Six Things To Remember When Managing Comms Through IPO
Dec 11, 2018 Dan O'Mahony
By all accounts 2018 was a banner year for IPOs in tech. There were long-awaited exits like Carbon Black, DocuSign, Dropbox and Eventbrite. 2017 was plenty busy too, with Cloudera, MuleSoft, Okta, Snap and many others entering the public markets. There’s no way to know for sure how long this IPO window will last, but in the short term there haven’t been many signs of slowing down.
If you’re an in-house communications person or team lead at a PR agency and you’ve never managed an IPO before, it can seem really daunting. There’s new terminology, new stakeholders and much higher stakes than ever. Employees can be emotional and hyper-aware about the process as well, since a successful IPO could mean a new house, a year off, paying off debt or the beginning of a college fund for their kids.
Most importantly, there are specific, legal consequences based on your decisions, with the potential for compromising or delaying the IPO if there are mistakes. This is a big shift for most PR people in startup world, who are used to having to push and shove to get attention and ask for forgiveness later.
So, if your executive team lets you know going public is close, how should you approach it? Where do you even start?
No two IPOs are the same. Advice from a colleague who has done this before shouldn’t be treated as gospel and oftentimes everything needs to be reasoned through and discussed no matter how common a request or decision. Messaging, timing, media outreach and other activity should all be high-touch and over-communicated to different teams and stakeholders to get buy-in.
But, there are some broad stroke guidelines that apply in more situations than not. Here are six lessons I learned working on Carbon Black’s IPO in 2018 and Okta’s IPO in 2017 (InkHouse worked with both companies as their agency of record through IPO):
Be ready. If your CEO tells you an IPO is a year out, keep tabs on timing to make sure it doesn’t shift. Ask to speak with the IR team or legal team to get a download. Find out when the first private filings, S-1 filing and road shows are. Even tentative dates are helpful, because once the company files its S-1, you’ll enter a complete quiet period lockdown and basically can’t say anything. Knowing the dates well in advance will help you plan as much activity before filing so no ideas or campaigns get delayed or canceled.
Be prepared to hear ‘no’ (and to push back). Chances are, IPO will mean more interactions with legal teams than you’ve ever had before. The good folks on your legal team are your friends, and you’ll want their sign-off on everything, since they know what can get the company into hot water with the SEC. That said, remember what their priorities are - they want to reduce risk. Saying ‘no’ is the easiest way to do that. Try to push back when something seems overly restrictive and you’ll know what’s flexible and what is non-negotiable.
Don’t overlook social. Did you know that if an employee posts an article about your company’s rumored IPO, or even LIKES a story on Facebook, that could mean a flag from the SEC? Social media is the area with the biggest potential for employee sprawl. Be sure to train your employees on what they can and can’t be saying.
Build a great story. For a lot of companies an IPO is a chance for a higher level of interest from a different batch of reporters. It’s all the more important to have a great story, because now reporters will cover you whether or not you pitch them. If all they have to go on is your S-1, then that’s what the coverage will look like. Or worse, they’ll pull messaging from an old press release. Go through your numbers in great detail to paint a better story that shows the company’s competitive moats, the value of its exec team and where you are headed in the next ten years. That extra bit of context could mean the difference between straight numbers being reported on and a feature with a great narrative.
Educate reporters on your story today. If you know an IPO is coming and you’re not in a quiet period yet, you should be thinking about how to get your CEO and other spokespeople in front of lots more reporters. Throughout IPO more reporters will cover you organically than ever before. By law your numbers are now publicly available, free of spin, context or pretty much any PR speak of any kind. Particularly in the quiet period, when you won’t be able to comment on anything, your story is kind of out of your hands. This is why you should be hyper aware of timing and briefing reporters well in advance so they know more about your story. Once IPO becomes a reality, figure out how to get your spokespeople meeting with key reporters in-person. This should definitely come with a refreshing of any and all spokespersons’ media training.
Remember it is a moment in time, not a finish line. Once IPO is over and the excitement wears off (believe it or not, it will), you’ll be going back to the grind. Treat IPO day as an announcement and point in time (albeit a huge, much more complicated and longer-term moment in time) and be thinking about what the next six months looks like afterward. Make sure the story you tell on IPO day is one you’ll want to stick to three, six and 12 months out. Afterward, some of those IPO-day briefings will turn into long-term relationships and a chance to tell bigger, better stories.
An IPO is a huge achievement and milestone, but it’s just that - a milestone. Building for the long haul and treating this as the end of a chapter, not the end of a race, will put your comms program in a great position to benefit from all the goodness and excitement from a public exit.
If your company is heading towards IPO and you have questions about your communications strategy, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.