Q&A With Elise Szwajkowski, VP of Marino PR’s Proptech Arm

By Published On: August 16, 20228.3 min read

Elise Szwajkowski was recently promoted as the Vice President of public relations agency Marino’s real estate technology and property innovation section, which basically helps proptech companies get their message out to the world.

According to TechCrunch, venture capital funded a record high of $11.7 billion in PropTech in 2021. PropTech may have made our lives easier with smart homes, and shopping for homes from our smartphones. 

Nonetheless, PropTech companies famously hit hurdles in their PR. Whether it’s simplifying their tech jargon or competing against heavy hitters, reaching a mainstream audience is not as easy as it sounds. 

Elise Szwajkowski

Image provided by Marino

Szwajkowski comes from a background in PR working with real estate firms, and her client roster of PropTech companies includes leasing and asset management firms like VTS, short-term rental companies like Stay Alfred and others, including FinTech, venture capital firms, energy and sustainability-focused companies, commercial real estate SaaS and more.

At Marino, an agency which was founded by Frank Marino in New York in 1993, they have always had a close connection to the real estate world, working with the One World Trade Center to TF Cornerstone. Szwajkowski spoke to Leverage.com about the key to communication, differentiating PR from sales, and what we can expect from PropTech firms in 2023, and beyond.

Leverage.com: Women in leadership roles who work in real estate are rare. How does it feel to be one of them?

Elise Szwajkowski: I know. It’s crazy. I was talking to someone I’m working with and they said ‘we need more women on panels, moderators.’ We’re at a point where there isn’t a big enough pool. Marino was born 30 years ago out of the traditional real estate side of things. Frank Marino’s initial clients are on the more traditional side. My role was more split between traditional real estate and PropTech, then PropTech took off. Now it’s in its own sub-practice. PropTech was such a foreign concept to people. 

Out of a lot of industries, real estate is the most resistant to change, especially with CRE. Before the pandemic, CRE firms realized their companies had to be more tech-driven in order to keep up, to stay ahead of other players. The pandemic accelerated that. If you’re a key player and you’re not making decisions related to tech at the forefront, you’re going to fall behind. The pandemic propelled so much on the PropTech front, and made it widely accepted.

You work a lot with PropTech companies, right? Proptech is used to speed up menial tasks in CRE, but it’s hard to translate it into accessible, digestible campaigns, which is what you guys do. It can be boring, but how do you make it sparkle?

What sets us apart as an agency is that we see ourselves as an extension of the internal team of our clients. We come in, want to understand your business, as if we were the one selling it. Our team does a deep dive and truly understands what your tech is doing in the broader ecosystem of real estate. We find a way to make it digestible and simple for the public. 

I always say to my clients, the hardest question to answer is “what is your offering?” People immediately go down a rabbit hole and make it difficult to explain it in two or three sentences. But that’s the most powerful way to get your message out there. 

Which PropTech firms do you work with?

Cloud company VTS were one of our initial clients, we have worked with them for five years now. They’re on the leasing side of things, they help today’s owners and landlords manage their leasing portfolios. They’ve expanded into a marketplace where people can shop with their brokers for office space online. They help owners think through that. We also work with DealPath, which is a management platform, working on the sales and investment side. We also work with WiredScore, which basically comes in, and certifies the technology of a building, and verifies how smart a building is — so you can get a wired certification, depending on how connected your building is, in terms of internet connection, and a smart score certification, for smart buildings, in terms of their smart stack.

Was it a challenge to work with PropTech firms?

Before the pandemic, companies were hesitant to hire an agency that wasn’t in the market they’re in. Like, if you were an agency overseas, they wouldn’t as likely hire you. I think people have realized you can work from anywhere. We work with global brands which have a big presence in Europe. We work with XY Sense, advanced occupancy sensors for the workplace, which tells companies how many people are in their workspaces. We work not only locally, but globally, too. 

What do you see changing in PropTech and CRE, going forward into 2023?

PR has always been my passion. You have such a profound opportunity to help these brands, whether they’re at the Seed stage, or are already actively IPO-ing, define their brand and voice to the marketplace. Everyone from investors to the public at large. We’ve seen real estate upended by the pandemic, whether its startups at their peak who crashed at their peak, or office spaces going dark. We have worked with CEOs and their teams to reimagine and reposition their offerings to meet the needs of today’s occupier. The coming three years are going to be about making your offering adaptable to the changing landscape of real estate. We’re just at the tip of that change.

Your agency is not just PR but public affairs, creative and digital, that’s a lot to cover. How do you do it all?

What we’ve found on the real estate side is that there are very few agencies that deeply understand real estate. When you take it one step further to PropTech, you have to understand not only what it is from the end user side, but what their tech is doing. That’s rare, to have that expertise. When a company is rebranding, we are naturally brought into that fold. Our work is so tied to your brand, website and social media, and making sure that it’s all one, synonymous voice echoing your voice throughout all the prongs of the communication flywheel.

What are some of the must-have qualities of a really successful campaign?

I think two things — one, it is having a strong, clear mission. For some companies, their mission is too tactical, and not about what the change is that they’re trying to make. What’s the ultimate that your company is trying to get to 10 or 15 years from now?  Echoing that is so key to a campaign. 

Two — the key is having strong spokespeople who can tell the message the right way, where that passion and enthusiasm comes across. I work with CEOs helping them hone that, and how they get that across. It must be a holistic approach. How do we get that message out in a print publication, a podcast, the radio, TV and getting executives on a panel talking about it? It’s really looking at how they disseminate it. 

What’s the similarity and difference between PR and advertising, in what you do?

The message has to be synonymous, but in PR you give them a story and get them invested in your story, your people and where you’re headed. But advertising is leaving people with that action — when I’m left with that advertisement, what does it make me want to do?

In working with CEOs with their communication strategies, what are some of the biggest mistakes they’re making?

It’s important they’re getting raw feedback. I think a lot of agencies shield companies from critical feedback. If I’m pitching a reporter and they’re not interested in sharing the milestone announcement, I’ll share that with the company. I’ll say: “Here’s what we need to change to make sure it’s landing.” 

The other mistake people make is being too stuck in the sales position. It can be hard getting out of the mindset of sales. Talking to a reporter isn’t selling a product. It’s speaking to the public. Zooming out of that, showing how your product or offering is applicable to the broader industry. Nobody wants to hear you expel your product, which is the easiest thing for a CEO to do—but how it’s making a difference in the broader ecosystem.

What have been some of your biggest career highlights?

I’m super proud of our PropTech team, which is almost all women. It’s a powerful group of women working day to day — in a male-dominated field — to really help these companies, and shape PropTech as a whole. Over the past few years, we’ve helped companies navigate this difficult time. It shows how much of a core value that PR plays, it’s so much more than what people understand. It’s helping them think about the evolution of their products.

You started working at Marino in 2020, do you have any advice to women who are working their way up in a company?

I think having a strong voice. Don’t be afraid to be the one in the room that gives an opinion. That’s definitely something I pride myself on. I’m not afraid to have my voice heard, even if it’s something people don’t want to hear. I never feel like there’s a limit. I never planned on building a PropTech unit at Marino. I had so much passion and saw the opportunity over the past three years to make it what it is today, not only across the country, but the globe. This is just the start for us. We’re going to be doubling down over the next year, or two.

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