Hope For the Best, Plan for the Worst: A TCV Roundtable on Crisis Communications 

Crisis always seems to strike at the most inopportune moments. And for tech companies operating on a multimarket or global scale, there often isn’t time to effectively create bespoke messaging after a crisis has struck. But responding with speed and scale is just one piece of effective crisis communications. What should savvy companies be doing to strategically plan ahead for effective crisis communications? What are the best tactics to align internal and external stakeholders, and formulate responses that can satisfy clients, partners, and the press across multiple time zones? And what steps can be taken when a crisis strikes before a strategic plan has been put into place?

TCV principals Katja Gagen and Kunal Mehta recently brought together a team of PR and crisis experts from the TCV portfolio and beyond to discuss the best practices they use when managing a crisis. Whether the incident is a cybersecurity breach or an internal messaging catastrophe, the roundtable of comms pros from Payoneer, Spotify, TCV, and Trulioo shared their specific strategies for navigating crises before, during, and after catastrophe strikes. 

Managing a Cybersecurity Incident Before Crisis Hits 

As one of the leading providers of instant digital identity verification across the globe, the PR team at Trulioo has found it best to have a plan in place before a cyber crisis strikes. As the company’s PR specialist Alison Gallagher explains, “When it comes to a cybersecurity incident, it’s not really a matter of if, but when.” 

To ready itself for an information security crisis that might come down the pike, the Trulioo communications team works in lockstep with other departments to create a robust incident response team that regularly assesses and reassess its plans of action before they’re needed. Below are some of the key takeaways that Lucy Screnci, a senior PR and communications manager at Trulioo, and Alison have put together for managing cybersecurity incidents. 

  • Create an incident response team that’s larger than just your PR team. By including experts from divisions such as information security (to assess threats and regulations on a market by market basis), IT (to advise on implementing solutions), and legal (to advise on the legal and compliance implications of potential solutions), your organization won’t lose precious time in a crisis scrambling to assemble the right stakeholders. 
  • Reassess and update your plans regularly. The strategic plan that your incident response team creates shouldn’t be static. Because regulations and compliance directives can change, and may vary market by market, having annual check-ins with stakeholders from the incident response team is crucial to make sure your plan is capable of meeting the moment rather than needing revamping while under attack.
  • The key components of a strategic cybersecurity response plan are notification, information gathering, triage, assembly, and post-incident debriefs. When a crisis first strikes, the lead incident response team member should immediately alert the rest of the team. That allows the full team to go into information gathering mode, in order to assess the scope of the crisis and gain a full understanding into what steps need to be solved for. Once that process is complete, the response team can jointly triage the severity of the crisis – Trulioo uses a level one through three model – to determine the appropriate intervention necessary. Once a crisis has been triaged, the incident response team can go back to the strategic plan that was already in place to align around and assemble the key messages that need to be sent to external stakeholders, such as customers, partners, and the press. Once the bulk of the crisis has passed, a post-incident debrief allows the full team to ensure that all loose ends have been tied up, and to reassess what areas of improvement can be updated for future plans. 
  • Be direct and honest, whether speaking to customers, partners, or the press. “It’s really necessary to be direct and don’t try to avoid speaking on an incident,” says Lucy. “Getting caught not disclosing an incident can come with some grave repercussions in the form of lawsuits or fines, so it’s always best to be open and honest.” 
  • Navigating a Crisis When You’re in the Eye of the Storm. Payoneer is a leading global fintech company that provides cross-border payments and working capital to businesses of all sizes in nearly every country in the world. When the news came to light of a major financial fraud committed by one of Payoneer’s providers in 2020, which in turn caused major disruption to its customers, the Payoneer team began communicating frequently and through multiple channels to explain the situation and the steps being taken to remedy it. After three days during which Payoneer sent out several communications directly to customers as well as through social media, full service was resumed and shortly afterwards, Payoneer replaced this provider and upgraded this aspect of the service. Irina Marciano, director of corporate communications at Payoneer, says the team learned first-hand that it pays off to have crisis communications plans in place before crisis strikes.
  • Multiple points of contact in a crisis are critical for global organizations. At Payoneer, the executive team is distributed across Asia, EMEA, and America. Between time zones and varied work weeks, it is important to ensure that there is always a specific subject matter expert available in the time frame needed to craft and approve a response. By having multiple points of expertise and contact, incident response teams can ensure that there’s always someone able to weigh in on a time sensitive statement, and a team ready to deliver the message immediately.
  • Communicate effectively, and quickly. Because Payoneer is both a regulated and publicly traded company, the company always acts with care in how it communicates. The incident in 2020 drew attention to the importance of timely communication for global companies with users who are online in multiple time zones. According to Irina, “You need to say something. Make sure it’s thought out and reviewed by legal, but say something so that your customers know that you are taking this seriously and you’re doing whatever you can to resolve it. If you don’t say anything, you can be sure that rumors will fill the vacuum.”
  • Create your crisis comms playbook before crisis strikes. Payoneer built out a crisis comms playbook, especially as the company more than quadrupled in size in just a few years. While many of the processes for a crisis were inherently known, by building out a formal protocol and sample messaging, the company was able to ensure that a response was ready to roll out far quicker for future crises.

