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Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo

How to tell your brand story through data-driven PR

Maca Lara Dillon is the founder and director of Kipus, a communication and public relations agency founded in 2015. She was born in Ecuador and has been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where her company operates, for more than 10 years. In a conversation with Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo, Centrico Digital’s CEO, Maca discusses: 

  • How she went from investigative reporting to running her own agency.
  • What is data-driven PR and how she uses it at Kipus.
  • Why reputation is sometimes more important than KPIs.
  • The art of generating interest through your story.
  • When a company should look for a PR agency and how to choose the right one.

This interview has been edited for length and context.


Matthew: I’d love to hear about your life as a journalist, and what led you from journalism to creating Kipus.

Maca: I started very young, at 17, in journalism. I worked in television, radio, written press, always focused on Ecuador’s social agenda and politics. I experienced quite a few turbulent years: about ten or twelve years of highly intensive investigative journalism. When you cover those issues, you know why you cover them and why they are important, but I told myself: “There must be a different way of communicating, one that focuses on the work that thousands and millions of people are doing.”

I had a professional breakdown. I remember there was a particular case about identity theft. There were people who had made big purchases in Quito’s stores. Turns out that it wasn’t them and yet their Identifications were legal. Someone had bought their identities. We went to the heart of the matter and came upon a human trafficking network. Everyone was involved, even the Civil Registration’s top chiefs. I get very involved with the stories and the things that I do. There was a time where I said, “There must be a flip side to all this.”

I decided to take a year off to leave Ecuador and study something abroad. At this point, I asked myself about the impact new technologies was having on the quality of life of people. I had been impressed by the story of a migrant mother who had gone to Spain. Back then, around 2007, for the migrant social class internet was only available in the neighborhood’s cybercafes. This woman spent almost half of her salary in Spain to connect to do homework with her children on Skype every day. It was a moving story that especially struck me.

So, I ended up taking a turn and focused my journalism career on technology-based startups and created a blog in Argentina. That’s how PulsoSocial was born, which at the time became the media about technology startups in Latin America. I discovered a place where I felt more comfortable because it had a focus on communications for development.

The journalism work that I had before had a strong burden of resistance; often destroying or disarming things that were harming and that had a great social value. That was the workflow. And I felt, at this stage of my life, much more comfortable in this place, to say: “Let’s talk to these guys who are creating solutions that have a positive impact on people’s lives.” That led me to learn about the entrepreneurial ecosystem, about the importance of the knowledge economy. I also noticed that there was a problem and it was that the entrepreneurs didn’t have much of an idea why their story mattered.

Then I left PulsoSocial and told myself: “We need a catalyst that is capable of responding along with the entrepreneur why their story matters, what is relevant about what they are doing”. I wanted to do that work with them, to go out to communicate and generate information of value. Specifically, in Spanish, we have a big problem: the lack of specialized information. Often,  specialized information is not being generated by the academy, but by the entrepreneur. This from a journalism point of view–has a lot of value.

Matthew: In your content, you often refer to data-driven PR. What is it? What makes this different approach that Kipus has been able to bring to the world necessary?

Maca: Data kills the story, that is the starting point. In Latin America, we have a serious flaw in terms of the quality of data we handle. It is very difficult to have up-to-date data, knowing that it is being measured in the correct way. So, technology enables us –through companies that are leading their markets– to have a much better idea of how people are behaving, who is buying, when they are buying, what they are deciding, what they are asking. It’s not a lie that Google knows more about you than you do yourself!

Data-driven PR is about making data explain reality in a plausible way. I look for this differential data in my clients and bring it closer to journalists to be able to explain reality. This has a lot to do with evangelizing, explaining, with helping to bring together a type of knowledge that journalists are often left out of because they are crushed by an agenda. 

It’s that: tools, being able to measure, being able to know how people are looking for what you want to communicate. Technology and everything that is data-driven helps you explain realities through data. We rely heavily on statistical data, medians, ANOVAS, what is the exception of the rule, and why it is important to take it into account. It’s trying to bring these answers closer to the customer’s value proposition.

Matthew: What are the key indicators, the KPIs that you use in conversations, and when presenting results to your clients?

Maca: Well, there is an international agreement that I respect: not measuring work by its impact. First, because the intellectual work of a journalist cannot be compared to an advertising spot. By definition, I don’t use these metrics. Our metrics relate more to the media’s reputation. It’s about domain authority. It’s about the number of times this content has been shared. It has to do with the link building that is associated with the brand, how many times we have made the news, and get a direct reference. It’s about the recurrence with which the media requests content to come directly from Kipus’ staff because it performed well because it was interesting.

Matthew: We are talking about two things: branding and SEO. Do you treat them as one or as different areas?

Maca: It depends on what you are communicating. When you are talking about building a reputation, about values, you are talking about vision. That’s a long-term journey. But, when there are also customers –if they are B2C– then they have a different type of measurement. This is like surgery: a scalpel serves for one thing, and scissors for another. Each kind of campaign has its own tools, communication format, and different kinds of measurement logic. 

Not everything is measured the same way, and not everything shares the same goals. You are going to need content that is evergreen, but other content corresponds to a certain context and urgency. This year is an excellent example. No one had planned “in March, we will talk about COVID and its impact”. But you have to go out and talk about it if you have an answer for it. 

It is also valuable when a company that has nothing to say remains silent. Otherwise, we are in a “stay at home” rainstorm from a bunch of brands that should not necessarily make the conversation. It was an emotional reaction; it wasn’t intended, it was not measured.

