For startups, the right comms strategy can be make or break

With the RISE conference taking place in Hong Kong this week, bringing together hundreds of startups and SMEs, there’s never been a better time to focus on the startup ecosystem.

Hong Kong may not yet be the epicenter of startup activities in Asia, but it is making waves in the right direction - driven by the city’s supportive incubators and accelerator programs such as Blueprint, Brinc, DBS Accelerator, Infiniti Accelerator and InvestHK’s StartmeupHK, to name just a few.

Strong funding support for startups, burgeoning co-working spaces and a pool of angels/venture capitalists add to Hong Kong’s appeal, attracting new businesses across many different sectors.

So how can the communications trade help support these startups and SMEs in their growth and leverage the benefits of Hong Kong’s thriving startup ecosystem?

Good PR can be one of the biggest drivers for startups looking to grow their user bases, and as a result, a pretty important component for success. According to InvestHK’s latest survey, Hong Kong had 1,558 startups (as of August 2015) showing a significant increase of 46% from 2014.

These early-stage startups all have one thing in common: a need to garner awareness. But this can be a challenge for unknown startups as budgets are tight, the product might not be ready to launch and explaining a new concept is difficult. Not to mention in the beginning, startups usually employ a handful of people with the primary focus on product development, meaning marketing and public relations are often tackled ad-hoc by whomever has time or not at all.

So what’s the solution? Don’t hold off on your communications planning just because you don’t have all your ducks in a row. Developing a detailed roadmap is essential to walk your brand through its first year, alongside a thorough analysis of the market, your specific sector as well as your competitors, to help develop your strategy.

Remember, PR’s capabilities extend way beyond simply supporting products. PR can make a huge impact for startups seeking funding, to connect with potential investors and make the brand story more compelling beyond the website. PR can also help forge relationships in various forms across the many stakeholders – another reason why a clear communications plan is essential for startups.

The common question of ‘Agency versus in-house’ is also a dilemma that many startups face. Instead of focusing on the choice, try and think more broadly about what support (and flexibility) you need and what outcomes you’re expecting – both in the short term and longer term. PR firms are no longer centered only around message development, competitive positioning, media relations, influencer relations, event support and crisis management.

Nowadays, a 360 approach is commonplace with integrated marketing communications (IMC) providing strategies to help optimise the communication of a company's brand across all channels and provide tools with a focus on quantifiable analytics. Consumer touch points and key opinion leaders are a good example of this.

Whether you're startup is in fintech or not, digitally-led strategies are important as most startup communications begin online in the form of a website and/or e-commerce and this is an area that most agencies can drive with a larger pool of resources that cover SEO/paid media/social media.

So we’ve established that communications planning and strong resources are two of the fundamentals needed for all startups. But in Hong Kong there’s also the need to integrate and communicate with the startup ecosystem itself.

Establishing a reputation is key to putting a new venture on the map and this pays off immensely in all sorts of ways, including attracting great talent, raising employee and investor morale, supporting fundraising efforts and multiplying efforts in other marketing channels. There are many forums you can join to network with your peers, potential investors and media to start building you brand. is a good place to start and features events from organsations like EntrepreneurHK (EHK), a private non-profit organisation that works with startup leaders and the Hong Kong government with a view to build and improve Hong Kong’s startup ecosystem.

Co-working spaces also play host to many topical events so make sure you’re on the mailing list to keep you up-to-date. Once you’ve identified events and partners that you think are relevant then build this into your communications plan so you have a framework that allows for a more targeted approach.

No matter how busy you are as a new startup, or how wary you may be of PR, you need to do your homework as at some point growth and increased competition will necessitate adding a PR function. So be ahead of the game and choose the right PR partner from the start to help you tell your story before someone tells it for you.

Nicola Oldfield is group managing director of GHC Asia.