Working with Global PR Teams and Global Press to Align on Messaging 

When Spotify expanded its podcasting operations beyond the U.S. into more than 17 additional markets across the globe, it found it had to quickly bring both its global comms team and each of their PR agencies up to speed on the company’s corporate messaging. Because many of those teams had previously focused on music streaming, there was an influx of information to impart while also adapting it to the nuances of each market. Beejoli Shah, a former manager of global podcast communications at Spotify, walks us through ways the Spotify PR team aligned its large and disparate group of PR pros around company messaging. We also learn from Sarum PR on working with journalists in markets around the globe, to stay focused on the message while also adapting to the cultural norms and nuances of regional press corps. 

  • Create a master messaging library with approved external statements. Because crises can strike in any time zone, Spotify assembled a master messaging library of statements that it had previously used when speaking with the press. The document was updated regularly by PR leads across various business units, so that PR leads in the markets and their respective agency partners always had a set of topline messaging at hand, as well as an accurate register of statements that had been provided to press in the past. Even though PR teams were dealing with reporters in their own markets, having a global library ensured that no matter who was responding to a journalist, the company’s message was uniform across markets and across incidents. Beejoli says that the benefits of the master messaging document were two-fold. Not only did it allow for global teams to make sure they had topline messaging at hand, but it also helped PR team members across time zones and agencies know what had been said previously. “There’s always going to be one reporter who says, ‘Well, you said this last time,’ and having a library helps protect you for those moments.”
  • Update global teams and agency partners regularly on company goals and topline messaging. Once a year, Spotify would host a summit for its agency partners across the globe. Because podcasting was a newer initiative, the podcast PR team held a separate summit annually where the different business units involved in podcasting were able to elucidate key priorities, topline messaging, and share proactive and reactive comms plans that had worked in the past. Doing so helped create a shared language across markets for Spotify’s podcasting efforts, and established a knowledge base of PR strategies on a global scale. By including links to relevant documents, including previous comms plans, and the master messaging library, Spotify’s agencies across the globe were able to stay aligned on messaging no matter the topic. 
  • Use your local agencies to respond to crises. While having a unified messaging strategy is critical, journalists will often reach out to anyone they can get a hold of, especially across markets. As Carina Birt from Sarum PR explains, in certain markets reporters can even be particular about wanting to speak to a representative in-market. “We’ve seen that European reporters tend to be more particular about speaking from a European context, and it’s not very effective to have them speak to someone from the US.” To plan for these nuances, having regional spokespeople ready to be deployed in a crisis can be key to maintaining unified messaging across markets. 

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The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This blog post is not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


Untraditional Narratives: Why Cognite Ventured Outside of the C-Suite to Identify Spokespeople and Stories to Win Global Press Coverage

Growth Hacks – Moving the Metric

Creating visibility in any market is not an easy task and can be even harder when trying to execute on a global scale. One way the PR team at industrial software firm, Cognite, approaches this is by having a deep bench of non-traditional spokespeople. This enables them to uncover story ideas they might not have spotted only speaking to the C-suite. It also allows them to ascertain the impact, collect materials to illustrate a story, and identify the best spokespeople. Their secret sauce? Attending meetings across all business functions to keep abreast of internal developments that could drive strong coverage.

In today’s episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal are joined by Michelle Holford, the global head of public relations at Cognite. When Michelle first started at Cognite, she knew that she had to create visibility for her MarComms team to the broader organization. Doing so wasn’t simply to let everyone know there was a new media sheriff in town – Michelle and her team focused instead on building relationships with leaders in the company who would come back to them with story ideas. One of the first things they did was hold meetings to explain to stakeholders how PR worked, what the Cognite brand meant, and how her team positioned the company. “I like to show up where people are and go to the robotics meetings and go to the engineering meetings. People start to raise their hand and say, ‘I might have something to offer,’ says Michelle.

Key Takeaways:

