India's fast-changing media landscape poses plenty of challenges for the country's corporates. These, and the related opportunities, are well understood when it comes to established players. But recent years have seen the rise of a new class of companies, startups that are rapidly reshaping the very notion of business as usual — and reframing traditional public relations concepts in the process.

To better understand how startups are reinventing PR in India, the Holmes Report recently partnered with Value 360 Communications to convene a roundtable in New Delhi that featured founders and comms leaders from some of the country's leading market disruptors. 

Alok Agrawal, Founding Partner, The Growth Labs (AA)
Deep Bajaj, Founder, PeeBuddy (DB)
Divya Jain, Founder, Safeducate (DJ)
Piyush Kumar, Founder & CEO, Rooter Sports Technologies (PK)
Vandita Sheoran, Director of Corporate Communications, Droom Technology (VS) 
Vishal Gupta, Founder, Momspresso (VG)
Kunal Kishore Sinha, Co-Founder, Value 360 Communications (KKS)
Arun Sudhaman, CEO, The Holmes Report (moderator) (AS)
What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that took place in March in New Delhi. 

Why communications matters 
"You realise where you are going wrong and what you are doing right"
It is a simple question, perhaps, but provides invaluable perspective on the enduring value of public relations. Why does communication matter to startups, given the myriad challenges they face, and the corresponding pressure on limited resources? Bajaj kicked things off by noting that only PR could help deliver a message as complex and sensitive as PeeBuddy's. 

DB: "At a startup level when you don’t have so much money to go out and just spend on advertising, to me rightly formed communication can help you identify with your customers much better than static advertising would. I think for us it has worked wonders right from the day when we started because we were looking at a product which was very disruptive for its time. I mean we were looking at women to stand and pee in a country like India and this was four years ago. So there was no way we could have advertised just plain and simple on Facebook and expect people to react so the media got behind us to support us. It really worked very well for us I think. That’s how we’ve been building this ever since." 

VG: "As startups you are always selling and you are selling to whole bunch of different stakeholders. So, for example, we started as My City for kids — it was a discovery platform for kids' services. The moment we got coverage what happened is that a bunch of other kids' services, businesses actually, wanted to list on our platform. So, I think that you are selling to all these different stakeholders and I think that comms really helps you to do that in a way that actually reaches out to all of them. I think it’s a great way and an inexpensive way to actually bring the brand in as leaders."

That notion, that the feedback loop offered by public relations activity helps founders hone their ideas, was one that was taken up by Agrawal, who heads startup advisory firm Growth Labs.

AA: "It helps founders or startups find they own their business, because in a lot of these cases the communication is also the business. It’s really one little story which starts off the business and therefore the two are interlinked so it’s not one devoid of the other. Often you go and talk about your story in terms of the communications needs, and more often you realise where you are going wrong and what you are doing right. You know, what attracts and then what puts people off."

That approach, said Kishore Sinha, helps create a clear point of difference when it comes to handling PR for startups vs established companies.

KKS: "Largely, I think tools don’t change but how we are approaching a particular startup is very different. If you are working with a brand like BMW, you are selling a brand which is easy to do. But when you are a startup, for example when PeeBuddy started, it would take a lot of ability in terms of the right storytelling that would convince a certain set of media or a certain set of influencers to talk about that particular entity. So your strength and your ability in storytelling takes precedence because, I think in a bigger enterprise, you are also supported by the brand legacy. But as you actually progress you could actually create a legacy of your own. But there are great challenges because you do not have great things to announce to begin with. We work with both sets of audiences, but our excitement is more around the startups because there you have that kind of freedom to work for the CEO to create a certain communication plan which is a little disruptive."

VS: "I completely agree with Kunal when he says communicators actually are helping build a brand. Although I joined a couple years after Droom started, I get really excited that I am trying to help the brand move forward, trying to reach out to the target audience that the company is trying to keep. It’s a different feeling altogether."

PK: "From a communications perspective one of the things which I realised as a difference from when I was a marketer, is the fact that here there are two clear target audiences that you speak with. So with there being a B2C platform, the first and foremost is the consumer. But, for us, it was even more difficult because we were trying to do something different and it was always difficult to explain to them why they should come to us, and the fact is even now we struggle. It’s always difficult to try and do something different. At the same time the other bit of communication part was making the industry understand what we are trying to do, and by industry the biggest stakeholder being investors, and media because you want a certain understanding of the space that we are trying to create. Typically in the market, there is a product A and you are trying to create a product B which is similar to product A, people understand it instantly. But when you are trying to do something innovative that’s the typical challenge we faced. But that’s the game I guess."

