I am always astonished at the ways some company owners squander their money. I'm not talking here about Donald Trump-type megalomaniacs, but about otherwise perfectly sensible men and women, chief executive officers who blithely sign over a $5,000 public-relations retainer each month to Grabbit & Runne, public relations consultants, in the hope of seeing their names in the pages of magazines like this one.
If that describes you, I've got some bad news -- you hope in vain. Besides those jovial lunches with your account executive, later added to your bill, what you are buying is mostly paper, stamps, and a lot of unreturned telephone calls. The barrage of press releases and personal queries launched by most PR firms on behalf of most clients is strictly high cost and low impact. Watch any reporter toss the phone messages into the wastebasket after lunch, and you begin to appreciate the swelling numbers now employed in the U.S. public-relations industry. For most of us, public-relations material is clutter, a dim roar of white noise in the editorial office.
Don't get me wrong -- I understand why companies are eager to break through that wall. Nothing buffs up a company's image more than a positive story in a newspaper or a magazine. Unlike paid advertising, media coverage has public credibility, offering a potential boost to a marketing effort, an aid in negotiations with customers and suppliers, and a public pat on the back for employees. The problem is that most PR agents have no more idea of how to get into INC. than the average goat knows how to pilot the Concorde.
That's why I was so surprised when a public-relations campaign led to January's story on Koss Corp., "All the Right Moves." In more than five years at INC., I'd never written a piece that had come from a public-relations agent. Nor had I ever heard of Richard Roth or connected him with the company Primetime Publicity & Media Consulting Corp. What caught my attention was the letter itself, the single smartest pitch thrown my way in those five years. And what kept my attention was a campaign so smooth and professional that I never realized how thoroughly Roth had anticipated my every move.
A good PR person like Roth can break down the barriers between executives who feel reporters are demanding, hostile, and ignorant, and reporters who complain that businesspeople are evasive, secretive, and unable to tell the difference between puffery and news. The best PR people treat the executive and the reporter as if each were the client, recognizing both to be equally necessary for success even if only one is paying the bill.
Such paragons, unfortunately, are rare -- I count six among the hundreds of PR types I've met over the past decade. Few, it seems, have ever read INC., or have any idea of what we write about or who we write it for. They haven't figured out that merely dubbing someone an "entrepreneur" does not necessarily make me want to meet him, or that calling a company "fast growth" does not mean its story is dramatic or instructive. But still they call . . . and call . . . and call.
Richard Roth, bless his soul, called, too. But only once, and then late in the day. He got off the phone in less than two minutes and sat down at the typewriter.
His letter was a model of the genre, carefully targeted and personal, right down to the typo that showed he had written it himself. It was short: eight brief paragraphs, half of them only one sentence long. "I believe Koss Corporation's roller coaster fight back from bankruptcy would make compelling reading for your audience," he began. Then he reeled off a half-dozen potential angles, any one of which could have come out of an INC. editorial conference: a chance "to peak [sic] inside a company that has gone from being nearly the best to being nearly bankrupt" or "a story about restructuring and refinancing." There was a family angle, a succession angle, and a transition angle, if that's what INC. was interested in. "I can make available to you all the important members of management," Roth concluded, "and any other information you might need."
A specialist in the business press, Roth had come to public relations in his forties, after one career teaching writing and a second in radio and TV news as a reporter and assignment editor. Roth knew no one at INC., but that was not crucial. "The only detriment is not knowing the editorial policy," he explains, "or what the magazine has done over the past year. If you understand who its audience is, and what it creates for them, you're 75% of the way home."
Roth, who had started working in January 1987 with Michael Koss, the newly named president and chief operating officer of Koss Corp., approached the assignment as any journalist would. He pored over the old news clips, the annual reports, the catalogs, and the advertisements. Then he interviewed all the principals by phone, some as many as half a dozen times, trying to see where each person fit, looking for the patterns and themes that would connect the numbers, the personalities, and the culture he found. From the start, it was clear to Koss and to his father, John, CEO of the company, that Roth spoke the language of business but retained the inquiring mind of a reporter, always probing for fresh details and revealing anecdotes.