  • How to identify and media train non-traditional spokespeople for creative storytelling. Many organizations rely on the C-suite to sell their narrative in the press. Michelle and her team expanded their aperture, knowing that non-traditional spokespeople can tell stories from a different and complementary perspective. Cognite’s MarComms team is always on the lookout for interesting spokespeople – across the organization. They work with senior executives and junior employees as storytellers. “[We have] individuals that are just starting that are concerned about energy transition and want to talk sustainability. We’re always looking for opportunities to connect Cogniters to best tell the Cognite story,” explains Michelle. 
  • Effective strategies for story mining throughout an organization. Michelle’s top tip for identifying stories is to go where your stakeholders are. If an employee is working head down in robotics or engineering, it’s unlikely that they pick up the phone and let the PR team know what they’re doing. Instead, Michelle and her team go directly to meetings and offsites to ask questions and learn about their remit and the types of problems they’re solving. They do so by putting their reporter hats on in the meeting. Says Michelle, “Ask them questions like you’re the reporter. ‘Tell me more. What does this look like? What’s the impact? Do we have images? Do we have B-roll?’ You have this bank of information that you can think about creatively, to weave together stories to tell year-round.”
  • Cognite’s strategy for running media tours. The first question that Michelle and her team ask when setting up media tours, is “What are you trying to communicate?” This helps them plan how to establish impact and create “a story in a box” ready to go before the media tour happens. As crucial, however, is having pre-existing relationships with journalists already cultivated, to ensure that the media tour gets the right reception. “[When] reaching out to journalists, that should not be the first time they hear from you. Do your homework ahead of time and create relationships with journalists locally and internationally to make sure that they know who your company is and what you’re about, so that when they get an invitation to a media tour, it’s not cold,” says Michelle.
  • The unexpected storytelling benefits of developing Cognite Radio, a news channel with updates for employees. When Cognite first headed into the pandemic, the company decided to create Cognite Radio, an employees-only radio program that helped keep the organization connected around the globe even while all working from home. While the primary goal was to make sure Cogniters didn’t feel isolated during the pandemic, an unexpected benefit was that it helped create visibility across the organization about what was coming down the pike and allowed for more creative storytelling on the part of the PR team. Says Michelle, “It was a way to make sure that we weren’t working in siloes, so that we could innovate in the best way possible…to really create a culture and excitement around what was going to happen next.”
  • Michelle’s must-haves for running a healthy global PR function that is aligned across all forms of earned and owned media. For a team as large as Cognite, managing the relationship between its PR agencies and its in-house team is crucial to make sure that all stakeholders are aligned. But it’s not just a well-heeled PR team that keeps a global PR function operating as it should. Michelle’s strategy of building visibility for the PR team to the greater organization is critical here, because it allows for knowing what the company’s sales and marketing goals are, in order to help drive success through storytelling. “We’re setting the strategy, but we’re making sure we’re connected to the company goals, sales goals, marketing goals, and at the same time, trying to be as creative as possible with our storytelling.”

To learn more, tune into Growth Hacks: Expanding Your Slate of Storytellers: How Cognite Uses Talent Across its Organization to Drive Global Visibility and Media Coverage

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The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


Expanding Your Slate of Storytellers: How Cognite Uses Talent Across its Organization to Drive Global Visibility and Media Coverage

Building out a global communications operation that can create visibility across multiple markets can feel like a wild jumble of storytelling across time zones, especially in a startup’s nascent years. That’s why the marketing and communications team at Cognite, a SaaS company providing data liberation and contextualization services to industrial organizations, aligned behind a single goal: creating visibility immediately. The Cognite team took a unique approach to the task at hand. Rather than blitzing journalists across the globe as its first order of business, the team worked to build visibility inside Cognite, recruiting outside the box spokespeople and identifying unearthed story ideas that resonated with journalists.

In today’s episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal speak with Michelle Holford, the Oslo-based global head of public relations at Cognite. Michelle walks us through the power of relationship building both within your own organization and with journalists, and why nurturing those connections are a fundamental piece of Cognite’s PR strategy. She also explains how Cognite keeps employees connected across the globe, how to create a message in a box and how their media strategy helps Cognite constantly mine for creative stories.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • How to identify and media train non-traditional spokespeople for creative storytelling
  • Effective strategies for story mining throughout an organization
  • Cognite’s strategy for running media tours
  • The unexpected storytelling benefits of developing Cognite Radio, a news channel with updates for employees
  • Michelle’s must-haves for running a healthy global PR function that is aligned across all forms of earned and owned media

To hear more on this, settle in and press play. 

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Katja Gagen: Hey everyone. Today we’re being joined by a PR expert in a truly global industry. It is my pleasure to introduce Michelle Holford, who is the global head of public relations at Cognite. Michelle has held roles in agencies that covered massive brands, like Ford, Bank of America, and Walgreens. We’ll cover a lot today, so get your popcorn ready. Michelle, welcome to Growth Hacks.

Michelle Holford: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Kunal Mehta: Sure. Hey, Michelle, where does this podcast find you today?

Michelle Holford: Today you find me in the great state of Texas. Our global headquarters are in Oslo, Norway, where I live, but I’m connecting with our North American headquarter team today in Austin, as well as Houston.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic, a true global citizen. Well, for our listeners that may not know what Cognite does, give us the elevator pitch.

Michelle Holford: We’re in the business of industrial transformation. We’re here to change the world, and that means we’re here to solve the challenge of asset intensive industries and their data issues.

Data intensive industries are oil and gas, power and utilities, and manufacturing. And they have the challenge of consuming and creating all sorts of data that isn’t connected. We provide the solution through Cognite Data Fusion, which is our industrial data ops platform, that liberates data, it contextualizes it and makes it actionable for everyone across the company.

Why companies choose us is because we turn their raw data into business value. In those industries, whether it’s oil and gas that needs to work on sustainability or product optimization, we’re here to connect and contextualize that data so that they can use it, as well as manufacturing with supply chains or power and utilities with grids and smart maintenance. If I could just give a quick illustration. In our personal lives, when we want to find what the weather looks like, we turn to our iPhone. And it connects our data and tells us what it’s going to look like in different parts of the world for weather or where to eat through Yelp.