Communications fine-tunes the business
"From a product improvement perspective it cannot happen without customers" For established brands, PR is often viewed as a tangential activity, relevant but not entirely intrinsic to its fortunes. At startups, though, that equation can flip, with communications often serving to steer the direction of a business, thanks to the robust intelligence offered by the full spectrum of stakeholders.

DB: "You can’t just throw money and say 'write about us'. They have to believe in what you are saying and with every passing quarter the story has been changing and when we are speaking to journalists they keep going back to 'hey, this is what we’d said about a year ago and how that has evolved'. So you are evolving and the industry is evolving with you and so is the customer. But that way, you get a new set of customers. Whenever our coverage has come we’ve got an incremental customer from that experience."

VG: "As founders, you are very alive to seeking input from people. You may take some, you may not take some, but you are always seeking input from the world around you and having input partners in comms is a huge source of wisdom in that sense. The second thing is that, over the journey, there is a bit of a push. You want to basically get your message out but eventually you need to basically work your message to a place where there is pull, where people recognise you for what you are doing and to that extent you are operating possibly more from a product feature perspective to possibly more of a thought leadership perspective. So I think, therefore, it is continuously evolving. The third part is possibly just around there being a limit of consistency, there being a common thread. With startups, some of us can pitch quite violently, but there still needs to be a common kind of thread of what we do."

PK: "I think a B2C product can really improve by communication. We can hardly move it unless the consumer gives us the feedback. In fact we have two ways that we work on this. One is the numbers — we are very, very diligent on matrix numbers, all the data points. We have six data points that we follow. So we don’t take decisions without numbers, more or less. The second is the entire feedback of consumers. And this is something that we have learned over a period of time — from a product improvement perspective it cannot happen without customers, it’s just impossible. From a media feedback perspective, I don’t think that’s something which can be very constructive because media [are] bucketing you in to a different industry or category. The other biggest thing — most constructive feedback we got throughout has been from investors. So, both users and investors would need to be taken very seriously and, again, that’s a communication link to investors and users."

VS: "I view my job in terms of what exactly the customers or the media are saying about you. So how can we fine tune our messaging in return and what's the impact on what exactly the company is doing? For example, recently, it was a communication idea. We have a product called Droom Eco, a fleet of technicians that go and check the car and tell you what problems they will be fixing. So we didn't have women [technicians] with that. It was a communication idea that was fresh to the founder — the minute he said ok to it and we announced it. So we didn’t spend too much time deciding what we need to do, how we need to plan it. It was a small idea, we just went ahead and did it."

VG: "I think the other facet is — you have your message, but you also have some of the larger themes that are in the market. So for example, closer to our own context, for us some of the themes that we see around us are about regional languages becoming bigger and bigger and lower penetration among female users from the digital side. And I think the other opportunity particularly for startups is to kind of ride some of these waves that are already there and make their message stronger by riding that."

AA: "Whenever the founders talk there is genuine angst, pain, passion which comes out in what they say. This is not a story that a CEO of a large corporation can ever replicate and it cannot be done in advertising. You’ll sound pompous in an ad but when you do it genuinely, that’s the reason why your story has become such a big media platform. So that’s another factor — startups and founders are integral, you can’t take one away from the other."

PK: "I think the human part in startups is very, very real. There is a story behind everybody. It’s not been easy even though it may look easy for some people."

The founder effect
"If you try to rein them in the company loses something"
That point, that founders and their startups are inextricably interwoven, certainly offers opportunity when it comes to public relations strategy, particularly when it comes to developing an authentic brand presence. But, as anyone who has ever worked for a vocal founder knows only too well, there are plenty of associated risks, something that our roundtable debated at length. As one participant noted on condition of anonymity: "Founders can be uncontrollable because their passion has led that business to be created and you can’t contain them."

VS: "There are times when the founder actually gets so excited to share the information that, even before the news comes to us, it’s on social media."

KKS: "In bigger organisations you have a communication policy and it is followed to the core. Here, there are positives and negatives because the whole policy has been driven by an entrepreneur. That policy he or she can actually change as per the need but then the communication team has been tasked to manage and control the mess."

