Waiting for the Roto-Rooter Man

Sifting through the entries for this season’s Buzzie Awards, it became obvious the really good PR programs have one thing in common: They start with positioning. Positioning is the evolution of a dubious process that used to be called image-building. The difference is that positioning is reality-based. Flimflam just doesn’t thrive under the bright lights of the Net.

Positioning and the Buzzies are on the agenda because last week we talked with a guy who was on the team that positioned Sun Microsystems and played a major part in positioning PowerPoint, SoundBlaster, and Homestead. He has since gone on to stake out a position in, well, PR positioning. We figured we could pick up a few pointers to pass along.

We caught up with Shel Israel, president and CEO of SIPR, a 13-person PR agency, at home, waiting for the Roto-Rooter man to clear a plugged drain. (It happens.) Shel is a deceptively simple guy. Straightforward. Smart. Chuckles a lot.

Do you do international PR? we asked.

“Not successfully. If you’re really going global, get a global agency. To get on the playing field, work with a small agency.”

And do what?

“Start with positioning. No company should begin to enter the marketplace until it is so well positioned every employee understands it. Use the fewest number of people to put together your positioning statement. The positioning statement shouldn’t be laced with adjectives. Nothing zippy, just very simple, very clear, and defensible statements about who you are and why you are unique. It shouldn’t be more than three sentences. The positioning statement has to have the focus to take you some distance.”

When Shel Israel says “We think any company to succeed needs to use an integrated marketing program,” you might find yourself looking down the road for the Roto-Rooter guy. But to SIPR, integrated marketing is a specific process that begins with public relations… just as PR begins with positioning.

“PR is the opening act of an integrated marketing program. Getting your positioning statement intact makes it easier to do your corporate ID and all the stuff between that and the postlaunch branding. We like to get in early, when companies are defining who they are, what they do. We used to get in before financing (chuckle) but not now.”

Conventional wisdom says there’s a certain critical mass a company has to reach before it can use PR. How does that square with Shel’s idea that PR folks should be the first to belly up to the corporate till? It has to do with SIPR’s own positioning. “What we are, really, is start-up jockeys,” says Julie Rose, SIPR’s business unit manager. “We live and breathe start-ups and focus on early-stage companies. We understand their challenges, their strategic and press needs.”

Maybe, but the SIPR approach also works for established companies. This February, Stu Roberson, vice president of marketing for PictureWorks, hired SIPR. “We were marching toward an IPO,” says Roberson, “creating new positioning for the company across the board. It was very critical that we had a clear positioning message to cut across all our marketing efforts.” Powered by chutzpah, SIPR helped reposition PictureWorks as the leader of infrastructure for visual content on the web and put together a presentation showing how the Net was moving from text-based to visual content.

The argument was persuasive to publicly owned iPIX [Nasdaq: IPIX]. At the first trade show featuring the new positioning, iPIX made a preliminary offer to acquire PictureWorks. Within a few weeks, the deal was done, and SIPR had worked its way out of an account. “We were in the marketplace iPIX wanted,” said Roberson. “Their specialty was in going out and collecting images. Ours was in letting visitors submit images to a site through our Rimfire product.”

At SIPR even the prospective clients have to be positioned.

“For us to work with a company we have to see they have some technology,” says Shel Israel. “We have to be convinced they have three things: something valuable, something newsworthy, and that we have good chemistry together. Chemistry shouldn’t be played down. PR is a relationship game. If you don’t feel you can share your dirty laundry with your agency, something will break down.”

He could have added one more requirement. The start-up has to pony up between $20,000 and $25,000 per month in retainer fees, some part of which might be in stock. “We don’t have billable hours. Our billing,” says Julie Rose, “is on an all-you-can-eat flat-fee basis.”

“The job of PR isn’t to get you ink but credibility in the marketplace. The job is to change people’s minds. There is a world out there where people are doing things the way they are. Now you want them to do something different.”

Do something different… like open an integrated marketing program with positioning developed by the PR agency? Maybe. It’s hard to dismiss an agency with the SIPR track record. And harder yet to dismiss a guy who is so sure of his positioning he can be interviewed while waiting for the Roto-Rooter guy.

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