It’s all connected. So that’s happening in our consumer world, but in industry, especially asset intensive industry, it’s kind of like 1984. There’s large amounts of data that come from different sources, whether it’s images or Excel sheets, and they’re not connected. We’re here to take that raw data and turn it into business value for heavy asset industry, because they haven’t had their iPhone moment.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And Michelle, you lead communications and PR. How do you strategically plan PR and what are some of the key initiatives you’re driving at Cognite?

Michelle Holford: When I joined Cognite a year and a half ago, we were only three and a half years old, small, but mighty and on a huge trajectory. It was very important to create visibility immediately. We had wonderful clients, some of them supermajors from around the world, but we needed to tell the world about what we were doing.

We’re very visible in the Nordics and around Europe, but we’re planting a flag in the North American region, as well as Singapore, Japan, and the UK. So immediately I needed to create visibility, both for myself and our MarComms team in the company. So that we had the buy-in and connectedness with sales, product marketing, the executive management team.

Visibility was number one. And I had to make sure that I was playing both sides of the track to create visibility, both for Cognite, but also for our function within the company. We had to really get our in-house together, we built a studio at Cognite to make sure that we could media train and make sure everybody was on board.

That included connecting initially with partners, whether it was Microsoft or Pinnacle or whoever we were partnering with to make sure that I understood their best stories and how we could work together.

It meant developing a media bench of spokespeople across ages and expertise in different locations around the world. It was really about strengthening an already great program and adding the tools and expertise necessary to create visibility for both the company and myself with journalists around the world. They knew I was representing Cognite and can count on me when I reached out to them.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. Hey, maybe you can just share, what is Cognite Radio? What was the idea behind it?

Michelle Holford: When we all went to a global pandemic, we’re built on keeping asset intensive companies connected through data. If we can’t do that ourselves, there’s a problem. We have some brilliant people on our team that excel in hosting and communications.

We decided that if we couldn’t fly to the U.S. or Japan or Singapore, we were going to create a way that all of our data wasn’t in silos. We created Cognite Radio, which was a daily program to make sure that people didn’t feel isolated working from home during COVID and that they knew what was happening at Cognite, what was happening with our clients. And we shared the love worldwide. We even had a Cognite After Dark where we played music, but it was a way to connect everybody. And we had speakers come and join us and tell great stories. It was a way to make sure that we were all connected and not working in silos so that we could innovate in the best way possible outside of our regular meetings, which we were having, but to really create some culture and excitement around what was going to happen next.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And Michelle, in that vein, it looks like you have a really deep bench of speakers. And I know in some of our portfolio companies, finding someone who can speak with the media is not an easy task. How did you get people engaged, and how do you get people to want to work with you and want to get in front of the media?

Michelle Holford: I know it’s really common to just have your CEO or your executive management team kind of be trotted out into the media, and that’s fabulous. You know, Markus Lervik, our CEO is wonderful. So is Francois in the United States. But we needed to have different perspectives to tell the story of Cognite.

How we cultivated interest is that we started hosting kitchen talks and story mining sessions throughout the company. Some of them would be after hours, and sometimes it would be during the day, but we could invite all of our stakeholders and say, come learn what PR is about. Come learn what brand is about. Come learn what social media is about and what we do in events.

We would talk through what we do and how it might help them in their own position, whether it’s sales, whether it’s customer success. They could understand what was being said about Cognite in the media, or how to post on LinkedIn.

For me, PR is all about relationships. I like to show up where people are and go to the robotics meetings and go to the engineering meetings and the product marketing meetings and say, I’m here to be your resource. Through those relationships and them learning more, people start to raise their hand and say, I think I might have something to offer.

We asked for volunteers, but we also target folks that we think have something to say. So we have Carolina Torres who used to work for BP for 30 years, now wanted to move her expertise from one of our customers to worldwide. Her history with BP and a woman in oil and gas, she is a great candidate and so relatable and wonderful. But so are our younger individuals that are just starting, that are concerned about the energy transition and want to talk about sustainability. We try and find those who have the most interesting perspectives So we’re always looking for opportunities to connect Cogniters to best tell the Cognite story.

Kunal Mehta: That is golden. I’m just curious, what do you mean by story mining?

Michelle Holford: Story mining means going to meet people where they are in their expertise and really asking them what problems they’re solving. When you’re in robotics or you’re in engineering or you’re in your lane in manufacturing, you can be so focused on problems you’re solving that you’re not gonna think to call the PR team.

It’s incumbent on PR professionals to go where those meetings are already happening. They’re probably having weekly meetings to touch base with their team. Sit in on those meetings, invite yourself to different opportunities or off-sites they’re having and ask questions.

What do you mean by that? You’re solving this problem for Statnett, the national grid of Norway? What does that look like? How much money did you save? Ask them questions, almost like you’re the reporter asking, tell me more. What does this look like? What’s the impact? Do we have images? Do we have B roll? You have this bank of information that you can think about creatively, how to weave together to tell stories year round.

Kunal Mehta: That it’s such a great growth hack. I think when Katja and I look at public relations, one of the bleeding arteries we see is that PR is often cast to an agency and that doesn’t yield the anticipated result. Maybe you can walk us through the must-haves for a healthy PR function.

