The PR team at auction website eBay helps to build the company's global brand image by placing an emphasis on telling users' stories and backing up the site's marketing initiatives.Kuwait and El Salvador could learn a few things from eBay. A recent issue of Wired pointed out that this year "roughly $30 billion worth of goods will change hands through the company's servers. That will make the [online] auctioneer the 81st largest economy in the world, just ahead of Kuwait and El Salvador." Much of that success is due to buzz and word of mouth, and PR has played a huge role in that, says Henry Gomez, VP of corporate communications. EBay places a strong emphasis on telling the company's story and the many stories of its 114 million registered users. "We look at our role as storytellers," says Gomez. "There's really no analogy to eBay out there. The eBay story is not an easy one to tell to retail reporters. We are more of a town square, so we have to explain the community, pricing, and issues of trust and safety. But I would say about 60% of my PR team is dedicated to the marketing side. I want to make sure PR really delivers to the bottom line. We get more value out of marketing that way." PR has helped build such a strong brand that eBay landed on the Interbrand list of the top 100 global brands this year, ahead of such internet brethren as Yahoo! and Amazon.com, as well as brands like Kraft, Levi's, and Starbucks. "PR has helped define eBay," says CEO Meg Whitman. "EBay is a unique business. There's a lot going on here. The PR team has helped the public understand how and why eBay works. And PR has played a critical role in attracting new users to the site." Supporting marketing efforts The PR team is focused on managing stories carefully because the company is so transparent, explains Gomez. Journalists and analysts can go to eBay and see how the company is doing, so the PR team is very picky about what kinds of media opportunities it pursues. Because eBay is unique, says Gomez, and can't be compared to other companies, it tells reporters - a select list of "A-list" journalists from around the world receive this invitation - that if they want to write about the company, they have to spend time at eBay getting to know the business. But beyond those big-picture stories that the media find sexier than how much someone is willing to spend on a used bulldozer, Gomez argues that his focus is on PR support for marketing initiatives. "That is where we really add to the growth of the business," says Gomez. "Of course we have to deal with crises effectively and tell a good business story. But marketing PR is what helps drive the business forward." So the 35-member PR team gets involved with marketing efforts as early as possible, allowing PR to customize those marketing plans and play a central role in what is happening at eBay. The greatest challenge is keeping up with the pace, as eBay had 332 million items listed for sale in Q2 this year, and 29 million items listed at any given time. Gomez insists on a fresh approach for every effort. He urges his team not to use ideas over and over, nor should they think what will work for one category will work for another. EBay also develops PR and marketing campaigns that cut across categories, from back-to-school and holiday initiatives to get people to buy from the site, to events that spotlight how eBay is a great place for small businesses, whether they're using the site to buy accounting or cooking equipment, or using it as a major source of distribution for its own products. EBay recently held an event in Washington, DC, where 50 eBay users who run their own businesses met with members of Congress. CEO Whitman spoke about how eBay is helping people run their small businesses, says Jennifer Chu Caukin, senior manager of corporate communications, who oversees marketing programs. "The marketing folks understand the value of PR and want to use it wisely, so our leverage is a bit greater in determining what we want to be involved with," says Chu Caukin. "PR is not this afterthought. We have a place at the table in deciding what makes sense, as opposed to taking marching orders from marketing." With 50,000 categories, eBay's PR team focuses on the 16 most active, including clothing, jewelry, sporting goods, and computers, says Shannon Stubo, senior manager of corporate communications, who oversees category programs. About 30% of her team's efforts are focused on trade publications, making sure those industries understand eBay's role and how it works. But the other 70% is aimed at generating awareness of what the public can find on the site. The company works with two PR agencies - Kaplow Communications on category and brand PR, and Airfoil Communications, which handles PR for the motors category, PayPal (eBay's payment system), and business initiatives. Much of the PR work is about building awareness and credibility, and getting people to change their perception that eBay is just a garage sale. "We really work hard getting people to understand the quality of the items they can find," says Stubo. "People are amazed to find that they can furnish and decorate their homes through eBay. And they can find new and used items at a great value." And testimonials are a key part of that process. Having buyers tell their stories makes eBay "come to life," says Stubo, and most of the time buyers are only too happy to brag about the great deals they found. And often that means tapping into eBay's vast wellspring of buyers and sellers, a vocal, passionate community that Rachel Makool, director of community development, calls the "heart and soul of eBay. If we didn't have the community, we wouldn't have eBay. We have to hear and meet their needs if we want to meet our business needs." Hearing the community's voice While buyers and sellers use forums to learn from each other, the PR team also uses those forums to interact with the community, including getting feedback on new products, services, and features, as well as corporate messages. The honest and immediate feedback in the community forums is invaluable. "If the forums ever go quiet, we would be in trouble," says Makool. "People love working here because of that interaction," she adds. EBay also has a program called "Voice of the Community" where groups of members participate in conference calls to discuss the state of eBay and their particular categories. The company conducts six to eight calls a week, with anywhere from 30 to 50 community members on each call, to make sure the community understands what eBay is doing and where it is going. "We don't direct the marketplace," says Hani Durzy, senior manager of corporate communications. "Our business philosophy is that we are the shepherds of this marketplace. All the major changes, all the evolution, has been driven by the community. We go where the community tells us to go. In many ways, that's unusual for a company of our size. We don't just admit it, we embrace it." Fostering and honing the power of that community has helped make the company a success, says Adam Sarner, a principal analyst with Gartner, particularly by engaging the community to establish a sense of trust and to make them feel as if they play an integral role in shaping eBay. And that has been key in the site's success - keeping people coming back by making them feel as if they are part of a larger community, which generates buzz. "During my career, I've seen PR and word of mouth build tremendous interest in a variety of brands," says Whitman. "PR is a key part of any marketing mix. It's important that today's senior managers understand the role of PR in building a business. The community is not shy about letting us know how they feel, and that makes our jobs easier." ----- PR contacts VP of corporate comms/CCO Henry Gomez VP of comms Brad Williams VP of corporate/intl. comms Chris Donlay Senior director of corporate comms Annette Goodwine Director, community development Rachel Makool Director, internal comms Pam Southworth Senior manager of corporate comms (marketing programs) Jennifer Chu Caukin Senior manager of corporate comms (category programs) Shannon Stubo Senior manager of corporate comms (corporate spokesperson) Hani Durzy Senior manager of corporate comms (PayPal) Amanda Pires PR agencies Kaplow Communications, Airfoil Communications
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