Two seasoned public relations experts are providing resources for startups and small businesses. Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

Public relations can feel elusive and overwhelming to small business owners. Carla Nikitaidis and Kathryn Worsham Humphries, two seasoned communications consultants, are used to hearing clients ask if they need PR — and more often than not, "what does PR even mean?"

The two women are lifting integrated marketing's curtain to help early-stage businesses and entrepreneurs understand and implement their own communication plans. Houston-based Humphries and California-based Nikitaidis launched All You Need Method, an online course and consulting business designed for small business owners, to help provide agency-level strategy without the expensive price tag.

All You Need Method compiles Nikitaidis and Humphries years of communications experience into an accessible course, The PR Starter Kit.

"We packaged it together in a way where if you're the founder of a small business, you can take our course and get started down the right path of telling your story, being strategic, setting goals, and growing your brand," explains Humphries.

The $249 course is a small sum compared to the often costly prices of hiring on a PR agency, which Humphries explains have monthly retainers ranging from $3,000 to $20,000. The price point is much more manageable for a small company, she explains.

The partners first crossed paths in New York City, sharing a mutual love for PR. Nikitaidis worked for a string of large agencies, representing popular brands like Target, CVS, and Shiseido. Humphries, a University of Texas graduate, landed in Manhattan to fulfill internships at Ralph Lauren, Teen Vogue, and Lonny magazine.

When Nikitaidis left her agency role to start CMN PR, a firm focused on early-stage businesses, and brought Humphries on as her first employee. "She was so smart and strategic — such a partner from day one," says Nikitaidis.

After five years of CMN PR, the two joined a client's in-house team and, eventually, departed to their own adventures. Humphries joined the global social media team for Gap Inc. and eventually returned to Houston to start her consultancy, KWH Creative. Nikitaidis became director of communications at Nextdoor, in the early days of the app, and vice president at The OutCast Agency in San Francisco before relaunching her company as CMN PR & Consulting in 2020.

Nikitaidis and Humphries met in New York years ago and have worked together in the past. Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

When the coronavirus started, the two women realized that small businesses were struggling more than ever. They set out to create tools for the early-stage entrepreneur and even business owners reassessing their plans in the wake of 2020's hardships.

"There are so many businesses that are pre-PR agency or even pre-consulting services that just need a little bit of help. They don't need a $5,000 or $10,000 monthly retainer — what they need is some strategic guidance," says Nikitaidis.

All You Need Method seeks to democratize access to media for solopreneurs on a budget.

"We're not anti-PR agency," Nikitaidis stressed. "We just think that the system and how it's kind of set up right now is broken."

Traditionally, publicists have been the conduit between brands and the media. Through press releases and pitches, communications professionals build relationships with reporters to help the brands they represent get media coverage. The Public Relations Journal even sought to investigate the role of PR gatekeepers in a 2011 study.

"If you think about how agency life has evolved, you used to have to go through an agency to have access to media. Now that the conversation is completely broken down — you don't need a third-party to have that conversation," continues Nikitaidis.

Before reaching out to the media or unveiling a product, Humphries believes you should have "core foundational pillars in place." The PR Starter Kit course guides our seven-step formula the two founders have used with their clients to help them stand out in a crowded media landscape. The course provides customized templates, a competitive analysis, content creation tips, and clarity on how to use integrated marketing to reach your business goals.

The PR Starter Kit includes approximately one hour of video training and worksheets that could take an estimated five hours to complete. The videos are broken up into segments so "you can go at your own pace" overtime, suggests Nikitaidis.

For a personalized approach, All You Need Method also offers one-hour strategy sessions via Zoom for $250. The consultation process answers PR and marketing questions pertaining to the brand's business, addresses individual pain points, and focuses on bonus goals.

"We're always trying to map back or help small business owners approach PR and marketing as something that's going to move their business goals forward," Nikitaidis added.

Building customer relationships and servicing your clients may sound like "Business 101," but Humphries finds that 2020 has shifted the needs of brand audiences and their lifestyles.

"I feel like a lot of small business owners have a vague idea of who their target audience is, but they haven't actually sat down and drilled down on all the details," explains Humphries.

Especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, consumer behavior has changed. She recommends understanding what they could most use from you right now based on your areas of expertise and your product or service.