Michelle Holford: I think it starts with credibility of public relations. PR is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room. And there’s a lot of tools in our toolbox, right? It includes the agency, and I have been on the agency side. And now that I’m in-house, I value that piece of the puzzle. But it really is one piece. It’s one tool in telling the best story for your organization. You want to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and make sure they’re equipped and greened and can represent you at all times.

You’re going to need to make sure that you are all aligned. This includes your MarComms team and your public relations team. You want to be aligned on visibility and the goals of the executive management team. This includes earned media, shared media, which is connecting with our partner team, owned media, like Ignite News, and paid media, our digital campaigns or advertising.

A healthy public relations function means everybody is working in sync in an integrated way and connecting with go-to-market plans with the different verticals to make sure you understand what their goals are. We’re setting the strategy, but we’re making sure we’re connected to the company goals, sales goals, marketing goals, and at the same time, trying to be as creative as possible with our storytelling.

Kunal Mehta: Michelle, one of the strategic uses of PR that Cognite uses is media tours. And you guys even fly in media to your events, which is amazing. For companies that don’t routinely conduct these media tours, maybe you can just walk us through your playbook.

Michelle Holford: Media tours are a very important way to connect with journalists around the world to increase visibility. The story is really in the strategy. What are you trying to say during a media tour? It involves three steps for us at Cognite. It’s the prep, it’s the pitching, and it’s the resource. And let me talk through what that means.

We’re creating a story in a box before you even conduct a media tour. What are you trying to say? What is the news? What’s the creative angle? And that story in a box, the prep part needs to have impact. What are you communicating and what impact does it have on the industry? Who is going to help tell you that story?

Is it a client? Is it a partner? Is it an influencer? Do you have stats to support it? What kind of dollars or hours are being saved by using the solution you’re talking about? What does that look like? Are there images, is there B roll? Prepare for a media tour by making sure you have your story in a box already buttoned up. That’s how you prepare.

Second, which is kind of the end part of the prep is, you should not be reaching out to journalists, that should not be at the first time they’re hearing from you. Do your homework ahead of time and create relationships with journalists locally and internationally, by connecting with them online, on calls, to make sure that they know who your company is and what you’re about, so that when they get an invitation to a media tour, it’s not cold.

Then you’re pitching them. Then it’s time for them to actually learn that you’re going to do a media tour, and what you are selling should be specific. You are going to have this amount of time with these executives. You’re going to meet with them and they’re going to talk about how Norway is the new Silicon Valley, specifically Oslo, and what that looks like for investing in Europe. Or why people are putting their money on Europe, as far as industrial digitalization and moving the needle.

Think about specifically what that pitch is, who is going to be there, and what it’s going to do for that reporter. Is it included in their beat? What’s it going to do for the audience? And then just know that once you complete these tours, that it may not result in media coverage. You will be used more often than not as a resource for the next time they’re talking about something related to that issue.

Katja Gagen: Wonderful. We’re gonna give you a few rapid fire questions. Michelle, tell us what book are you reading right now?

Michelle Holford: I’m obsessed with Katie Couric’s new book Going There. Just a connection with journalism and a woman in the business. I’m just starting.

Katja Gagen: And what’s your go-to book that changed your life and that you go back to a lot.

Michelle Holford: Wow. I like The Road Less Travelled. Like I’m one of those people, let’s not do it the normal way. Let’s think outside the box. And I think about that book a lot. I read it in college and I think about it a lot.

Katja Gagen: I also know that Cognite just published one. What’s that all about?

Michelle Holford: Industrial data ops is going to be the way of the future, how data is connected in business worldwide, especially in asset intensive industries. We wanted to create a really easy user guide manual for companies to kind of do a wellness check on their digital maturity and how connected their data is.

There’s an easy to read guide that walks you through what industrial data ops is and how you can use it to get business value from your data. It’s really a guide for industry. It’s downloadable and it’s free at our website, Cognite.com.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. What skill are you trying to develop right now?

Michelle Holford: I’m trying to learn Norwegian since I live in Norway now. That’s a brief answer. Otherwise, I’m trying to really sharpen my skills on how to help launch this platform from a creative content view from our side, from Cognite.

Katja Gagen: I would like to know what’s your favorite metric when it comes to communications and PR.

Michelle Holford: Selfishly, I think some people think it’s outdated, but I like AVE. I like the Add Value Equivalency. I like to put a number in front of folks to say, if you would have bought these column inches or this white space or this airtime, this is what earned media brings. I like to bring value to what the industry does.

I also like to see what the competitors are doing and if we’re beating them in share of voice in the news that month or also followers, like that’s also intriguing too.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And Michelle, you’ve lived both in the U.S. and of course now in Europe, what do you like about both and how do you adjust your PR programs to suit both markets?

Michelle Holford: I appreciate that question. I moved to Norway a year and a half ago. And what I appreciate about Europe is how technologically advanced it is. In Norway, I haven’t touched cash, dollars or coins, in a year and a half until I got here. It’s so easy to use your phone for everything you do in Norway, whether it’s your taxes, which is a one-step shop, whether it’s public transportation, they’re constantly innovating. And because there’s so many countries that are connected, they’re sharing information.

