From darling to demonised

How do scale-ups navigate the pressures of increased media scrutiny?

Everyone loves an underdog. From Leicester City winning the Premier League to Eddie the Eagle’s ski jumping exploits, there’s nothing more heartwarming than a plucky ‘David’ taking on the Goliaths of the world.

The business media are no different – they know stories of scale-ups disrupting the oft-bemoaned status quo can capture readers’ attention. They also mostly enjoy flying the flag for the UK tech sector by championing home-grown success stories and detailing journeys from zero to hero. This is a well-trodden path, with many a high-growth business having its time to bask in the glory of being the hottest new kid on the block.

But inevitably, any challenger which does too well stops being an underdog. By extension, its followers begin to expect, rather than root for, its success. Many businesses face this issue with public perception – by achieving growth, you become the very thing you set out to disrupt (most industry leaders were up and coming challengers at some point.) So what can be done when a scale-up stops being a ‘media darling’, and has to face the more intense scrutiny that comes with being a more established company?

Tighten up your messaging

This is a difficult transition for high-growth businesses to navigate, as a bigger profile means more attention from a broader audience. It may mean that previously friendly journalists become more combative, or facts that have been in the public domain for years with little issue are now questioned. Any journalist interview is now a potential opportunity to hold the business to account, as well as an opportunity to transmit key messages and expertise.

This means it’s vital to re-evaluate your messaging – including proof points – to  ensure it’s clear, comprehensive and up to date. Imagine a journalist querying every detail on your website. You need to ensure you can defend all the assertions and justify what’s being said; if you don’t deliver on promises you make, expect to be held to account and risk losing the trust of your stakeholders. Where possible, avoid ambiguity, which will pique the curiosity of any seasoned journalist and risks questions about something that was entirely innocuous to begin with.

Invest in journalist relationships

Maturing from an early-stage start-up, where any and all coverage is celebrated, to a more established scale-up, means striking the right balance with press. Perhaps there are multiple rounds of funding in the bank and media interest in the company is swelling. This is where comms teams should prioritise relevant journalists, invest the time to develop good relationships with them and ensure spokespeople are fully prepared to tell an evolved story that’s ambitious but accurate.

Emphasise to spokespeople the importance of responding to media requests as quickly as possible and encourage them to set aside time in their schedules to meet journalists face-to-face to build a rapport. While these meetings might not necessarily result in immediate earned coverage – and it’s important to set expectations so spokespeople don’t end up frustrated with a perceived lack of result – they can recruit crucial allies in a time of crisis.

One CEO we worked with – who was based abroad – committed to travelling to London to meet journalists if we could secure face-to-face opps. While this required significant time investment on their part, it meant they were able to build genuine friendships with key journalists and caught up with them several times a year. This rarely resulted in immediate coverage, but when crunch time came, these relationships paid off.

As media scrutiny increases, seeing a negative headline can be frustrating, but being able to draw on a network of existing contacts means there are journalists who might be willing to give a fair hearing. This is where your time and investment will pay off.

Stay true to your original purpose

Part of building a start-up brand is putting a compelling founding and growth story around it. As it grows, some of this individuality risks getting lost. It’s important not to lose the sense of mission or purpose even as the company gets bigger.

Of course, a natural part of growth means that processes get formalised, stricter controls are put in place and investors may seek more involvement in corporate reputation and image. But it’s important to avoid diluting or even abandoning the unique brand purpose that has been built up and won over journalists in the journey so far. Instead, remain genuine about the growth journey: the milestones and successes, but also the challenges faced and any pivots required along the way. Maintaining this authenticity helps build trust among key stakeholders, whether it’s customers, partners, investors or journalists.

We’ve worked with digital identity pioneer, Onfido, over the last four years of rapid growth from UK tech innovator to global industry leader. We’ve gone from telling its founding story and promoting its funding rounds to taking a thought leadership position on the biggest industry issues, all through targeted media relations aligned to where it’s been on its journey.

Ultimately, every scale-up seeks growth. It’s the barometer by which we most commonly assess success. But becoming more established comes with its own set of new – and very different – rules for managing media relations. Having to switch up an established approach that has likely been successful can be daunting, but it’s vital as attitudes towards high-growth businesses shift.

Get in touch to find out how we can help you navigate the scale-up challenges that come with rapid business growth.