The coronavirus isn't the only nationwide hardship that's forcing brands to reevaluate their content and values. Last May, the Black Lives Matter movement held protests across the country in the wake of George Floyd's murder. Conversations on racial justice and police brutality took place on the ground, in news outlets, and across social media platforms. While the movement was amplified on social platforms, some brands fumbled responses and social media statements that critics felt were inauthentic.

"There was just this total lack of awareness in terms of the different industries, specifically fashion and beauty. I hope that it was a big wake up call," says Nikitaidis, who emphasized All You Need Method's commitment to inclusivity. The company recently interviewed thought leader and marketer, Sonia Thompson, for tips on building an inclusive brand.

Inclusivity, and the messaging surrounding it, was a problem that existed long-before last summer and has continued on. From the Dallas-based mahjong brand that sparked a debate on cultural appropriation to the racial missteps of fashion brands, embracing inclusivity with half-hearted gestures has led brands to come under fire.

"I think a big part of being an inclusive brand and having it be authentic is relationship building and making sure that you're building relationships with a diverse audience and customers that don't look just like you," explains Humphries. She challenges people to make "a conscious effort to expand your circle and to make other people feel welcome."

From a global pandemic, political divisiveness, racial justice revolutions, the growing climate crisis, and an insurrection at the nation's Capitol, there's, well, a lot of events to consider when creating social media content.

To Nikitaidis, authenticity and consistency go a long way.

"Reevaluate your core values, and then make sure that you show up with intention in every single solitary thing that you post, that you put out there, and that it's consistent," she says. "If there is a cause that you really care about, and that really is a natural fit with your core values, then you become a thought leader in that space and it's not contrived."

While 2020 might have been a shock to the system for some, it also ushered in new platforms that the two believe could shape marketing's future.

Nikitaidis is excited about what Clubhouse, an audio-chat social networking app, could mean for the future of social platforms. She describes the app as a vibrant dinner party with your 10 coolest, most interesting contacts... except everyone can listen in.

The invitation-only app, which launched last April, features a variety of virtual rooms with conversations on topics like music, social media marketing, business, politics, dating, and more. The Verge likens it to "Medium for podcasts," while reporting on Elon Musk's debut on the chat platform.

"I think the podcast market is awesome but I think that's becoming a little oversaturated. I'm interested and excited to see where these other digital platforms are popping up and how people will be socializing or communicating or connecting in new ways," says Nikitaidis.

She also predicts a resurgence in the power of LinkedIn, the favored platform for business networking. After pitching an op-ed to The Cut and Huffington Post Women, her consulting client posted her piece to LinkedIn and amassed one million views in a two weeks span.

"There's such a huge opportunity and LinkedIn, especially for small business owners, where you're looking at who you know, and who wants to help, and you want to get out in front of your network first," says Nikitaidis.

Similarly, Humphries predicts the future of integrated marketing lies in storytelling.

"I think that brands will continue focusing on telling their own story and communicating with their audience directly through all of the channels that are relevant to them," she explained.

Regardless of what the future holds, communications can't be ignored in the present. " It's not a nice-to-have anymore — it's a must-have," explains Nikitaidis.

"Getting smart about PR, marketing, influencer marketing, influencer partnerships is one of the best business tools," says Nikitaidis. "It's just truly one of the best things you can do to grow your business as a small business owner."

What does your company plan on bringing into the new year — and how do you plan to communicate your efforts? Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

5 PR and marketing tips for Houston startups and small businesses in 2021

guest column

The past year has been a rollercoaster for small businesses. When the pandemic hit, every single person was affected. We've all had to pivot in some way either personally, professionally, or both.

As public relations and marketing professionals who specialize in working with small businesses, we've spent the last 10 months in the trenches with our clients, advising and helping business owners and entrepreneurs navigate these uncertain times. While small business revenue is down since January 2020, it's not all doom and gloom out there – we've seen many other businesses experience unexpected success and growth, and according to economists, we are entering the greatest entrepreneurial economy of our time.

And as we start this new year, there is no better time to invest in business growth and planning. Below are five tips to help you get started.

1. Get smart on your PR

Whether you know a little or a lot about public relations, marketing, and social media, take some time to get caught up on the current landscape. It is constantly changing, and having a better understanding of how traditional media, social media, paid marketing, owned content and all other components can benefit your business will inform decisions about where to allocate your time and resources.

