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Lessons from 10 years of Impact PR

Enterprises challenging business as usual need a PR strategy that mines breakthrough thinking and proven impact to overcome status quo bias

When we committed Thinkshift Communications to working only with sustainable businesses, cleantech companies, and social enterprises, some people (our attorney, for one), thought we were nuts.

A decade ago, companies in our potential client universe were definitely not on the unicorn track. B Corps and prioritizing anything above profit were mysterious concepts. Impact investing was a nascent field. But we had a mission — speeding the shift to sustainable business — and the obstinacy of true believers.

A decade ago, companies in our potential client universe were definitely not on the unicorn track. B Corps and prioritizing anything above profit were mysterious concepts. Impact investing was a nascent field.

Our doubters weren’t entirely wrong. Building any business is challenging, and our determination to work only with mission-aligned clients created an extra degree of difficulty. But it allowed us to attract enterprises that are addressing urgent problems and share our belief that social and economic justice, accountability, and sustainable resource use should be business as usual. (Many of them come to us after working with PR firms that didn’t get their goals and market.)

Classroom with wooden desks and blackboard

Over the past 10 years we’ve tried all kinds of PR strategies for impact clients, distilled what works and what doesn’t, and built a suite of proven approaches. From those lessons I’ve drawn the following four maxims.

1. Thought leadership is essential: make the case to overturn the status quo

Enterprises working on solutions to systemic problems typically are demonstrating new models or complex technologies, and new approaches need explanation. Sometimes key decision makers need to be convinced that the thing being fixed is a bug, not a feature. Potential customers, partners, and influencers need to know what problem new approaches are solving, why those approaches work, who will benefit, and what it will take to deliver meaningful impact.

For all these reasons, thought leadership is an essential strategy for mission-first enterprises.

It works because it’s rooted in original expert thinking that aims to advance entire fields by challenging outmoded dogma, inspiring action, sparking new ideas, and spurring others forward. When done right, thought leadership is a powerful tool for advancing truly visionary ideas. It keeps enterprises that don’t generate frequent headlines in the conversation. It positions authors and speakers as expert sources. And it contributes to the credibility needed to generate reported stories.

We’ve put thought leadership to work helping the impact investment platform CNote persuade corporate finance teams to step outside standard practice and deposit some of their massive cash holdings in community financial institutions. We employ it to spread Multiplier’s models and ideas for increasing the social sector’s strengths and effectiveness. We used it to position an Australian maker of fast electric vehicle chargers as an innovator in the U.S., despite three big challenges: near-zero prior U.S. media exposure or market visibility, a white-labeled product, and the fact that journalists didn’t see the EV equivalent of a gas pump as exciting.

2. Novelty is not enough: big numbers and big partners drive coverage

We’re convinced our clients can make a meaningful dent in tough problems. So, when we started our impact focus, we imagined we’d barely break a sweat getting coverage for new technologies, business models, and approaches that clearly beat the status quo. We soon realized we were in for a real workout.

Novelty wears off quickly: genuine innovation and measurable impact are the price of entry, not a ticket to the main stage. Journalists, especially those at top-tier outlets, won’t get excited until they see big money, big customers, and big impact numbers. This is particularly true in the finance media, which is skeptical of challenges to received wisdom and tends to yawn at numbers below a billion.

Novelty wears off quickly: genuine innovation and measurable impact are the price of entry, not a ticket to the main stage.

When there’s not a lot of money involved, high-profile customers or partners can earn impact enterprises a look — if they’re willing to participate in case studies or talk to reporters. These companies often reflexively say no to partner publicity, though, and it’s challenging to navigate their bureaucracy. (One cleantech client worked fruitlessly for more than a year to get a Fortune 50 customer to consent to even being named.) We counsel clients to improve their odds by bringing up PR as soon as the deal is done and asking a high-level leader to get the corporate communications team onboard.

A potentially huge customer base can earn attention as well, but the appeal needs to be obvious and relevant to a broad audience.

3. Your ecosystem is a launch pad: big fish in small ponds get noticed

Leaders often fixate on scoring coverage in top-tier national outlets. It’s worth a shot, but it’s risky as a primary PR play: the bigness factors above dictate opportunities, the timing has to be exactly right (which requires both attentiveness and luck), and the competition is fierce (everyone else is also pitching the Wall Street Journal, et al; journalists at premier outlets often get 100 or more pitches a day).

A better core strategy for mission-first enterprises is to work on becoming recognized, credible experts in their field and impact area. Success brings enormous business value: it puts your enterprise directly in front of potential buyers, partners, employees, and other supporters on a regular basis. And it’s achievable if you have the goods.

Hand holding Impact Fluent City manual

We did it for Optimum Energy with a trade-focused program that took the energy efficiency tech company from no media presence to a big share of voice in conversations about the future of building energy use, smart buildings, zero net energy, and other topics relevant to its market segments and the broader sustainability sector. (Our trade PR whisperer reveals some of her secrets here.)

Engaging partners with shared goals in PR initiatives is another powerful ecosystem strategy that mission-first enterprises are particularly well-positioned to execute: the opportunity to amplify social and environmental impact is a draw for all kinds of allied organizations.

Our first year with Fish 2.0 illustrates the potential of working with partners. The sustainable seafood business network and competition wanted to significantly boost participation and awareness among entrepreneurs and investors. We designed a multipronged strategy and involving business and NGO partners in PR played a significant role in its success: competition participation more than doubled compared with Fish 2.0’s launch year, and we achieved a 300% increase in media coverage.

4. Relatability opens doors: reduce complexity and put a face on it

If you’re seeking solutions to systemic problems, you have to get comfortable with complexity. But if you want media coverage for your solutions, you have to get comfortable with simplicity.

This can be hard to accept. Some people insist that conveying every nuance of their approach is crucial. We understand: it’s almost impossible to become an expert without falling prey to the curse of knowledge. Truly, though, the surest way to get people excited about a new way of doing things is to make it immediately graspable.

If you’re seeking solutions to systemic problems, you have to get comfortable with complexity. But if you want media coverage for your solutions, you have to get comfortable with simplicity.

That’s why the best initial communications investment for any impact enterprise is a well-developed messaging platform that meets the cocktail party test: the language is simple and resonant enough that a stranger with a drink in their hand would get it immediately and stick around to learn more. That messaging then forms the foundation for the stories and messages required to make every pitch and piece of thought leadership compelling.

Even the most brilliantly crystallized messaging gets you only partway there, though. To engage people emotionally, you need to put a face on whatever you’re doing. That starts with leaders who have a personal connection to the work, can speak with passion and depth about it, and are able to illuminate abstract ideas by providing concrete, clear examples (media training can help here). But nothing illustrates impact better than the people experiencing it. Impact stories — like the ones we’ve created for LavaMaeX and RSF Social Finance — enable team members and media to show solutions alive in the world.

Even the most brilliantly crystallized messaging gets you only partway there, though. To engage people emotionally, you need to put a face on whatever you’re doing.

Ultimately, there’s nothing easy about changing systems and the way people behave or creating the imaginative space that allows new ideas to flourish. Every personal, political, social, and economic barrier is threaded through with status quo bias, and that’s a high hurdle to leap — the devil we know is an irritating but still comfortable companion. The fundamental lesson from our past 10 years of immersion in impact PR is this: targeting status quo bias with a sustained campaign from multiple angles is the key to success for change-making enterprises.

Sandra Stewart is an impact communications leader and the principal of Thinkshift Communications (www.thinkshiftcom.com). Based in San Francisco, the mission-first public relations agency brings the heart of a brand to life, connecting clients with media and markets, and works exclusively with clients focused on social and environmental impact.

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