MEDIA HOME OFFICE: Media Roundup - Telecommuting coverage gainssophisticated slant

Media interest in home-office coverage has waned with the economic slowdown, but it has resulted in more well-rounded stories from journalists covering a broad range of related subjects.

Media interest in home-office coverage has waned with the economic slowdown, but it has resulted in more well-rounded stories from journalists covering a broad range of related subjects.

One of the major themes of the internet revolution was how technology was going to unchain employees from their offices, enabling them to work from anywhere and still contribute to the dynamic growth of both their companies and the overall economy.

During the 1990s, and even into 2000, the media jumped on the idea, resulting in hundreds of stories on how the tight job market was forcing companies to be more flexible, and how that would enable people to achieve the ideal balance between career and family.

In many ways, the home-office trend is still going strong. The International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) estimates there are 28 million employees of major corporations who spend at least three days of their work month at home - and that doesn't include the millions of other entrepreneurs and freelancers with home-based businesses.

The media's interest in the entire telecommuting and home-office phenomenon has slowed somewhat over the past 18 months, partly due to the fact that overall economic slowdown now dominates a lot of business coverage. But PR professionals representing home-office clients today say they are also battling a perception among reporters of "been there, done that."

"This is really a 2001 story, says Liana Hawes, manager of national media relations for Phase Two Strategies, which represents PC interface device maker Logitech. "A lot of reporters, especially the feature writers at the dailies, feel they already covered it."

In a lot of ways, this is an expected and not unwelcome evolution for the entire home-office category, as the novelty of people contributing to a major corporation from the comfort of their own homes wears off.

Recent stories have focused on everything from dealing with the isolation of working at home to a tongue-and-cheek piece on the fashion choices of telecommuters.

"We're seeing a slight increase in the sophistication of coverage," notes Judith Vanderkay, VP with Virtual, which provides management and communications services for professional associations, including ITAC. "It's no longer the story of people working in their bunny slippers. Now they want facts and figures."

Reevaluating working from home

In high-profile publications such as USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, there also has been some serious reevaluation of the true benefits of telecommuting, as the debate shifts from whether people can work from home to whether they can do it well.

But what's really impacting the category is the advertising slump impacting virtually all media. "Some of the publications that specifically catered to this group have folded, notes Jodi Baumann, group manager with Weber Shandwick's San Francisco office. "Other magazines are smaller, and the offshoots or supplements of larger magazines have ended as well."

Surprisingly, what ends up helping PR professionals in this space is that there are very few journalists dedicated solely to the home-office beat. That means the story can be pitched to a broad range of reporters, from business, workspace, and personal technology journalists, to lifestyle and family writers. "We not only look at technology reporters and business reporters, but also lifestyle editors, says Kathleen Greene, senior PR manager with Covad, whose products include a number of small- and home-office DSL solutions. Greene says the company also tries to participate in major consumer-service stories, such as whether home users should choose cable modems or DSL as their broadband solution. "We're constantly looking at what trends are being written about, and try to get reporters to talk to our customers and executives about those issues, she says.

Hawes says most of her success has been in pitching Logitech's wireless keyboard, mouse, and headset products as an interior-design story for targeted publications such as Broadband Home, as well as home and women's magazines like Rosie, Ladies' Home Journal, and House Beautiful. Logitech recently held a home-office makeover contest on its website, and while the promotion itself didn't get a lot of coverage, the winners of the contest did. Newsweek will be using one of the winners as part of a home-interior feature in an upcoming issue.

The focus beyond products

Whatever the media target, Hawes says PR professionals need to position home office as more than a simple product story. "Instead, we focus on hot-button issues, such as people reevaluating their lives, especially since 9/11, and wanted to spend more time at home, she says.

Journalist and author Jeff Zbar agrees that home-office-themed stories spiked after last September's terrorist attacks, and he expects another spate of stories on the issue for the upcoming one-year anniversary. Zbar has made his living as a home-office authority, penning books such as Teleworking and Telecommuting: Strategies for Remote Workers and Their Managers, and managing the ChiefHomeOfficer.com site.

While he occasionally is contacted by firms looking to promote themselves as enlightened employers with progressive telecommuting programs, he says, "most of the pitches come from computer and software companies who want their technology positioned as a facilitator of teleworking. There are a lot of broadband, home-networking, and DSL providers. His only advice to PR people is to adhere to what he terms PR 101. "Don't pitch me something that's up the wrong alley, and know tele-working, he says. "I've had people refer to it as telemarketing."

Given the wide range of outlets for home-improvement stories, it's hard to come up with a list of top reporters. But among the most influential are Zbar, Scripps Howard design columnist Chris Madden, Newsweek's Dan McGinn, Walter Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal, and Entrepreneur magazine technology editor Mike Hogan.

Covad's Greene notes that national coverage of home-office issues tends to be cyclical, but adds, "If you look on a regional basis, the story never really goes away. Some of these stories can piggyback on larger local concerns, such as terrible traffic and commuter hassles. Greene also recommends targeting the host of regional business journals, saying, "We have salespeople out there in the major cities, and we try to support them with our PR efforts."

There are opportunities for home-office-themed stories in TV and radio, though not with traditional business outlets. Instead, Greene says she focuses on morning and evening news broadcasts, especially in key technology markets like San Francisco. There are also chances for placement on the flood of new home-improvement programming, as well as the technology-themed shows on Tech TV and other networks.

The other phenomenon worth noting in home-office coverage is the growing importance of online media, although it does require some client education.

"A year ago, every client we had was print, print, print says Baumann.

"But what's happening now is that magazines are much smaller because of the loss of advertising, and so the internet is prime real estate.

"The news trades are getting smaller and smaller, and you now have one reporter covering six different beats, she adds. "While you may get him to write the story, it may not run. You have to make clients realize that getting them online, say on the front page of CNET, is just as important."

WHERE TO GO

NEWSPAPERS - The Wall Street Journal; The New York Times; San Francisco Chronicle; USA Today

MAGAZINES - Electronic House; Broadband Home; Newsweek; Time; House Beautiful; Fast Company; Inc; Business Week; Entrepreneur; FSB; .net; Opportunity Week; Crain's titles; regional business journals; US News & World Report; Success; Wired

TRADE TITLES - TWICE; Interactive Week; Net Economy; Telephony; Network World; Communications Daily; Telecommunications; Americas Network; Infoworld; Information Week; Computer Retail Week TV & Radio TechTV; morning shows; local tech-themed TV shows like San Francisco's Tech Now; NPR

WEBSITES - CNET.com; ZDNET.com; LightReading.com.

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