PAN Communications’ Mark Nardone shares how the focus on content, voice and executive visibility is driving huge growth for the agency.
Much has changed for communicators during the COVID-19 pandemic. Business models are transforming, tactics are shifting and priorities are being reordered. Yet, for PAN Communications, the core of the business remains the same: content.
“Content has become extremely important,” says Mark Nardone, executive vice president of PAN Communications, in a recent Zoom call. “Because our clients and our prospects are looking at the sensitivity of leaning into the content and the conversation.”
Nardone says clients have lots of questions about how to speak to external audiences in today’s charged climate: “How do I do it? When do I do it, and with what content do I balance? What’s the pace of my content?”
One of the areas seeing massive growth is executive “thought leadership,” as top execs look to establish their reputation and build a connection with external audiences—from investors to consumers, across a variety of channels.
Nardone says the interest in executive leadership comms is directly tied to the events of the past 16 months, including the global health crisis and renewed conversations about racial justice and equity. “When you come out of a pandemic, when you come out of social issues that are in an industry,” he says, “if that executive does not take the mantle of visibility,” then the purpose of the brand takes a hit to its credibility.
Executive leadership content has also become crucial in building employer branding in the red-hot labor market, as record numbers of employees quit their jobs and businesses struggle to restaff their operations and reopen after the pandemic.
Where external and internal comms cross over—or don’t
Is there any crossover between the content created to woo new employees and the content that is targeting new customers? Nardone says that your external communications, case studies and client testimonials are part of your identity as an employer.
“Case studies and blog content around the customer is very, very relevant for the recruitment and talent side, because [potential employees] want to know who they’re dancing with,” he says. Who are the clients that will be essential daily partners?
Yet, that doesn’t mean your customer-centric storytelling is enough to establish yourself as an employer of choice. If there’s a checklist of 10 items for employer branding and customer outreach content, five or six of the points will be very similar, Nardone says. But the others? Very different.
Particularly with remote work and specific concerns employees have about what it’s like to work at your company—”That’s a very different tone of content going out,” Nardone says.
Understanding your business ‘stage’
Knowing how to navigate the many pitfalls of modern communication can be tricky for seasoned, blue chip companies—much less startups that are looking to break into the market. And when all of your focus is on revenue, equity and growth, you might lose sight of other things that could spark a crisis.
Nardone says it’s crucial for entrepreneurs to not miss the bigger picture, and he notes that communicators can be essential counselors guiding companies through changing social standards. “We understand that revenue is a critical part for you to build equity around your brand, to get your next series of funding,” he says, walking us through a hypothetical conversation with a client. “But please don’t lose sight of the fact that there were these other things right here that could negatively impact your brand and crash your revenue.”
It’s this delicate dance of guiding a company through growth stages that has led PAN to create what it calls its NXT Stage Approach, offering different programs depending on the growth and sophistication of the business.
“Brands are confused with how they effectively engage with agencies,” Nardone explains. It’s what leads a fledgling company to throw money at a big-name agency when they aren’t ready for the tools that such an organization can provide.
“Don’t be buffaloed because an agency has a good reputation when you may not be ready to work with an agency,” Nardone says. If you only have 5-10 customers, you don’t need the same assets and outreach that a company farther along their growth journey will require.
As an example, Nardone points to influencer engagement as a way that early-stage companies can overreach. “When you’re in an early stage, you do not invest a ton of money in a paid influencer strategy,” he says, “when you don’t have equity of the brand to leverage in the negotiation.”
If you wait until later, when you have some brand equity of your own to bring to the table, you can tell an influencer, “I’m not paying you $10,000 for three blog posts.” It becomes a partnership, with everyone benefiting from the exposure and rise to the top.
When to take a client
Part of PAN’s model also requires being upfront with a client that isn’t ready for a full-agency program, perhaps even directing a CMO or founder to just work with a freelancer and come back to the agency when they are ready for the next step.
“I’ve had so many conversations where I’ve talked to that CMO and I say, ‘You just need a freelancer,’” Nardone says. “Please don’t waste your money on a bigger agency because you think that’s going to carry a different level of cachet to the market.”
And it’s a conversation that continues as brands look to find the right fit for their organization, particularly as they seek the middle ground between the small boutique agency and the big, multinational firms.
“Everything should be driven organically in an early stage,” Nardone says. Just throwing a stack of money at your growth strategy will only obfuscate the value that customers see in your organization.
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