PR TECHNIQUE: New business: Taking the lead on finding new clients

The competition for new clients is fierce in the slow economy, but Aleksandra Todorova looks at several proactive approaches firms are taking to win new work.

The competition for new clients is fierce in the slow economy, but Aleksandra Todorova looks at several proactive approaches firms are taking to win new work.

A couple of years ago, PR agencies won accounts as easily as software engineers landed jobs in Silicon Valley: All they needed to do was show up on the market, wait for the proposals to pour in, and choose the best one. But in a down economy where companies file for Chapter 11 or cut their budgets with worrisome frequency, finding new business leads has become a major PR challenge. While networking has always been a major business-landing tool, today PR pros appreciate it in a more practical way. "[It] has become more focused," says Kelley Skoloda, director of business development at Ketchum. "There is less social networking and really more networking to help each other in business." Looking for a win-win situation, PR companies often rediscover the value of friendships, be they personal or professional. "We tap our vast network of relationships, as those are where the best leads are found," says Abbie Kendall, principal of Armstrong Kendall. "Everyone from clients, friends, lawyers, headhunters, VCs, investment bankers, ad agencies, and others with whom we've worked or share business information." The Castle Group, a six-year-old PR agency in Boston, maintains close partnerships with 12 companies, including international agencies, ad agencies, and graphic-design firms. "We have gotten to know these firms and feel comfortable referring them to clients and prospects, and vice versa," says the company's director Emily Farber. "This week alone, I have two meetings with prospects that came through partners." In January, The Castle Group formalized the system by developing a database, appointing business teams to work on specific partnerships, and holding formal monthly meetings. As a result, the agency added 10 new clients to its portfolio. Small agencies have also realized the increasing importance of networking. Boston-based Morrissey & Company recently hired an in-house sales and marketing VP to take charge of networking and finding new business. "For a 13-person company, this is a big investment," says CEO Peter Morrissey, "but new business needs to be a focus more than ever before, and by dedicating this resource, we believe we will get a better return." Another proactive approach in the search for new business is buying mailing lists that contain useful contact information. Cohesion Public Relations, an agency specializing in workplace communications, buys direct-mail lists of companies with a specific size, assets, and number of employees, and then calls every single contact that might need the company's services. "We have roughly 500 or so prospects in our database, and we send direct mail to targeted lists on a regular basis to build awareness," says Cohesion President Jason Anthoine. "So when they are ready to buy our services, they will turn to us and not our competitors." Direct-marketing tools might not bring flocks of prospects to your door right away, but many PR professionals say the longer-term payoff is worth it. Atlanta-based Hope-Beckham promotes itself through the media. "We write news releases about ourselves, and not only when we win a big new account," says the company's VP Kevin Sullivan. Recently, Hope-Beckham let all its employees paint their offices any color they chose, and the local media liked the rainbow-like feel. "We generated publicity about our company by being creative," Sullivan says, "so if a prospective client was looking for a creative PR agency, why not hire the one that lets its employees paint their offices?" Creativity aside, Sullivan reiterates that the traditional resources for finding new business leads are not to be overlooked. "We constantly go through magazines and newspapers to see what companies are in the news and might need our services," he says. It's a smart strategy for a company that specializes in crisis management, and can get a comprehensive list of companies in need of such services from any major publication's business section. Another traditional networking resource, trade shows, can get you a great deal for your buck, too. After all, where else would you find so many prospective clients at one place, all eager to network? CTA Public Relations recently got a good number of new leads at a trade show organized by the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. "Getting out to communities and using the services of your local Chamber of Commerce is a great resource," says Greg Powell, SVP and GM of the Louisville, CO-based agency. CTA Public Relations also uses direct-mail marketing to send out monthly e-mails to some 10,000 contacts, which Powell estimates gets the firm at least 50-60 calls a month. Not a bad number, but a possible pitfall, some PR pros warn. "It's tempting to take any and all business during economic downturns, but we've seen examples of how costly this can be for agencies," says Kendall. "Don't pursue companies that are out of sync with what you offer." Sophie Ann Terrisse, CEO of STC Associates, agrees. "A lot of companies try to adapt their character to the type of business they pitch, and I don't think that'll work in the long term," she says. Chasing every piece of new business that comes your way doesn't guarantee you'll get it, and if you do, you won't necessarily be able to do your best work. "Some firms invest a lot of time in going after new business, and they should really spend the time qualifying the prospect and making sure it's good for them," says Christin Crampton Day, principal of Schenkein. "Remember that not only are they interviewing you, but you are interviewing them." -------------- Technique tips 1 Do use your existing partnerships to get new ones - there's nothing better than going into a pitch with someone who has spoken highly of your work 2 Do partner with companies from diverse industries - you can always use a reference 3 Do use the services of your local Chamber of Commerce and other business networking organizations 1 Don't go after each and every offer you get - it can be costly, and you won't always be able to perform to your strengths 2 Don't think it will happen with one or two contacts - it takes time to develop a new business machine 3 Don't forget traditional resources - newspapers and magazines abound with potential customers

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