AS: Does that bother any of the founders around the table? Do you think you need to be a bit more careful?

 "Not really. I think there’s that honesty and I think that has worked wonders. It has its own backlashes also. Not as much from the customers but from cynics. I remember once BBC did a story on us, English and Indian, and English we got a lot of appreciation from people for being so honest and trying to solve these problems – a man talking about feminine hygiene issues. The Hindi one got us — and I’m a Delhi boy so I believe I know all the best swear words in the world — but some of those swear words were really, really innovative and they said why are you giving such freedom to women in our country, it’s against our tradition etc. But then the customers, then sales came to our rescue. So I think there’s no one size formula to this but if you look at our strategy, whatever you see is what you get."

VG: "A lot of people are unable to distinguish between your personal views and your views in respect to your venture. I think that is basically the point where there could potentially be issues. I want to be basically upfront on my views but, for example, but the kind of content we carry on our platform — religion and political stuff is stuff that we don’t want at all. I see no reason for me to go there and express it for everybody else because it can get twisted so badly out of context. We’ve seen what’s happened with some of these big issues. You are always fighting and you don’t want some of these distractions to actually almost have a huge impact on your venture."

AS: So media training for founders, a good idea? 

AA: "I don’t know whether it works. I have seen not just founders of new companies but I have worked with founders who are now really big industrialists. This confidentiality is all corporate executives who are trained in all this but for them it’s their child and they have to go and show that child to the world. If you try to rein them in the company loses something."

KKS: "Sometimes these bold moves of these founders are also an opportunity for the communication professional because it creates a lot of conversation points. Like you said, it’s more exciting than a structured, boring, scripted code/talk by a CEO who’s been given it by a global communication head. It creates exciting communications conversation for the media."

The education challenge 
"The challenge comes when you don’t have a good story"
One of the challenges that startups face is often by dint of their disruptive nature. They may be creating a new category, or bringing a mindset that does not fit with established thinking. On this topic, our participants had considerable insight to offer communicators that are trying to build a new narrative.

DB: "Get the industry that we are in, most of the things that we are starting to solve are not even discussed, even at the family table. So even if they want to, at times they cannot talk about these issues and that’s what we faced initially, because the product had the word 'pee' in it some of the people just said that they would not carry the story.  But now I think that that has changed and it is changing very fast. I have spoken about menstrual hygiene issues very openly and they are now open, so I think if they like your narrative they make the space, in my case at least. The industry we are trying to disrupt hasn’t been disrupted in the last 50 years."

VG: "I think that when we speak to male [investors, about Momspresso], men don’t get it. So when we say inspiring the woman in every mum they’d be like dazed, like 'what are you trying to do?' When you speak to a mum, she gets it [immediately]. Therefore I think that, even with journalists, when you speak to women journalists, I think there is a huge resonance. You’ve got support from them because they feel instinctively, intuitively connected with what we are trying to do. So I think it’s also an opportunity for any venture, for any startup, to actually find that connection."

PK: "I think [sports is] broader, so they understand the concept but unless you use the product you don’t know and that’s where sometimes there are challenges. What exactly does the product do? Sometimes it becomes difficult to explain. We need to be continuously trying to break it down to a simpler way of explaining that."

VS: "Getting a story out is not a challenge, actually. The challenge comes when you don’t have a good story — how do you create an angle out of it and sell it to the media? The other thing is the number of media publications now are shrinking, we have very limited media. And then we have to reach out to them and try and get a good story out of it. The other challenge, for me I would say, a founder is not just a founder. He is also a product head, he is also a marketing head, he is also a strategy head, so how do you get him to take out time and do interactions?"

KKS: "When you are building a category and when you do not have a direct beat in the category, then you face a challenge of building that space itself. Many times, PR is about story that you are able to create. Now, if you are unable to create the right kind of a story — with large companies you have the fact that if they are a listed company they will have numbers to talk about, they’ll have an acquisition or a partnership to talk about. Now, when you are starting up you are creating a product and your product itself is that story so once you have done that storytelling, the second level of communication becomes a challenge. That people have read about [the founder], now what next? Until the time it creates another set of storylines about how it has actually gone and become the most preferred partner or created a lot of use cases, you are unable to create more communication points. So sometimes that becomes a challenge because you have limited things to talk about in the media. And once you exhaust it then the real challenge comes in."