What I appreciate about the U.S. It’s probably the options. I have a suitcase ready to be filled with things they don’t sell in Norway that are my favorite brands or things that I miss from Norway, but obviously I miss my friends and family. There are advantages of both, and I love being able to live in both countries.

In the U.S. we’re much more comfortable saying, we are amazing! This is what we do! And this is why you should know about us! And in Norway, it’s a very modest, humble country. It’s very flat structured. As an American, I’m constantly pushing, saying, we’re the first unicorn in Norway! We have to tell that news! And you have folks saying, oh, that would be bragging. We’re not sure we want to talk about that. Can we talk about it in a different way? I have to think through what is going to resonate and what is going to land with journalists in a way that isn’t so boastful, but also push our teams in Norway to tell our good news and to tell our story.

It definitely modifies how our PR team operates in each country, by who the audience is and what’s appropriate.

Katja Gagen: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Michelle. We covered a lot today, as we promised earlier, thanks for being on the show today, Michelle.

Michelle Holford: Well, as they would say in Norway, tusen takk, which means thank you. Thank you for having me.

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.


Lessons from Strava: Working with Press and Teams to Move the Growth Needle, Foster Inclusion, and Establish a Purpose-Driven Narrative

Every communications professional has seen it: a tweet from a journalist bemoaning the raft of irrelevant pitches they receive on a daily basis. How can companies cut through the noise to place stories that reflect well upon the business, and move the needle when it comes to brand perception and growth? That’s something Strava has navigated while building a purpose-driven narrative for over 90 million athletes across almost 200 countries.

In the latest episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal speak with Andrew Vontz, VP of Communications at TCV company Strava. Andrew also hosts his own podcast – Choose The Hard Way, where he talks with leaders in sports, tech, business, the military and more about peak performance and how to overcome obstacles to do great things. Andrew started his career as a journalist before moving into marketing and communications. He shares his insider perspective into what it takes to place a story that reporters are motivated to tell, and how to prepare internal stakeholders on what that story might look like when it runs. He also talks about how organizations can use earned media to drive growth, and how to conduct crisis communications prep before disaster strikes. Andrew also walks us through Strava’s playbook on establishing its purpose-driven narrative both internally and externally and what it takes to engage a global community. 

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • Being user-centric rather than you-centric when working with journalists
  • Why it’s important to educate stakeholders on how press coverage operates
  • Using earned media to drive growth
  • Preparing for a crisis before it happens
  • Effective ways to be known as a mission or purpose driven organization

To hear more on this, settle in and press play.

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Katja Gagen: Hello everyone, we are excited to have Andrew Vontz today on the podcast. Andrew went from being a journalist for the LA times, Rolling Stone, and others, to joining Strava’s executive team and leading communications.

And for all fitness aficionados listening, Strava is a social platform for athletes and the largest sports community in the world, with over 95 million athletes in 195 countries on the platform. We are excited to hear from Andrew about how communications can help drive business success and how he keeps this incredible community engaged.

Welcome to Growth Hacks, Andrew.

Andrew Vontz: Hey, thanks, Katja. It’s great to be here with you and Kunal.

Kunal Mehta: Well, I know you’re going to bring the heat today, Andrew. I just want to know where does this podcast find you today?

Andrew Vontz: It finds me in rural Maine where the leaves are falling, and there are pumpkins everywhere. We actually have a pumpkin that we grew from throwing a pumpkin into the compost pile last year, it grew into like a three foot in diameter pumpkin, lo and behold.

Kunal Mehta: That’s amazing.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And Andrew, you have a pretty unique background that spans art to journalism, and now heading up comms at Strava. How did you end up where you are?

Andrew Vontz: I think I ended up where I am because I’ve always been a very curious person and I’ve always loved storytelling. And the red thread of my career has really been people, places, and things at the limits of human experience. Whether that was the work that I did as a freelance journalist for over a decade, the work that I did as the head of content at TRX, which is a human performance company that worked to democratize world-class human performance for everyone, or now at Strava. And over time, I eventually joined the executive team and I’m now the Vice President of Communications.

And outside of that, I also have my own podcast, it’s called “Choose the Hard Way”, and it’s about the obstacles people overcome to do great things. So that red thread is still running throughout my career.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. Well, Andrew, I know Strava is Swedish for strive, which epitomizes attitude and ambition. How do you bring that to life with the communication strategy at Strava?

Andrew Vontz: Yeah, Kunal. It’s really about always thinking bigger, always in all ways. So that’s, however well things are going, how can we think about what’s the next step? What’s the much bigger version of that? What’s the version of that that makes us feel a little bit anxious, a little bit uncomfortable because it seems so audacious? So that’s really what strive is about in the communications domain.

Kunal Mehta: Andrew, you’ve been a journalist for over a decade. What should companies know about the way journalists think about stories?

Andrew Vontz: When you’re working with media, it can provide the most valuable form of third-party validation that you can get. It’s like going to a party and having your best friend tell you how awesome something is versus you talking about yourself.

