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Don't Fumble Your Corporate Communications

  |  February 1, 2002   |  Comments

If you're not paying money to appear in the media, be prepared to invest time and effort even more wisely.

The interactive marketing industry's been forced to become smarter to ensure its survival. So how come a critical, integral component of marketing communications is getting dumber?

Media budgets may have shriveled, but that does not diminish companies' need to be "out there." There are two ways to get your company's name into the media:

  • Money (advertising -- the publishing approach)

  • News (content -- the editorial approach)

Both are transactional, and here at ClickZ we devote a lot of space to the first method. Perhaps it's time for a look at the second method. The intermeshing of relationships, information, relevance, and value between journalists and companies is much more multilayered and subtle than the cash-for-space exchange of media buys. Why is everyone forgetting the rules of engagement at the worst possible time?

My phone rang yesterday as I was on a tight deadline. A publicist I had never heard of was calling on behalf of a client, who she thought would make a great ClickZ columnist. I rolled my eyes and reluctantly took the bait. (It would have been nice if she'd asked if it was a good time to talk, which she didn't.) What topic did she, or the client, have in mind? Uh... she didn't know, but "they know a lot about marketing." I asked who the client was. Well, she couldn't reveal the company's name, but she could tell me that it was a magazine that covers... marketing.

I replied that we're a magazine (albeit online) that covers marketing, and I found it difficult to imagine another magazine that covers marketing would want to run a column in our magazine, and, anyway, our columns are bylined by people, not companies. She hastened to assure me that if her client agreed to write a regular column for ClickZ, it would have a real person's byline.

Whoa... if the (unnamed) client agreed to write for us? She hadn't run this by them first? I told her I found the idea ill conceived, but if she would send an email with details, we could consider her proposal. Her retort? "Obviously you haven't had your latte today. I've been doing this for 10 years!" Still no email, by the way.

The story is illustrative of what makes a bad publicist. Let me explain why. But don't think you're off the hook: Keep in mind that often the companies paying these publicists' salaries (or invoices) are working against their own spokespeople as hard as they possibly can.

Flack or Communications Professional?

Value. Effective communications professionals (I'm trying to include everyone from junior publicists to senior VPs of corporate communications here) offer value. The editors or reporters they're dealing with know they're trying to sell a positive editorial spin on their employers/clients. A professional, unlike a flack, will be able to articulate the value of the story for the media outlet, not just for his client. A consummate professional is a source of information and insight, not only about his boss or client but also about the broader industry as a whole.

Research. To offer value, you need to meet needs and solve problems. Like media buyers, communications professionals know a publication, its readership, its editorial scope, and who's who on the editorial team. If they don't, they do their damnedest to find out before contacting the publication itself. A flack, on the other hand, gets the editor-in-chief on the phone to inquire who on the editorial team should receive a press release about a topic the publication does not cover. (This happens, believe me.) Are these people so junior they don't have Web access or a subscription to Burrelle's?

Meeting (or exceeding) expectations. A reporter in my group scored a coup: an exclusive interview with a major airline's marketing senior VP on post-September 11 online initiatives. We rigged the schedule around the feature. Turned out the flack (from a software company partnered with the airline) had zero authority to schedule interviews with the airline's staff -- or even to discuss the partnership. Out went the story -- and a company's credibility.

Information Is the Currency, the Client Is the Mint

The best publicists are often undermined by the companies they're trying to make look good. As veteran publicist Lauren Leff, now senior VP at Trylon Communications, puts it, "Access to information is critical to the success of all PR efforts. You need to make a commitment to keeping [your agency] stitched into the fabric of your organization."

Lauren emphasizes clueing in your agency or in-house PR folks on company initiatives being planned, so they can glean ideas on maximizing media interest. Must it be said that developing a strategy helps, too? Once, interviewing for a senior communications gig, I asked the CEO what his PR vision was for his burgeoning dot-com. "I want us to be written about in every media outlet there is," came the reply. I countered by asking if he had priorities he felt would enhance his company's position. "No," he insisted, "I want this company written about in every single magazine!"

Would that include the Ladies' Home Journal?

Companies need to do their homework and listen to the advice of the people they are paying to give it. Once upon a time, I headed marcom for a pre-IPO dot-com. We were being profiled by the Wall Street Journal. My boss, the CEO, turned up his nose at briefing documents. He insisted on conducting one interview via cell phone en route to the San Jose airport. A second interview was scheduled over lunch. Mr. CEO decided this was a "casual meeting" with the reporter and an opportunity to assess "what kind of person" he was dealing with. An in-depth Wall Street Journal profile ain't no dress rehearsal -- nor is it an ego trip.

Be Reasonable

Publicists, companies, and journalists alike must remember that all PR transactions are relationship-based. Recently, we cited a company very positively. The company wasn't satisfied, demanding (first through a browbeaten publicist, then from the CEO himself) that all citations include tag lines and other elements from the corporate boilerplate. The entire article was rewritten and emailed to us with the demand it replace what was published. An editor, so exasperated with unrelenting phone calls and emails, asked if we could remove the piece from the site.

The article stays. But it could be a long, long time before that company gets any more coverage.

Buying media for cash is the guaranteed method for getting your company's message in front of users, readers, and viewers exactly the way you intend. Courting media with information works, too, but you influence rather than determine the result. If you're not paying money, be prepared to invest time and effort even more wisely.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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