ANALYSIS: Corporate Image - Post-tragedy sales boost sparks majorPR dilemma

The market is hardly ripe for PR pitches. But some companies have

been thriving ever since September 11, which has left their PR reps with

a dilemma. Julia Hood reports.

Nearly one month has elapsed since the World Trade Center and the

Pentagon became terrorist targets, and there are signs that companies,

consumers, and PR agencies are getting back to business.



Some industries are even experiencing a boost if their products or

services are related to security or communications. Teleconferencing,

for example, is a service that's getting more attention, since it offers

an alternative to flying to meetings. Cellular service and security

technology systems, which could now have expanded applications, are

other industries in the spotlight.



Other types of companies may also be benefiting, whether they want to

admit it or not. The New York Times reported that book publishers are

already producing texts related to the tragedies, but are only

cautiously promoting them. Books about terrorism and Islam top

Amazon.com's bestseller list, but publicists for the company did not

return calls to the Times for comment.



That's not surprising. Any firm that experiences increased business as a

result of the terrorist attacks faces a big challenge. How do you

promote your product or service, and focus on your sales successes

without appearing to mercilessly exploit the situation? Is it even

possible to plan a long-term PR strategy based on the immediate

aftermath of these tragedies?



Some want the truth, some don't



The investment community wants the straight news, says Joele Frank of IR

firm Joele Frank, Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher. "IR is a fact-based

communication, and in this environment, whether you are telling good or

not-so-good news, people have to communicate what is actually happening

to date, without speculating on the future. The market currently appears

to be appreciative of companies that communicate openly and

straightforwardly. This is not a time for spin or hype. Just the

facts."



But even if the financial community won't be offended by hearing tales

of how your company or client has leapt in to save the day, media

relations is still fraught with high-profile peril. The Wall Street

Journal recently ran an article headlined, "In attacks' wake, PR firms

find pitches fall flat," which described a few of the PR faux pas that

followed various incidents. One executive in Massachusetts used the

attacks to introduce a pitch on saving for higher education, while

another in California sent out a press release about a Kit-Cat Clock.

Quantum Tech, a Tennessee data storage company, sent out a release on

September 13 about how its services helped a WTC resident get up and

running the day after the attacks.



But these examples are not representative of the entire PR industry,

many of whose practitioners have cautioned clients against rolling out

their stories of pitching in the aftermath of the attacks.



When the media comes calling



However, keeping a low profile is tougher when the media is coming to

you. Not long after the hijackings, Identix, a biometric technology

company that manufactures a fingerprint scanning product that can be

used to screen airline employees, began getting calls from

journalists.



Clearly, technology would be a factor when discussions turned to

improving security, but hawking a product right after the WTC collapse

was inappropriate.



Therefore, Blanc & Otus, Identix's recently hired PR firm, helped to

prepare a holding statement, as well as plan mid- and long-term

strategies.



"The first day was clarification, to make sure that people had a good

understanding of Identix's role, and to be responsive to questions,"

explains Rebecca Hurst, VP of B&O. "Subsequently, we met with executives

and really talked through what the company believed it could provide as

a solution."



The approach focused on providing a resource for journalists in lieu of

speaking about Identix's product. CEO Bob McCashin was offered as an

expert on biometric technology and issues - such as privacy - that go

along with security questions. CNET, CNN, The New York Times, and the

San Jose Mercury News ran the story.



However, Identix has had its detractors in spite of its cautious

messaging.



Insidetruth. com, a website dedicated to unmasking what it deems

over-hyped companies, issued a sell/sell short recommendation against

Identix.



"Insidetruth. com wishes to alert the public to avoid speculating in

stocks based upon misleading and manipulative news issued by companies

seeking to take advantage of a national tragedy," the report stated.



The piece went on to dissect various news segments featuring McCashin,

saying that in spite of the company's claims, fingerprint scanning would

not prevent hijackers from boarding airplanes. "Insidetruth.com believes

(this) to be a classic example of abuse of the news dissemination

process."



Success in the aftermath



Other sectors have also had to weigh up the benefits of talking about

the opportunities that recent events have brought.



Demand for video conferencing increased during the Gulf War, and it has

jumped again. When the markets reopened, companies like Polycom and

PictureTel saw double-digit stock price increases.



"There is no question that, especially in the immediate week after the

attacks, teleconferencing was used fairly broadly," says Steve Gold,

president of TVN Communications Group. "Although we are struggling to

get back to normal, a lot of people are still loathe to fly, and most

companies are being responsive to that." However, Gold agrees that

knowing how to communicate that message to the media is tough.



Medialink has also reported an increase in video conferencing usage, and

has chosen to use its service to hold discussions about the attacks.

Last Thursday, Medialink hosted a webcast of its own featuring Jim

Wiggins, a VP in corporate communications from Merrill Lynch, who

discussed crisis planning.



The telecom industry has also had to tussle with how much to shout about

its emergency responses. Several passengers used their cell phones to

say goodbye to loved ones, and overall phone usage skyrocketed in the

days after the attacks as people across the country checked in with

their friends and family.



As a result, more new users are expected to sign up for cell phones this

quarter, according to Wireless Week magazine. TracFone, a pre-paid

cellular phone service, hasn't had to worry about whether to be

proactive in publicizing its potential sales spike: "We are getting

calls from media that never thought to report on our product before,

like the San Jose Mercury News.



The New York Times wrote a feature on us last week," says PR manager

Scott Brand.



Brand also says that he continues to offer the media positive case

studies about existing customers, without mentioning the attacks at all.

"We feel that our product sells itself, before and after the

events."



So it appears that the fastest route to successful PR at this sensitive

time is to concentrate on supplying relevant information to the media

and investment audiences rather than specifically offer brand names as

the answer. As with many things, subtlety is key.



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