First, assess what stage of business you are in as well as your business goals to determine what PR and marketing tools could be most beneficial to your growth at this time. Not all small businesses are prepared, financially or otherwise, to invest in PR, and there are fundamental steps you can do on your own to get your business positioned to succeed.

With online education booming, there are many free resources and tools at your disposal. We created All You Need Method to simplify PR and marketing for small business owners. You can download our Free PR Roadmap on our website to assess what level of PR support is right for your business. We also created The PR Starter Kit online course to give small business owners the fundamental tools they need to use PR, marketing, and social media to support business growth and build a lasting brand – and it only takes a few hours to complete.

2. Revisit your target audience

The world has changed significantly over the past year and so have the wants, needs, habits, and interests of consumers. As a small business, it's imperative to understand your target audience's current problems in order to relate to them, build trust, and deliver a product or service that is meeting their needs.

Before investing time and financial resources creating and executing a 2021 business plan, take a step back and consider your ideal customer. Outline how the past year has created opportunities or challenges in their life, problems they are facing, new shopping habits, lifestyle shifts, communication preferences, concerns, etc. If you have more than one ideal customer, work through this exercise for each.

With this new perspective, you will be equipped to make business decisions through the lens of how you can better serve your customers, rather than how to increase revenue.

3. Stand for something

Brands that are succeeding today are the brands that are authentic, vulnerable, and that stand for something. According to a global study by Zeno Group in July 2020, consumers are 4 to 6 times more likely to purchase and champion purpose-driven companies.

Having a purpose doesn't require a brand to have a philanthropy component or an outspoken political stance – it's about identifying your specific values and making them apparent through your messaging and leadership within your industry. Values could include committing to sustainable production methods, outstanding customer service, commitment to diversity, or supporting a specific cause. What is most important is that your values are authentic and that you can stand behind them long-term.

As the founder/owner of a small business, you have an opportunity to put a face and values behind the brand so that your company is about more than selling something.

4. Clarify your message

After revisiting your target audience and carefully considering your brand values, incorporate those findings into your messaging. Conduct an audit of your website, social media channels, and all external facing materials, and update your messaging to ensure that if your ideal customer had a 30 second encounter with your brand, they would walk away with your most important messaging points. Important points to consider as you craft new messaging include:

  • How your product or service solves a problem for or benefits your target audience
  • Brand values
  • Points of differentiation

5. Be authentic and communicative

Before the days of social media, a brand had to rely on third parties, including editorials and ads in magazines and newspapers, to spread the word about their brand. Social media and all "owned channels," including a brand's website, blog, and newsletter, have leveled the playing field and allow small business owners to have control over their communication with customers. Through your owned channels, a brand can decide what to post and when, which is incredibly valuable.

While securing press and advertising opportunities is valuable to growth and brand awareness, it's largely outside of one's control. Focus your time and financial resources on communicating with your audience by creating content for your owned channels. Creating content and posting consistently can seem overwhelming to a solopreneur or small team, but there are ways to make it manageable:

  • Pick only a few owned channels to focus on, prioritizing platforms you are most familiar with using and where your audience is most active
  • Quality and consistency are more important than quantity. If you're only posting once a week due to bandwidth, commit to that frequency and increase frequency as you are able
  • To inspire and inform content creation, think about how you can serve your customers through your areas of expertise and what is relevant to both your brand and audience (events, holidays, partnerships, new product launches, etc.)
  • Create a content calendar so that you can plan out posts a month in advance to avoid last minute scrambling to decide what to post

Once you've worked through these five tips, make a plan to support your business goals - and start thinking in two phases.

  • Phase 1: Pandemic Home Stretch - Although there is hope with a COVID-19 vaccine, we know we will likely be dealing with the effects indefinitely. Use this time of uncertainty to get your business in the best shape possible.
  • Phase 2: Post Pandemic - How do you want your business or brand to show up when the world opens back up? It feels far off, but it is closer than you think and there is a huge opportunity for those who are willing to put in the work now.

Remember, these challenging times will pass. There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future.

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Kathryn Worsham Humphries and Carla M. Nikitaidis are the co-creators of Houston-based All You Need Method, a PR and marketing resource for small business owners and entrepreneurs.

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5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

Rice University develops 2 new innovative tools to detect COVID-19

pandemic tech

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.