboarding them: "do you need us to develop a crisis comms strategy?" And the ideal scenario is that you invest money in our time for us to develop this crisis comms strategy where we look at things like draft statements, chain of command when it comes to what happens when a crisis happens, best approaches planning as well looking at different scenarios that would constitute a crisis.
One of the things that I have noticed in our [African] ecosystem at the moment is that journalists get ignored when they reach out to a company that is going through a crisis—you cannot ignore those requests because it will create a vacuum and often times the media reports will start speculating, and that is even worst. The internet does not forget.
It is better to plan a crisis communication strategy ahead of time, it is too late to start planning when a crisis hits. Journalists also need to give companies a right to reply when they are doing a negative story, they should also fact-check.
What would you recommend to startups' communication teams on planning a PR strategy?
Communication, PR and news are collaborative, so startups need to work with creative teams—choosing the right PR team, a team with a pedigree in a particular area. You also need to be sure of the track record of the PR agency that you want to work with you. Another important thing is the size of the team you want to work with—this will inform you on how effective their delivery would be.
How would you advise pre-revenue/MVP startups to approach PR?
Early-stage startups do not need a full-time PR agency because they do not have news yet, also they might not have the capacity to juggle business and product development and PR. However, content marketing and community building are great ways to put your story out there. Thought leadership is quite tricky especially when it is a first-time founder.
Just because you exist does not mean you are news! — Jessica Hope
Side note: In 2020, Wimbart launched the PR Office Hours, AKA Wimbart Office Hours, a mentorship programme designed to equip African startups with the PR tools they need to achieve their business goals. It is targeted at early-stage startups and companies building tech solutions for Africans on the continent or in the Diaspora. Wimbart's 4th cohort for the programme will commence in September 2022.
How can someone who is starting up a PR business in Africa get into the limelight?
There is space in the market for new entrants but it takes time to build a business and you need to be consistently good to build a network. Also, you need to make sure you hire and nurture the right talents. Startup founders appreciate intensity and energy, and it is important to return that energy.
Editor's Note: This conversation was held via a Twitter Spaces hosted by Benjamin Dada, it was edited for clarity.