VS: "When you have a funding announcement, the media will come. If you have better numbers to share, the media will come. But if you are talking about a new category which might not be of interest with the media, they will not cover you. So we have to come up with interesting facts to reach out to the media."

Media & influencer relations
"Many entrepreneurs themselves end up creating very cool ways of communicating with their consumers" While much of the conversation had focused on the role of the media, startups are often stymied in their attempts to break through, not least because of the education challenges detailed above. Perhaps, though, they should also be a little bit more scientific when it comes to assessing the value of media coverage. 

AA: "Look at it from the perspective of media where number one is events, number two is politics, number three is cricket, number four is Bollywood. And they are flooded with requests for people to carry their story. So what’s going to grab their interest? Sorry, I’m just a business. So how do you break into that mindset? It’s very difficult for them to be able to pick up on the nuance that we are trying to build because they are just moving from one category to another. Therefore, really the onus is on the founder and the accounts team to drill down into the story. But the consumers of that media are not consumers of your product. We get very happy with all the stories but they are not the buyers, consumers, users of our product. And that’s a tough challenge of course. Once you become big like a PayTM then you are everywhere but that’s constantly the challenge. The effort to my mind is not 'can I get coverage' but it has to be on what story will get the right coverage to reach my audience which is important at that point in time. You want investors, you want startup media but it is customers that help you choose the right conversation."

PK: "It’s interesting I think to the point that, particularly in our case, it is also difficult to get media stories which directly talk to the user. You can reach out to different stakeholders of the business but when it comes to users it’s always a challenge and therefore one needs to revert to social media and influencers."

KKS: "So that brings me to the point that, many entrepreneurs themselves end up creating very cool ways of communicating with their consumers."

At this point, Kumar related how Rooter Sports has used Hindi cricket commentator Aakash Chopra to co-create content across its social media channels, helping the company create a much stronger presence and connection with users than it would have via the media. Which, of course, raises questions about the importance of influencers in general. 
VS: "We actually reached out to a lot of the known influencers in lifestyle, but I don’t know my message really reached out to the right people. So this is a challenge with it. I think social media plays a very important role but my question of that, fine you have X number of followers but are all those followers your right target audience?"  

DB: "I would rather work with these micro communities which have come up now and they work much better."

VG: "I think authenticity is a key element. In some ways, there is almost some cynicism about the influencers who have large followings but are getting paid to come and deliver the message."

KKS: "I feel the community which has genuine users is much more powerful than an individual influencer who is doing paid integration. I would like to also highlight here that sometimes smart ways of engaging influencers are also very impactful. In [Rooter's] case he engaged sports content which is of general consumer interest and made that as a platform to make Rooter as part of that particular conversation. So I want to understand what to expect from the India v Australia one day match tomorrow, which has been given to me by a channel that I subscribe and within that channel I have also integrated a platform which is a user engagement platform. That automatically reaches out to the consumer that I want to target. So sometimes even being smart in terms of using your influencer helps you to actually be more impactful while you are doing the influencer engagement."

AS: "So Rooter has become a media company."

PK: "I was like, 'ok let’s try it for a day' and we did it and it resulted in downloads. So it is not just building a brand for us, it is not just building credibility for what we are doing, but it is also getting us real numbers."

As another example, Kishore Sinha pointed to Droom's development of an awards show for second-hand cars, the first event of its kind. "Now that brings Droom closer to the audience, makes them an authority in the second hand car market. This is again something that these entrepreneurs are actually thinking and executing — creating a property which is actually a comms property but is helping them to reach their target audience by creating a certain IP."

Building communities
"You need to start with a common passion or a common mission"
Turning a startup into a content creator is no easy feat. But the results can be highly compelling, especially when it comes to building loyal communities from a company's early stage, and then turning those fans into users and advocates. As Agrawal pointed out, sometimes startups would be better advised to try growing their own following rather than focusing too much resource on the media, although this requires a mindset that is broader than just product marketing.

AA: "It’s true for a lot of categories — when you start thinking of yourself as a content creator, as a media creator of your own, start building your own following, you would probably get more relevant followers. You bait the hook of some influencer, some celebrity, some friends etc to build that, but it’s really your community."

AS: "But what do you need to create those communities? That’s something that companies all want. Even the biggest companies want to create communities of fans for its products and invest huge amounts of money in trying to do this, whether that’s aligning certain influencers or focusing on social issues. What are the skills that are required within your organisation to ensure you are able to build those kinds of communities?"

