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What are the main issues in the clean tech sector at the moment?
Like any sector, I think the biggest challenge facing clean tech companies at the moment is the economy. It can be extremely difficult for early-stage companies to access the financing they need to get their technologies off the ground and the general atmosphere is increasingly risk-averse. That said, this backdrop offers a real opportunity for clean tech growth because the technologies that will ultimately be successful are those that work more cheaply, more efficiently, or more intelligently. In a time of austerity these are the real drivers of clean tech adoption and the companies that can get this story right are those that will succeed, regardless of the economic climate.
How is communications and PR regarded in the clean tech sector?
There are mixed perceptions, but it’s clear to me that the companies getting the comms aspect right are those that are succeeding. I’ve just returned from the All-Energy Exhibition in Aberdeen, and Scotland is an excellent example of where good storytelling is underpinning the success of the low-carbon sector. The story is all about jobs, investing in the economy and national leadership, which is why there’s such good support for the sector; the truth is that people respond much more to those messages than to climate change issues. My frustration is that a lot of clean tech companies think of PR and comms as something to address when they have the time or money; the reality is that whether or not you are in a position to use an external agency, the success of your communications activity is absolutely integral to your success as a business.
What needs to be changed?
Communication is vital to the success of any company and is particularly crucial in the clean tech sector; it’s as important as your business plan or sales strategy and should be a priority from day one. You could have a magic box that could save the world but if no one knows that it exists or what it does, and no one understands why we’d want it, it won’t make any difference at all. I think this shifts responsibility back to those who communicate on behalf of the sector. We founded Life Size Media because we saw a real need for an agency dedicated to this industry that could offer an excellent understanding of the environment and clearly and effectively communicate the complexities of clean technology.
Tell us about a clean tech company you recently worked with, your brief, approach and the result.
A key campaign for us at the moment is with advanced lighting solution specialists OCG Lighting. During an initial trial period (which is standard practice for us) we were able to demonstrate a good understanding of LED technology and its applications and achieve a high volume and breadth of coverage in a short period of time. Following this success, we worked with OCG Lighting to establish the various aspects of what a PR campaign could achieve for them and to crystalise a clear vision for the company. This work went on to form the framework for a long-term relationship and an ongoing communications campaign promoting their innovative LED technology to a broad range of markets. Our campaign is focused on shifting attitudes away from approaching lights as a disposable product, towards understanding the benefits of long-term, energy efficient lighting solutions. We are also working to raise technical awareness of LEDs across a range of audiences and promote the distinctive benefits of LED technology in specific applications.
How can clean tech companies reach a mainstream audience?
Our approach is very much about focusing on the bigger picture and I think this is important for two reasons. Firstly, public acceptance and consumer demand are crucial for the vast majority of technologies; unless people understand the benefits of new technologies they are unlikely to accept change. There are also plenty of examples of consumer demand for more sustainable products or services driving innovation. Secondly, it’s important to remember that the stakeholders that companies need to engage with are people. If you can engage those people with your story and reach them on a personal level they’ll be far more ready to sit through a data-heavy presentation of your growth projections.
What tips would you give to a business start-up looking to communicate its message to the industry?
Think about communications from the very beginning; as I’ve said before, they are integral to the success of any business at any stage of growth. At the very least, make sure you are absolutely clear about what you do and why it matters. You should be able to describe your business clearly in one line; it sounds simple enough but it’s amazing how many people can’t do this. Also, develop an awareness of the bigger issues that you are aligned with and how you are helping to address them. Perhaps most importantly of all, present yourself as the company you want to be.
Does this differ for larger companies?
It’s not about size, it’s about how established you are. We know companies of four people who are doing a great job of communicating and really building a profile for themselves. In contrast, there are listed companies with much larger payrolls that no one has really heard of. The basic principles of communication are the same however big you are; the difference is your profile. Once you have a profile and people know who you are and what you do, it becomes more about managing your reputation, which is when companies usually start looking for a PR agency. However, this strategy doesn’t apply to businesses that don’t yet have a reputation. That’s where we come in: we work with companies across all their communication activities to do the hard work of building that profile in the first place.
Which journalists/section of the media do you communicate with on the behalf of clean tech companies, and how?
All of them; we avoid limiting our focus to a narrow range of media because the more widely the message is spread the better. Of course certain stories will complement certain publications, but it’s our job to make the story as interesting as possible to as many publications as possible. It’s too easy (and too lazy) to just get stories about a lighting client into the lighting press. They should be talked about in the business press, the green media and the mainstream media. When we get the Daily Mail debating energy efficient lighting we know we’ve really achieved something!
How does all this relate to PR generally?
Although I think the principles of good PR extend across sectors, the clean tech industry does face particular challenges that make it all the more important for companies involved in it to get them right. Communications work is one thing if you’re selling something that somebody already wants, but in the clean tech area you’re often selling something that nobody knows they need yet. When you’re making softer toilet roll, cheaper clothes or tastier crisps, those are the things you focus on. Everybody already buys toilet rolls, clothes and crisps; you just need to make them buy your products specifically. When you’re making a fuel cell, an intelligent room control or a water pipe monitoring system, there isn’t necessarily an existing demand. You have to tell a wider story and place your technology at the heart of it. And that’s why we love the challenge of communicating for the clean tech sector.