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."

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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

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A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

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An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.