It also depends on the target you are focusing on: if you are B2B, it is the time to start asking: “What do I have to contribute, from my area of knowledge to my suppliers, my partners, or my clients?”. That is also brand building: it does not necessarily have to be in a newspaper, but it is a way of communicating with your audience.

Matthew: I would like to understand more about the process of starting conversations with clients, how we present ourselves to the world, the stories we are going to tell. Tell us a bit about that process.

Maca: The first thing I do is to get a complete picture of the company. In fact, I work closely with entrepreneurial teams who are in the process of scaling; that’s my niche. I need to feel a sense of adrenaline from working with someone who is taking a risk.

It’s always the story you are telling that matters. Your client may be very much in love with their excellent ideas and already talking to the media, but unless there is a journalist who says: “Here is a story ”, then the work is in vain. You are complying with certain things, yet the results will not be the best. There are also companies that have a lot of irrelevant content and that does not mean they are building a brand. Somehow, those algorithms we talked about at the beginning are already starting to penalize such practices of redundancy. They do not provide new information, nor do they provide new data, nor originality.

So you have to work hard on originality and dedicate all your time to developing the topic with the journalist. You also have to consider that some stories are outside the journalist’s area of expertise! Coming back to what we were commenting on previously, there is an issue with content in Spain and Latin America: our media tends to adopt a very generalist approach, which forces a journalist to be a “jack of all trades”. That damages the quality of the information.

How do you differentiate yourself? By doing a good job, taking the work of your colleagues seriously, and not “spamming”. You should know what their line coverage is and, if there’s a new topic, say: “Look, this might interest you”.

Matthew: When you approach journalists, what principles are you following in trying to generate a reaction, an interest?

Maca: There is no formula, it is very artistic. What is important is to have an authentic conversation. In other words, be aware of the editor’s time value, the journalist’s, and particularly for me, show that you are a legitimate interlocutor: that you have read what the other has written. If you bring information about entertainment to an economics reporter…well, what can I say.

Matthew: Please tell us about the pre-existing conditions that a company must have to succeed with you and Kipus; and, on the other hand, when do you get it wrong with a client?

Maca: First, I am very honest about the kind of brand where I can add value. I have let go of companies with great brands. The more committed you are to the service’s vision and the process you are capable of providing, the more people will respect you for that too. A temptation that a lot of entrepreneurs may have is that anything is good for them, in order to increase their client base. This is the best way to start failing.

The “vanity metrics” trend is quite important because you work with people’s egos. That’s something that I don’t nourish much. The client needs to know that they are a partner, that this is a team, and that I am a demanding agency. I’m not going to buy everything they say. I have one rule: their lack of planning is not my emergency. It could be the UN, I don’t care.

Matthew: Are you working in coordination with several agencies, or is it just you and the marketing chief or head of public relations of the client’s company? 

Maca: It depends on how it is arranged. Some large companies have their agency covering certain verticals, certain markets. But yes, we work in synergy with other agencies and colleagues. Working with other agencies is also a way to see how good or bad you are doing, or even on what you can improve.

I’m a believer in doing the opposite. Usually, people arrive at a new agency and say: “No, everything is wrong, I am here to establish the new republic”. It seems to me that the way to empower people, organizations, is to see what they are already doing. The next step is to improve upon it. That’s my starting point because it can be devastating for a team to have been making communication efforts that are not completely right and then you come in and say: “All this is wrong.”

Matthew: When is it appropriate for a tech or a digital company to look for a communication and PR agency?

Maca: Since the moment a company is created, it has to be at least veiled in the decision-maker, the founder of the CEO, that it is their responsibility to have a communication logic towards their clients and collaborators. If that’s present from day one, it will be easier to understand; if not, we are faced with a difficult task.

One problem in the world of communication is that everyone thinks they can communicate. It seems to me that we must avoid falling into these vanity metrics circuits created for entrepreneurs. These are internal validations, but they do not provide enough credibility to communicate. If your solution is communicable, accessible, and has an impact, you do have to start saying: “We are here”. That is enough initially, in the first year, or year and a half. 

Then, when it comes to communicating growth, it depends a lot on your industry. If you are in an industry that needs to acquire customers at an early stage, then you have to engage in direct communication with the community, to evangelize, for example.

Let’s suppose that you are in cryptocurrencies, you absolutely need to go out and explain to “Mrs. Rosa” how bitcoin works. So when you are in a phase of scaling and entering new markets, without a doubt, PR is a great positioning tool. If you are in a growth phase, it is your battle horse. There are cases when the content is part of the commodity you are selling. 

When the content is a commodity that will be consumed on the same platform, as in the case of Netflix, setting the rhythm of launches depends on the content; that they talk about the series, generate conversation. All of those things depend on the conversation universe and where your customer is. You need to communicate more or less intensively to be able to look for contact points with your audience. 

Matthew: How does a company choose the right agency?

Maca: A good CEO is a good generalist. And a good generalist has to know what to ask for and what to expect. If you want to appear on the newspaper’s front page with your new startup, talking about a new app to buy beer, it’s not really feasible. It is important to know what to expect and where people are having their conversations.

Choosing the right agency has to do with them knowing your industry, solving your problem, and speaking your language. It has to be an agency capable of understanding your point of view and applying it. When you talk with the agency you want to hire, don’t talk about the services you provide, ask them for their opinion on a topic. That is the key. An agency that answers, “The Fintech Law, which was made in such way in this country, do not have this application, it remained like this” or “This is the time or this is the way to communicate something” may not have the same ideas as you, but their point is valid and more importantly, it is an informed opinion.

We have to be able to develop different views of a point together. This is important: not different points of view, but different views of the same point. If you achieve that, then you have someone you can launch a winning piece with. 



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