German media veteran Andreas Winiarski joined Rocket Internet earlier this year and the internet giant’s first global head of public relations. He arrived at Rocket after spending several years at Axel Springer, where he worked as press spokesman and for the chief editorial staff ad Bild.
At Rocket, Winiarski must attempt to improve perceptions of a company that has been criticised for lacking transparency. Indeed, Rocket has become something of a magnet for controversy, thanks in part to its business model of 'cloning' high-growth web companies.
In the interview below, he explains to the Holmes Report how he plans to do this and discusses why agencies (notably MSLGroup) are so important to this effort.
Why leave journalism for Rocket?
After five years at Axel Springer and several staff positions in journalism and PR, I thought it’s time to get out of the ivory tower and take over a role with responsibility for the whole communication of a corporation and its portfolio companies.
Berlin is the startup capital in Europe, and Rocket Internet is by far the biggest startup incubator worldwide: with over 50 portfolio companies and 15000 employees we are the leading international venture builder. I first got in touch with the company when I was working at Axel Springer. Having worked together with several people from Rocket back then, I already knew it was a wonderful and challenging company – and it still is. As global head of PR, I’m the first one at Rocket responsible for communications.
What does it mean that Rocket Internet has hired its first head of comms. Is it taking PR more seriously?
Rocket Internet helps young entrepreneurs to build new companies much faster than they could without incubation. We give our network and the best experts in the main fields like online marketing, engineering, or PR. The main focus of our work has always been the venture. 99 percent of communications is for our ventures, one percent is for ourselves. That can be misinterpreted as ‘they don’t care about the public’. But we do, we have a strong stakeholder engagement.
So you’re hiring new PR people at all of the ventures?
When we have an idea for a new venture project we are looking for a founder team and just get started quickly. You know there is the copycat debate. We say the idea is one side, the other side is the execution. There are lots of American companies only active in their own country and not in Europe or elsewhere in the world. Why should we wait?
It is always part of our communication strategy to be very confidential at the beginning. Afterwards, when we have set up the main operations, then of course we go very strong on communications. You have to care a lot about communications, it’s always helpful to tell the founder story, for example.
Ususally, when we start a new venture, I set up the communication strategies based on the core of the brand and for all the affected stakeholders. Then I look for whether we hire directly or do we work with an agency, or do I send someone from my team. They can give support for a couple of weeks or a couple of months. Then, the ventures are growing and you have to find solutions for in-house communication at the latest. It’s very important to understand that we really work like an agency for our ventures: so when we do not show the best performance, the founders can say they don’t want to work with us. They don’t have to take you. It’s really up to you to perform.
Would you say that PR plays a central brand-building role in Rocket’s ventures?
Yes, of course. We are living in and for the new economy - it’s an essential part for all new companies that you trade on transparency and openness. Additionally, the huge advantage of well-done PR is, that it is cheaper and achieves more attention than most of the marketing solutions.
There has been criticism of Rocket for lacking transparency. Do you think that is changing?
The truth always lies in the middle. On the one side, new Rocket ventures are normally reshaping their market segment and all potential competitors are watching all of our steps. Therefore, we have to work in a certain stealth modus at the beginning of new projects. On the other side, my colleagues and I, we care a lot about an open and vivid culture. We don’t have to hide something. And yes, Rocket had bad press coverage – but today we have a good and trustful relationship with the relevant journalists, even those writing for critical tech blogs.
Why are you working with MSLGroup?
I prefer the big agencies and networks. We are working a lot with MSL. We always try to cover up to 40 countries, so it’s really helpful to have big PR networks. Of course, a little bit more expensive, but always professional, reliable and above all international. For example our venture payleven, one of the leading mobile payment companies in Europe, is working with MSL. They have learned over recent years and can now cover the operational and strategic work for young startups easily.
All the traditional PR networks have to rethink and change like this. Edelman is already doing this, too. In general, communication is changing, I don’t believe in the old one-to-many communications model anymore where the journalist is the sainted gatekeeper. You can approach the target groups directly via the social channels or your own corporate online magazines. A lot of PR agencies are still too print-oriented. Never forget: you cannot stop it, you have to embrace the progress.