What you want to keep in mind when you’re working with press is: yeah, you would love to have other people telling your story on your behalf and singing your praises, but you really have to be user-centric versus you-centric. There are definitely things that you would ideally like to get out of press coverage, but you also need to think about what does that journalist need? What does their readership need? What does that outlet need? What’s going to help them sell this story internally and get it placed? And you really have to begin with the end in mind.

I think in addition to that, it’s really important to educate your teammates from across the organization and to really set realistic expectations about how press coverage might roll out.

All great stories are really high contrast. They’re high tension. They’re definitely going to contain opposing points of view, and you just need to prepare people for that, educate them, and bring them along so that they know what’s going to show up in a story, why it’s going to show up, and how it might show up.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome advice because we sometimes hear from our companies that they think of PR as paid marketing copy, and they just have to pick up the phone and speak to a reporter and out comes a piece that highlights everything you want to say about your company. We know that this is far from the truth.

How can press coverage or media coverage support growth in the business? Can you share some examples?

Andrew Vontz: For sure, Katja. I’ll give you an example that’s worked really well for us. We do an annual Year In Sport press report. And what it really does is aligns our proprietary data insights because Strava really is de facto the record of the world’s athletic activities.

It’s contained everything from people winning medals, to Tour de France stages to, hey, what are the trends that have happened during the pandemic as walking and hiking really took off and more people than ever before were riding bikes. Finding ways to align stories that only we can tell with moments in time when there’s a high degree of cultural curiosity around specific topics that can enable really large-scale brand awareness.

Going back to providing reporters with ingredients and stories that are useful for them to sell stories internally and also to service their readership. I think that’s just like a really great example of one way you can do it.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. Andrew, as I think about Strava, they’re adding 2 million athletes a month during the pandemic, and they’re still growing incredibly fast. I just read an article that says something like 20% of employees will continue to work remotely. How have you overcome the challenges of managing your team working remotely during this hyper-growth period?

Andrew Vontz: I think one of the advantages that we have is prior to the pandemic, and really, since our inception, Strava has been a highly global company. We have athletes in 195 countries, and we have teammates on the ground in seven key geographies around the world, seven different countries on four different continents.

It’s given us the opportunity to really grow and come together as a team and really working on making sure we’re calling all the voices on the team in, that we’re being as inclusive as possible in this remote work environment. And really thinking about what are the systems and processes that do foster that sense of inclusion, that make people able to provide their highest level of contribution? And really thinking through what are the channels that they need to do that?

Because the reality is just adding more meetings is just going to add up to a lot more meetings. You have a finite amount of time that you can get together, so it’s getting people into the right spaces at the right moment.

When you’re in those contexts, invite everybody into the conversation. Going back to what does strive mean within a context of our comms team? Part of what it means is always pushing ourselves to think bigger, to think about how can we do everything better?

Even if things are going really well, what does it look like beyond the horizon to do way, way, way better than we might imagine is possible at the moment? No one has a monopoly on great ideas, and you want everybody to feel included. I try to talk about decisions I’ve made or things that we’ve tried in the org that haven’t gone well, because I also have to model risk taking and that failure is okay, because I certainly am not making perfect decisions all the time.

Katja Gagen: I like, Andrew, how you’re creating an environment that’s both inclusive, but also pushing the team to try new things, even when everything is going well.

Shifting gears for a moment, every organization goes through a phase where there are challenges. What does it take to successfully manage those and how have you done that?

Andrew Vontz: Well, the best advice I can give is you want to plan for rainy days, because honestly, if you have any level of success, at some point you were definitely going to have a storm in your future. And before one happens, you want to be prepared. If you do find yourself managing a crisis, you want to try to find a way to turn that challenge into an opportunity.

Let me tell you about something that happened at Strava back in 2018. We have something called the heat map. It’s really a treasured community resource that our athletes use to discover new places to ride, to run, and really just to enjoy the sports they love. It only contains aggregate de-identified data and athletes can opt out of sharing their information into the heat map at any time.

Back in 2018, someone on Twitter said they had found secret military bases on the heat map. And this took off in the news and we ended up having 2000 media inquiries in about 48 hours. I would just say, first of all, when a crisis happens, you have to say calm. It’s important that you move at your own pace and that you work with stakeholders across the organization to understand what’s going on before you do anything.

That’s what we did. We take the privacy of our athletes very seriously. And we really used this incident as an opportunity to build more trust with our athletes and with our community and to educate the world about our simple privacy controls and settings.

At that moment in time, the story ended up on national broadcast and every major newspaper in the U S and around the world online. We managed the crisis to a resolution where the coverage was 90% positive or neutral.

Here’s what you can do if you want to get ready. I definitely recommend getting a steer from advisers or outside experts who can help you think through the full range of crises you might face, and to start preparing for them. A book I recommend is The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

It covers how professionals in high stress, high consequence environments, like medical doctors performing surgery, or how pilots flying commercial airlines use checklists for everything that they do. Use these checklists to boil down complex operations, to really the simplest, clearest set of decisions possible, trying to make everything binary and really make communication across the team as frictionless, simple, direct as possible.

