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An SMT can be expensive, but if it's done right, it can make for compelling TV. Hamilton Nolan finds out when it's worth doing

An SMT can be expensive, but if it's done right, it can make for compelling TV. Hamilton Nolan finds out when it's worth doing

Do you need to join a morning news program live from Mount Everest? Is it imperative for your spokesperson to have a one-on-one discussion with Pittsburgh's morning anchor about why your client's product is indeed one of the mega trends for Father's Day, or one of the smartest products to hit the shelves this season, or one of the greatest medical breakthroughs since Viagra? Then you are a prime candidate for a satellite media tour.

Satellite media tours can run from $12,000 for a bare-bones package to more than $30,000 for a tour with all the trimmings, so deciding to purchase one is a major decision - especially with cheaper television-broadcast options like video news releases and radio tours available.

"Generally speaking, SMTs are good when you have a very targeted message to get out," says Jeff Wurtz, SVP of News Broadcast Network, an SMT production company.

Because a VNR can more effectively cover generic, evergreen stories, specificity is a key when deciding to go with an SMT. "Ideally, your story is a timely story," says Gerri Kramer, VP of DWJ TV, "something news producers would be motivated to air that day."

One advantage of an SMT is its potential for adaptation. If a spokesperson is doing 25 interviews, he can tailor each one to the particularities of each individual market. In South Texas, he can speak to the concerns of the Latino community; in South Florida, to the elderly. "The times we've been most effective are when clients are looking to reach a specific market with a concentrated message," says Kevin Foley, president and CEO of KEF Media.

Every reputable production company will do a good job on the technical broadcast elements of your SMT. But shopping around can still pay off, say the pros. "What it really comes down to is the media relations staff," says Wurtz. When he had to book an SMT with Rob Lowe as its spokesman on short notice, he knew that pulling it off at the last minute would depend on his knowledge of who the key players were at every station. "The trick," he says, "was getting the right contact in one call."

The production company also must be willing to work with both the client company and its PR agency, and, when necessary, say no to bad ideas. Exercising its role as an expert adviser can be uncomfortable, says Eric Wright, DS Simon Productions' VP of marketing and business development, but will ultimately lead to a better product.

"You want somebody who's not just a yes man," Wright says. "I get the agency and the producers and the [client] company together - the production company becomes the bad cop." PR pros can save themselves some grief by letting the producers shoot down a client's bad ideas.

Because most SMTs run during the 6am to 10am morning-show window, the topics must be appropriate for kids getting ready for school, parents packing lunches, and harried professionals running late for work - all at the same time. But they also have to have enough real news appeal to draw in newsroom vets.

Tom Martin, who worked as a producer for Good Morning America and the Today show before moving to his current position as director of media relations at Medialink, says that an SMT must be "a story that lives up to news standards," preferably one that makes the show "wish they had thought of it themselves." Medialink pulled this off by broadcasting an SMT with a diabetic mountain climber from the peaks of Mount Everest and plans on high demand for an upcoming spot with Olympic golden boy Michael Phelps pitching Omega watches. "From our years of experience, we have a sense of what news directors would like to see," says Martin.

An SMT is much more likely to get picked up if it tells a compelling story, but a celebrity spokesperson never hurts. The key is selecting someone who can speak to the topic from personal experience and not just because he or she received a paycheck. Media training is a definite plus. Not only will it keep your spokesperson calm and professional throughout 25 grueling back-to-back interviews, but it can also ensure that he or she doesn't over-pitch your product.

"Think about it like it's an interview with Leno or Letterman," says Andrew Shane, who has booked hundreds of SMTs for his clients over his career as a VP, senior account supervisor, at Publicis Dialog. "Make it clear: 'Yes, we can talk about your [client], but we need to talk about what we're here to talk about.'"

For clients on a tight budget, sharing the cost with a co-op SMT is an obvious choice. While opinions on the effectiveness of co-ops are decidedly mixed (one SMT producer compared them to "taking a blank folder and sticking every client's press release in it"), most agree that they can be valuable as long as they are done right. That means making sure all of the featured products are truly complementary and crafting a believable theme to tie them together. David Post, co-founder of Nextpert News Network, has produced co-ops with tags ranging from a "swimsuit edition for real people" to "Mr. Mom."

"Your product is connected to a trend, and viewers see it as part of the trend," explains Post.

Although industry experts estimate that SMTs make up only about 10% of the content on morning shows, they can generate millions of impressions if handled skillfully. As Tom Martin says, "The bottom line is, it's all about what story you want to tell on the air."

Technique tips

Do strive for a media-trained spokesperson, preferably a celebrity or an expert in the field

Do add b-roll to your SMT if at all possible

Do broadcast from an interesting location - avoid generic studios

Don't allow your pitch to sound overly commercial

Don't cave in to bland CEOs who think that they would make great spokespeople

Don't use an SMT unless you have a well-targeted message

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