</strong>'People' bests competition by setting itself apart

Since 1974, 'People' has remained a favorite among the public and celebrities alike by keeping everyone informed of its commitment to both Hollywood and hard news

Since 1974, 'People' has remained a favorite among the public and celebrities alike by keeping everyone informed of its commitment to both Hollywood and hard news

Celebrity magazines had been speculating about the breakup for months. But when Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt finally announced their separation on January 7, People was the lucky and exclusive recipient of the couple's formal statement.

With news of the split initially posted on the magazine's website, the editorial staff shifted into high gear. People closed two-and-a-half days early, putting the title into readers' hands just 72 hours after the announcement. The news also put the magazine's seven-person communications department to work. "The communications department is key in the breaking news process," says Nancy Valentino, director of corporate communications.

Founded in 1974, People arguably set the standard for the celebrity weekly at the time, something it now works hard to maintain. "While they created this celebrity animal, they've had to adapt to the second wave of celebrity magazines," says Lisa Granatstein, news editor for Mediaweek. "I think they've done a pretty good job of doing that."

As the market gets more crowded, emphasizing what makes the magazine stand out has become much more important, adds Martha Nelson, managing editor of People. "We can't just sit back and assume that, because everybody knows People, we don't have to work hard," she says. "We really try to go at it with the same kind of energy that we would have if we were a start-up team."

Carving out a niche

Although celebrity content is a key component of the title, one of the communications department's jobs is to raise awareness for the content that can't be found in Us Weekly, In Touch Weekly, or Star. "At a time when so many magazines have jumped into the celebrity-news arena ... our job is to [explain] why we are different," Valentino says. "That underlines everything we do in the communications department."

Indeed, one aspect of People that sets it apart from all other weekly celebrity-based magazines is that it also has a news component. Coverage of Pitt and Aniston's breakup or pictures of Britney Spears' latest wedding have been mixed in with news of the Laci Peterson case or the recent death of Pope John Paul II. Granatstein describes People as "slower paced" and "less frenetic" than some of the other weeklies in the market. She adds that the magazine also appeals to a different readership, which accounts for its varied content. "They're in this unique position," she says. "They can shift gears when they need to."

Valentino says this mix of content is an important part of People's message and its brand. "We focus on reinforcing our difference and the fact that we are in our own category," Valentino says. "At our core, we are a news organization. The world of celebrity tabloids is a different world than ours."

Bringing public awareness to that content that is not celebrity-based is done is a variety of ways. This past November, in order to generate buzz for its "Heroes Among Us" event at the New York Public Library, People partnered with CBS' The Early Show to produce segments on each of the five honorees. "It brought them to life," Valentino says. The event honored everyday people profiled in the magazine.

The increased competition, while intense, doesn't seem to have hurt the title's standing in the weekly market. Newsstand sales for the first quarter of this year showed a 6% increase over the year before, and a 16% increase from two years ago. In fact, the first quarter of 2005 is the best in the magazine's 31-year history, with a 19% year-over-year increase in pages and a 24% increase in revenue over last year. And the magazine still reports a consistent reader base of 37 million people per week.

People clearly leads the celebrity magazine pack, with an average net paid circulation of 3.6 million, followed by Us Weekly at 1.2 million, In Touch with 1 million, and Life & Style at 350,000. And its reputation among the stars seems to put it in a different class than its competitors. When Spears criticized Us Weekly, In Touch, and Star on her website for less-than-factual reporting, she added a postscript explaining that People was "great" in her book.

"Because they rarely, if ever, take the low road, they're able to get the big celebrities to talk to them," says Granatstein. "They've never been anything but journalistic. They've been able to adapt to compete in this competitive marketplace." That apparent commitment to journalistic integrity works its way into People's overall message, as well, says Valentino. "We don't run on rumor," she says. "If we're talking about a story, it's backed by our reporting."

'The brand shepherds'

The communications department at People is different in that it is self-contained, Valentino says. And it typically doesn't work with outside agencies. However, the department does work closely with both the editorial and business sides of the magazine. "I like to think we're the brand shepherds," she says. "We have the complete landscape in our sight." She says the department is often involved in brand-building initiatives with both sides of the magazine.

Nelson says the department's interaction with editorial begins before the magazine comes out each week. "When the story is ready to come out, they're among the early readers of the finished magazine. We will flag something that we think could generate excitement," she says. "We trust their judgment to promote the magazine."

Paul Caine, publisher of People, says he sees the communications staff not only as a partner, but also as "integral to the business side" of the magazine.

"I look at their role as clearly the keeper of the voice and vision," he says. "So anything that we do that's going to go out in the market ... I want PR involved so that I can make sure its consistent with what we want to do as a brand."

Caine says he often works closely with the department, developing marketing strategy and helping foster appropriate marketing relationships. One such relationship is with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which made People its official magazine for the next five years.

"There has been an ROI on that - a brand ROI, a cash ROI," Caine says. "It's been a tremendous partnership for us, one that would never have happened without the PR department."

Partnerships aside, one of the communications department's key roles is to raise and maintain the magazine's visibility. As with other titles, this entails getting editors and reporters from the magazine in front of the media, something that can get hectic at times.

"There are days when we're literally on every network, cable morning show, entertainment program, and wire service - all in the same day," Valentino says. "It's our responsibility to make sure that whomever is talking, whatever is written, whatever is being discussed is done with the correct presentation and tone befitting a brand like People."

Even with high demand for comment from People editors, Valentino says, determining the best opportunities for exposure factor heavily into the department's and magazine's overall goals. "The challenge for us is to make sure [that] it will fit in with strategy and brand," she says. "We don't subscribe to the 'any press is good press' adage."

Maintaining the magazine's credibility is sometimes more important than exposure, Valentino says. "If there's a topic out there, and it's not something we reported on, we'll pass on being on the air," she adds.

Nelson agrees that waiting for the right opportunity is more important than a constant media presence. "I think [the communications department is] very wise and strategic about when and where stories about People editors appear," she says. "It isn't always about just being out there."

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PR contacts

Director of corporate communications Nancy Valentino

Associate directors of PR Sandi Shurgin Werfel; Dianne Jones

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