Failure to communicate: What disrupts the disruptors?

All too often, so-called disruptor companies can come unstuck. PRWeek explores the role comms fail to play in these hyper-charged businesses.

Elon Musk: one ‘disruptor’ founder/CEO who refuses to stick to the script (©CHRIS CARLSON/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK)
Elon Musk: one ‘disruptor’ founder/CEO who refuses to stick to the script (©CHRIS CARLSON/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK)

It’s no longer good enough to be an ‘innovator’; the must-have communications accessory for start-ups is to be a ‘disruptor’.

Acting like a disruptor among a classroom of incumbents can be useful. It can foster a confident, ‘we can change the world’ personality, garner a community of fans, and drive the hype, investment and sales needed to compete. However, this tactic is fraught with danger as a challenger brand matures. Look at Facebook, Uber, Tesla and BrewDog. In recent times these brands have either failed to live up to their own spin, missed the mark with loud publicity stunts, or their leaders have communicated out of turn to the dismay of stakeholders.

The PHA Group’s divisional managing director, Stuart Skinner, says disruptor brands can become a victim of their success, because when their identity evolves, the PR doesn’t always keep up.

"It’s impossible to maintain that ‘naughty disruptor’ identity when in reality you are becoming a big corporate with a load of shareholders," he says. "Unfortunately the consumer can see straight through it."

CommsCo positions itself as a PR agency for challenger brands. Founder Ilona Hitel tells PRWeek many companies and their leaders are ill-equipped for the realities of growing up. "They become CEOs of brands that change the world and have celebrity status. It must be difficult to keep a grip on reality," she says.

But why is this the case, especially for firms that can attract the cream of the crop? "It’s a danger of money; it breeds arrogance and this hyper-inflated sense of value," says 3 Monkeys Zeno head of corporate and business Sarah Ogden.

Fast-moving disruptors that come un-stuck often share three common characteristics: a cult of leadership, inadequate corporate infrastructure and a lack of diversity. Ogden describes one common side-effect as "potent Kool-Aid-drinking". "The cult of leadership can become toxic. These leaders get elevated to a demigod status where no decision is questioned," she adds.

The lack of infrastructure is due to the speed with which disruptor brands can grow from zero to world domination.

"Businesses back in the day had time to learn from trial and error and their mistakes, and they had time to implement grown up HR policy and grown up sales and customer services processes," Ogden says.

"Now, particularly in your platform businesses like Uber, you are going from zero to millions and millions of customers in different market with immediate demand and standards of customer services to adhere to.

Ogden says that when she speaks to people who work within Facebook, they sometimes describe its corporate infrastructure as "the wild west and every man for himself".

She add: "There is not the processes and corporate heavyweight standards you’d expect, but because it is so big and has such a vast role in society people just assume it has those processes and protocols."

Headland director Tom Bage has experienced first hand what it’s like to be in a rapidly scaling platform business. He was communications director at Change.org for two years, helping it grow from six million to 12 million users.

"The comms challenges in this environment are fairly unusual," he says. "Typically, your brand and the scale of your user base will be a long way ahead of the internal comms resource." At Change.org a comms team of two was responsible for a platform that could distribute content to a fifth of the UK population. "We were basically making the rules up as we went along," Bage admits.

The reputation of a disruptive platform business is often driven by user actions, compounding the problem. "The worst place to be as a comms person is maximum responsibility with minimum control," Bage says. He believes the comms function should act as "ethicist- in-chief", as practitioners often have a better awareness of the world than "leaders stuck in their own bubble".

Of course, just because comms people should play this role, that doesn’t mean they do. In November, Facebook comms chief Elliot Schrage, who has since left the company, admitted it had hired lobby firm Definers to help it "understand backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics", including financier George Soros. Facebook said it had cut ties with Definers that month.

The irony of challenger brands is that they often preach the gospel of change, but can be all too slow when they need to change their own identity and positioning.

"Part of the reason why is because they are full of evangelists who are flattering the CEOs and founders ego," Skinner adds. "It’s not only the companies that need to change their persona as they grow from challengers to incumbents, the leaders need to as well."

Experts agree that prioritising comms is key to ensuring disruptor brands don’t come unstuck.

Ogden warns: "Once upon a time, consumers might have drunk the Kool-Aid of a company for 30 years, but now it tastes bitter after five sips. You cannot treat communications as a veneer marketing exercise."

Skinner advises companies make sure their PR is ahead of potential changes to company's trajectory.

"In general companies have waited too long until someone has given them a kick or there are crises and they’ve responded to it," he says.

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