In July, Roth sent his letter, and the story looked as if it would be a perfect fit for me. Besides having a special interest in family businesses, I had been looking for almost a year to write about a company coming out of bankruptcy. But even after a staff reporter confirmed the facts in Roth's letter, I had three problems to solve before I could actually fly out to Milwaukee.
My first concern had to do with competition. Primetime had just placed Koss in Newsweek, and that made me nervous. Our lead time -- the time between when a writer finishes a story and when it gets into print -- is usually about two months. I was afraid that by the time I was finished, the Koss story would have appeared in so many other places that no one would want to read it yet again.
Not to worry, Roth assured me. Besides the Newsweek story, they had a short mention coming out in Business Week, a paragraph about Koss's new line of stereo headphones with a mention of the bankruptcy. But no one was doing the story I wanted to do.
My second concern had to do with the ground rules. What made the story promising, I told him, was the degree to which everyone would talk candidly about the mistakes that had gotten Koss Corp. into trouble, and talk about them in personal as well as business terms. On the record.
Understood, Roth assured me. Everything would be fair game for discussion.
Great. Now, all I'd need was two days of access. To the entire executive staff. No later than next week.
Roth paused only briefly. "Mike Koss is supposed to fly to Tokyo then -- but we'll see if we can make it happen." He called his client that afternoon. The deicision about whether to cancel the trip was Koss's alone to make, Roth began, but he was convinced that INC. wouldn't be planning to fly a senior editor out to Milwaukee for two days if it wasn't interested in a major story. That interest could be perishable, he added -- by the time the schedule opened up again the Koss story might seem old to me, or I might have found another bankruptcy to write about instead. As it turned out, Michael Koss didn't need much convincing. The trip to Japan was postponed and our interview scheduled.
Then, as far as I could tell, Roth disappeared -- which may have been the smartest move he made during the entire process. Many PR types try to chaperon meetings between their clients and the press, to help them with their answers and hold their hand. But that only gets in the way of any one-on-one rapport between reporter and subject, and leaves a lingering suspicion that the subject may have something to hide. Roth understood that the shape of the final story would depend on the impression his clients made and their ability to tell their story clearly. He called me once more, after I'd come back from Milwaukee, to make sure there was nothing else I needed, but he kept the telephone call, as always, short.
The Koss family was a reporter's dream. They put themselves completely at my disposal for the two days I was in Milwaukee, introducing me to their wives and children as well as to the executives in their offices. Nothing was off the record. I was given access to all the information I asked for and more, and introduced to everyone I asked to speak with.
What I didn't know at the time was that nearly everybody had been briefed by Roth in detail before I arrived. Roth brought them up to date on his conversations with me, sketching out the type of story he thought I intended to write, then leading them through possible questions -- everything from their childhoods to the social stigma of going bankrupt in Milwaukee. "He's going to need to talk about the warts on Koss, too," Roth warned them. "You should be prepared to talk about virtually anything. The best advice I can give you, though, is just to be as frank as possible." It was good advice.
I was, I confess, a little surprised when I found out after I had written the piece that Koss Corp. had paid $13,700 to get its story into INC. With Primetime, unlike almost every other PR firm, you pay only when a story actually appears about your company, a gambit that has been the source of considerable controversy within the PR industry. The placement fees are adjusted depending on the size and importance of the media outlet -- a story in the Los Angeles Times, for example, costs $8,830, while sitting on the couch next to Johnny Carson runs you $23,005. The $13,700 seemed like way too much money to me, although I'm always surprised at how much companies are willing to pay for public relations.
More to the point, however, Michael Koss thinks he got his money's worth, particularly in contrast to the $90,000 retainers he used to spend. So far, besides the $13,700 for the appearance in INC., he has paid $19,260 for Newsweek, $15,000 for Business Week, and $6,125 for CNN. "I'm glad to pay, if I pay for results," he said.
Did it matter that, rather than paying the standard retainer fee, Koss paid his public-relations bills on a performance basis? Not to me. Any PR agent could have done what Richard Roth did, but in five years not one had. In fact, if I had any recommendation for getting a piece into a magazine like INC., it would be not to hire a PR agency at all. Like most reporters, I'd much rather talk to company owners with a truly dramatic story to tell than company flacks. And, if an owner is willing to invest a few minutes of his time, all it will cost is the price of a long-distance phone call. By my calculation, that would put him $13,698 ahead of the game.