Try to think through anything that might potentially pop up and then try to spell out exactly how you’re going to meet that moment. And if you do that, you’ll be as prepared as you possibly can be when your rainy day comes.

Katja Gagen: That’s super helpful. We talked a little bit earlier about Strava meaning to strive. A lot of companies today want to be known for a specific mission or purpose. What are the most effective ways you have made that happen at Strava?

Andrew Vontz: I think when it comes to thought leadership, some people think about thought leadership as, hey, we just need to like stick our leaders on the right stages at the right conferences. And then miraculously, we’re going to be known as the world’s leading authority on X.

Thought leadership starts with the intent to be the world’s best at something, and that’s a very worthy endeavor. Equally, you need to be really honest about where are you at today? Where do you want to be in the future? How credible are you on this topic? And what commitment do you have to action? And I’ll just give you an example.

At Strava, we serve athletes. And we say that what’s awesome for athletes is awesome for our business and in turn, that can be awesome for the world at large. We say that athlete awesome equals business awesome.

We are the platform at the center of connected fitness. We have over 400 partners whose apps, hardware, experiences, connect into Strava where they can be extended, and people can enjoy them. And we’re a place where every effort counts. We have something called Strava Metro. And Metro takes aggregate de-identified data, and we provide a really easy to use tool to vetted municipalities and urban planners, so that they can create better and safer pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in cities so that people can get around under their own power as safely and effectively as possible in cities. Because really humans are the original autonomous vehicle, and they are the future of cities.

What we aspire to, is to be a positive force to help create change in the space so that everyone has equal access to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and more broadly to create greater equity in sport. And that’s an area where we want to be an even bigger thought leader and a bigger force over time.

We know where we are at today. And we know the gap that we want to close, and we have to be really honest about where we’re at and what we want to do.

Kunal Mehta: I love that approach towards DEI, and I’m sure we could spend the entire podcast talking about that.

We typically end with some rapid-fire questions. I just wanted to start with, we have a wide range of listeners, Andrew, and many of them are younger as well. Perhaps you can tell us something you wish your younger self knew.

Andrew Vontz: I’d say, my podcast is called “Choose the Hard Way” for a reason, because for better or worse, that’s something I’ve done many times in my life. And it’s really about the idea that you are what you overcome. I think that’s what I’d tell my younger self that it’s about the power of marginal gains.

Every obstacle you might run into in your life is really an opportunity to move towards your next success. And all of the knowledge that you’ve accrued, that’s just insight that you can take into whatever you do next.

It goes back to this agile development mentality, that comes from software engineering and business development, but you can really apply it to anything. Keep what works, throw away what doesn’t and test new hypotheses and keep growing.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. Keep growing for sure. I also want to ask you, what’s a convention that you wish did not hold true today?

Andrew Vontz: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot because of a guest I had on my podcast recently, his name’s Hector Guadalupe and he’s the founder of an organization called A Second U Foundation.

He works with formerly incarcerated individuals. And provides training and education for them to start their own fitness businesses. And it’s really foregrounded for me, the importance of second chances. I think that that’s something that I would like to see transformed in society.

Katja Gagen: That’s wonderful, thanks Andrew. One other question is who do you follow on social media?

Andrew Vontz: One of my favorite people to follow on social media is Rahsaan Bahati. He’s a multi-time national champion and one of my favorite cyclists of all time. I lived in LA for over 15 years, and he used to be out on a lot of group rides that I was on. I always looked up to him, his accomplishments as an athlete.

Rahsaan has something called the Bahati Foundation. Its mission is to support inner city youth and underserved communities through cycling outreach. I think the work that he’s doing to bridge the equity and access gap in cycling is incredibly powerful.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome, and if I were to summarize our conversation – hard work and rapid learning are the ultimate Growth Hacks. One more question, how do you energize and instill rapid learning at Strava?

Andrew Vontz: I think one of the ways that I try to do that is by modeling vulnerability. And trying to float big, risky ideas and trying to push myself beyond what feels safe. Because when I’m starting to feel anxious about something that we’re trying to do, because it feels overly ambitious, anxiety metabolized a different way is excitement. And that’s when I know I’m in the right territory because we’re about to break through. And that’s really what I want the team to get to experience, because I want everybody to have that feeling of autonomy, of growth, of really operating at the edge of their ability, because I know that that’s where we can do our very best work.

Katja Gagen: That’s wonderful. Thanks so much, Andrew, for sharing your insights with us from being a journalist to an athlete, and also the head of communications. Thanks for being on the show today.

Andrew Vontz: Yeah, thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

***

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of TCMI, Inc. or its affiliates (“TCV”). TCV has not verified the accuracy of any statements by the speakers and disclaims any responsibility therefor. This interview and blog post are not an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase an interest in any private fund managed or sponsored by TCV or any of the securities of any company discussed. The TCV portfolio companies identified, if any, are not necessarily representative of all TCV investments, and no assumption should be made that the investments identified were or will be profitable. For a complete list of TCV investments, please visit www.tcv.com/all-companies/. For additional important disclaimers regarding this interview and blog post, please see “Informational Purposes Only” in the Terms of Use for TCV’s website, available at http://www.tcv.com/terms-of-use/.