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MARKETING

Conflict is Key

A PR person explains why in a letter to her clients.
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Of all the outside firms that entrepreneurs employ, PR firms probably have the toughest time getting--and staying--in their clients' good graces. Some companies feel they aren't getting as much media play as they deserve, while others think they're garnering the wrong kind of attention. Meanwhile, the cost-benefit analysis for public relations is pretty hard to calculate. We thought it would be interesting to get a sense of what PR people think about the companies they work for. So we asked Geri Denterlein, the founder and CEO of Denterlein Worldwide, a Boston-based PR agency, to write a letter to her clients explaining how her company can work with them to be more successful. We also asked her to dish on what client habits are, well, annoying. Here's her letter:

Dear clients, past, present, and future:

I've been in public relations for 15 years, and I started my own company seven years ago. Like most entrepreneurs, I really love my clients. Many of them are experts in health care, real estate, and legal services, and I am routinely impressed by how smart they are and how interesting their work is.

They don't all start out as great clients, however. I have sometimes thought that if I sent them an instruction kit before we began to work together, the whole process would go more smoothly.

Let's stipulate at the outset that when entrepreneurs hire public relations agencies, their goal is to use PR to enhance their credibility, brand recognition, and bottom line--as fast as possible--rather than, say, vanity. Right from the start, however, many entrepreneurs make a mistake: During almost every introductory meeting with a potential client, halfway through my pitch, I'll be interrupted. "Cut to the chase," the CEO will say. "Can you get us on the front page of The Wall Street Journal (NYSE:DJ)?"

The short answer may be yes--we can work to get you mentioned in a major newspaper, although the front page is a long shot unless you are truly unique. But you must understand that those pitches take a lot of time and are never a sure thing. PR is not advertising. Even if your publicist has top-notch newsroom contacts and is armed with a defined, disciplined message, it's impossible to control the news. This fact, of course, is exactly what makes a mention of your company on the local 6 o'clock broadcast so valuable.

If you want to make headlines, you have to be interesting, and it helps if you are easy to interview. Heed our pep talks on how to interact with reporters. Be mindful of deadlines, return calls quickly, offer pithy quotes, and don't fidget on camera. Avoid descending into industry jargon, embellishing your credentials, or betraying irritation at a reporter's questions. Never, ever ask to review an article before it is published--that makes you (and your PR firm) seem like amateurs.

When it comes to pitching stories to the media, please believe your PR firm if it tells you that the theme you propose to build your PR strategy around is just plain dull. For example, a successful real estate developer once asked my firm to pursue a news story on the basis that, in his words, all the condo owners in one of his buildings "really liked him." Trust us, we said, this isn't enough to capture a jaded reporter's attention. But he wouldn't be dissuaded. Reluctantly, we agreed to make some calls to reporters on this clear nonstory. Not only did we waste our time--for which we billed him--but the reporters with whom we spoke certainly didn't take us seriously. And guess what will happen the next time we call these reporters on this developer's behalf?

When it comes to making news, you have to recognize that one of the key elements of a compelling article is conflict. Businesses that are willing to acknowledge adversity can reap enormous PR rewards. Being covered in the media--even if the portrayal isn't exactly perfect in your mind--always confers more credibility on your business than even the most clever ad. Unfortunately, companies often shy away from making a pitch that reveals their vulnerability. That can be a big mistake.

Several years ago, the computer system of one of our clients crashed. That client happened to be Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a Harvard-affiliated hospital that on any given day cares for thousands of patients. The server meltdown forced the hospital's staff to return to pen-and-paper charting for the first time in years. One could imagine a newspaper article or a TV news segment describing this as a crisis that threatened the lives of numerous grandmas and premies. Instead, my team and the hospital's management decided to contact a health care reporter at The Boston Globe (NYSE:NYT) and offer her a scoop on how the staff of Beth Israel Deaconess pulled together to ensure great patient care while technicians resolved the IT problem. The resulting article did just that--and applauded the hospital for its commitment to transparency.

Besides conflict, reporters are always looking for the next big trend or a fresh take on a topic that's dominating the news. If you can identify either of these, you can expect a good clip and a long-lasting relationship with that happy reporter--but you must tell your PR person as soon as possible. When Massachusetts prepared to legalize same-sex marriage in 2005, for example, an employment lawyer at one of our clients, the regional law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish, mentioned to me that doing so would probably spell the end of employer-sponsored domestic partner benefits because individuals could now marry to receive those benefits. We pitched the lawyer to the Globe. His pet theory (which ultimately proved accurate) garnered page-one coverage in the business section. After it ran, interview requests came pouring in from local broadcast news programs, other newspapers in the region, and even one major national magazine. Best of all, in the weeks that followed, that lawyer received several new business leads from people who specifically referenced his appearance in the news. Still, though clients observe trends like this all the time, it's rare for them to share their predictions with us in a timely manner.

It's important to remember that a single news article--even in a major publication--does not a comprehensive PR strategy make. Media coverage may be the sexiest part of public relations, but you have to think beyond the next clip or broadcast segment. Online sources of media are growing exponentially and can have as significant an impact on your reputation (good or bad) as a quick hit on the 11 o'clock news. Speaking engagements and events that support your brand image are also key. Both online and off, companies have to get smarter about reaching out to existing consumers. Make them ambassadors for your business and encourage them to refer your company to everyone around them. All of these exercises are part of a strong public relations strategy. Our smartest clients see glossy media clips as only a nice way to reinforce all the other outreach they do.

What else can you do to improve your working relationship with your PR firm? Make sure you take an active role--but not too active. One of our clients is never available for our weekly call. Another client peppers us with an idea (or 10) du jour. Much like Goldilocks, we constantly seek clients who act just right. Don't bog us down with so many little tasks--such as endlessly editing press releases--that we never get a chance to do any real strategic brainstorming with you. Appoint a single person on your staff with whom we can talk regularly to share updates, pitch new ideas, and consider course corrections if they become necessary. You should send a companywide e-mail stressing that public relations is a priority and asking employees to look for ways to collaborate with your PR firm. At the very least, you should make it clear to everyone on staff that they should return our calls promptly. You'd be amazed at how many companies don't take this simple step, hobbling our attempts to help them promote themselves.

Finally, here's one last bit of advice. You may think that screaming is the best way to motivate companies that work with you, but PR people (and probably all people) work hard to exceed reasonable expectations. When a client is appreciative, we work harder still. Ron Druker, a Boston-based developer responsible for some of the region's most high-profile mixed-use buildings, holds us, his PR team, to the same high standards to which he holds his own development staff. But when a good article appears in the paper, like clockwork, Ron leaves me a voice mail at 6 in the morning thanking my team for our work. And that motivates us to do even better the next time.

Best regards,
Geri Denterlein

Last updated: Apr 1, 2007




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