AA: "I think you would need to start with a common passion or a common mission which is very hard. Most often that’s what people are not able to figure out. They will be a little vague because they are coming product first — I want to sell this, I want to sell my service, I want to earn money. That’s not necessarily the mission. Then you start creating a different channel. Social media today of course offers a lot of opportunity and so on and there are lots of tools which can be used."

DB: "For us, it starts at articulating the problem really clearly for the customer in a manner where they can understand it easily. And for us, after that comes whether it’s going to be through paid media or unpaid media or PR. So in the case of PeeBuddy again, dirty toilets, you arrive at the scene, it is clear, we ask them and they will tell you that they don’t get clean toilets when they are travelling. So then we are trying to say what do we create which she would share with ten of her friends. That was at the base of this particular campaign that we created which went insanely viral for us. Not paid at all and had a couple of million views within 15, 20 days. Some communities picked up and they just started sharing, because I think it articulated the problem very well and after that consumers take it on their own."

Value versus volume
"It’s nice to know that startups are now realising the importance of PR" 
Unsurprisingly, the conversation concluded by considering how best to evaluate communications efforts, given the specific objectives that startups have in mind, and the importance of measuring the impact of every single dollar spent.

KKS: "I think one of the things we have to keep in mind is value versus volume. Maybe some of the PR agencies are to blame for it because they tend to measure their success in number of column centimetres, number of stories etc. A lot of times that is immaterial because it’s really the few number of people who are ordering the product. And, whether we like it or not, PR today costs money. The more people you reach out to, directly or indirectly, there is a cost. So especially when it’s a startup, we need to be very clear that it might be a small number of people, maybe a thousand people, but at least when I reach out to them there is a genuine one on one connection. Those thousand will become your fans and every person will reach out to another thousand and so on and that’s how it goes. I think that’s the real story."

PK: "The one thing that we learned over two years that we were using this communication medium was that quality is much more important that quantity. So if you ask me, how did we allocate budget? For us, it’s been an always-on activity so there has to be a consistent story that needs to go to the media, the consumer or different stakeholders. In terms of the overall budget, I don’t know how I can quantify it but basically it’s as important as what we communicate to the consumer. As a product startup, we always try and look at the result in terms of either a user download or certain ripple effect you have on the investor community or something like that.  It’s always about getting a couple of good stories every month that can keep you in contention with respect to different stakeholders. And the budget completely depends on whatever it takes to do that."

DB: "PR has always been a part of our business, because running a startup is like running a marathon, it’s not a short sprint. When you are just starting off then you do it on your own but now, if you ask us, it’s an integral part of our marketing. Budget, well we made a budget for it. It has helped us immensely. It definitely helps in us trying to open the door at least, particularly for consumer, she has not read the story but she is in the store. But when I am talking to a retailer, [they know] it is not a fly by night or just an imitation. They know that we have been there, we stood the test of time."

VG: "I think from our perspective there are two big things that we want to do. One is that we obviously want to be seen as the thought leader and therefore we want to champion the most energising causes for mums and by extension women, so that’s one big thing and it feeds back directly into the user community. The other part is really about our proposition for brands. It’s just to say that nobody understands mothers the way we do. I think our whole idea is take the insights that come from the platform, from the community and really monetise that through all this coverage as opposed to spending money on PR as such."

VS: "I think it’s nice to know that startups are now realising the importance of PR and they are willing to invest money over there. Not only that, I think somewhere they do understand how PR works for startups. CEOs of big companies are like 'I want some coverage, it has to be big coverage'. But I think the founders and entrepreneurs do understand that getting good coverage even on the inside page is good coverage. Budgets are definitely growing."

AA: "Obviously startups will always have less money. They can use guerrilla tactics — big brands will advertise, and the time that they are advertising, typically user interest goes up online and on social media. So if you go and improve your presence to shadow at that time online and on social media, then you can get a lot more attention, riding on the coattails of the big brand. The second is, I often see that even when people get coverage they don’t magnify it enough. They are just relying on the 10,000 people who read the story but now you’ve got this big story, push it out to everyone you can."

KKS: "We always tell every entrepreneur to use your own social media outreach to expand. There are so many people connected to so many investors. If they can’t share their own story on their own social media platform how will these investors come to know about them?"