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.


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