CORPORATE CASE STUDY: The Princeton Review learns value of messaging

Though SAT tutorials remain a Princeton Review staple, increased PR has helped promote its many services, while offering the media, students, and schools various angles of interest.

Though SAT tutorials remain a Princeton Review staple, increased PR has helped promote its many services, while offering the media, students, and schools various angles of interest.

Sometimes Robin Raskin, director of communications for The Princeton Review, has to cringe a bit when she hears how people view her company. "People say, 'Isn't that the test prep class for rich, white kids?'" she says. "I have to tell them that we're much more than that." In its more than 20 years of existence, The Princeton Review has grown from an SAT class for 15 high school kids to a publicly held company with millions of customers. A product line that began with test prep books has swollen to include software and college books, including the wildly popular book of school rankings, The Best 345 Colleges. The SAT tutorials are now a rite of passage, but the company's services go well beyond these to include matchmaking services for students and colleges. The challenge for Raskin and Harriet Brand, her colleague in the company's communications department, is to represent all of these products and services, keeping the company in the media on a near-daily basis, as well as appeal to The Princeton Review's various stakeholders. All the while, it tries to preserve a carefully crafted corporate image: that of a friend who can help you beat the system. "My job is to come up with 1 million ways to get that message out," says Raskin. "We're one company at all the entrances and exits of life where there are tests." As time goes by, the number of these entrances and exits grows. The Bush administration's accountability-in-education effort, called No Child Left Behind, led The Princeton Review to enhance its suite of K-12 services designed to help teachers and students meet the program's tough testing requirements. "It's not just selling an SAT course anymore," Raskin says. "We have to be more savvy in how we message it." Raskin was brought on several months ago to develop a strategic approach to the communications department. Before she was hired, Brand alone handled pitching reporters, writing press releases, and other day-to-day media relations responsibilities. The company's growth told its executives that the communications efforts needed to be bulked up. "The company has changed tremendously," Brand says. "Everything here is evolving." Though the company now spends more on PR, the budget still represents a small chunk of the overall marketing allocation, which represents 10% to 12% of revenues. Consistent message Linda Nessim, EVP of communications, says that PR is one part of a marketing approach that isn't interested in distinctions between departments. As well as shaping the company's image, the department is responsible for internal communications through the company newsletter. As Raskin puts it, "We're the yentas of the company." "It all works together," says Nessim. "There are no separate fiefdoms. It's an integrated approach. Everything promotes a look and a feel that's consistent with the corporate image. And that happens across divisions." This feel has been crucial for the company's success in a competitive market, especially considering that it frequently takes a contrarian stance toward testing, famously asserting that the only thing the SAT measures is one's ability to take the SAT. This extends to an insistence on accountability, exemplified by the company's Testing the Testers effort, an annual ranking of state testing systems. The company approaches serious subjects in a way that hits home with its desired audience. The college rankings book, for instance, eschews dry statistics for categories that lend more flavorful insight into the schools. "The company's products are effective and do live up to its image," says Gina LaGuardia, editor-in-chief of College Bound magazine. "After all, such a promise is important with the teen market, and The Princeton Review has understood and monetized on the concept that teens are not easily duped." She adds, "You may get their attention, but the challenge is in keeping it. The Princeton Review had continued to evolve its products, offering websites, for example, to do just that." Search for "Princeton Review" on a site like Factiva, and you'll find that not too many days pass without a mention in a prominent media outlet. This is no small feat for a company that has a very focused mission, and doesn't lend itself to extravagant ad campaigns or controversy that will entice the media. You'll find placements in a variety of articles, from serious issue pieces about standardized testing, to how-to stories about picking colleges or taking tests, to looks at the cultural lives of colleges (which are often based on the always-popular list of the best party schools). "Nearly every day, we're mentioned in some newspaper in the US," says Brand. Locating unique media avenues There are also tactics that lead the communications department off the beaten path, often a reflection of the personality of CEO John Katzman. For example, it was his idea during the 2002 election for the company to grade the grammatical abilities of candidates Bush and Gore, and calculate what grade level at which each spoke. In terms of strategy, this means finding all kinds of hooks for stories, whether around a new publication or a seasonal pitch. There are promotional pushes around things like Testing the Testers. This, Brand says, was enormously popular with education beat writers in most cities and states. But this strategy is no secret to those familiar with education issues. The company "makes a very strategic effort in saturating the education communications industry with need-to-report information on a timely basis," says LaGuardia. In contrast, she says, a competitor like Kaplan gets vast attention during peak times of interest, such as back-to- school, exams, and graduation. But "I don't see them making as much of a concerted effort to keep that PR presence all year long," LaGuardia adds. Despite all the activity, Raskin and Brand are careful not to overload the media. "The last thing a producer or editor wants is a press-release-churning mill," Raskin says. "Education is a tough space. One thing that will endear The Princeton Review is its personality." But the personality itself can make its own challenges. The Princeton Review tries to appeal in some fashion to virtually every stakeholder in the college-admissions process, from prospective students to guidance counselors to the schools themselves. This often poses sticky situations for the communicators, such as when they try to sell services to schools that have found themselves in unflattering places in the rankings. "The party-school ranking can be controversial when you're trying to sell your services to a school on the list," says Raskin. "You're always walking the line," says Nessim. "To students, we come off as the smarter older brother. To schools, you say, 'Take a look at the services we've got. We can help you jump that hurdle and find the right students.'" The Princeton Review is now looking ahead to a variety of challenges that stem from the ever-evolving arena of education. The company has been looking to expand its international reach, and has recently opened several offices in Asia. It's also focusing on global education at a time when it's increasingly easier to study overseas. But there are also efforts across the entire marketing division to work on nationally themed events that the company is holding close to its vest at the moment. Another development that will have major ramifications for The Princeton Review is the plan to change the format of the SAT. "No one knows more about the SAT than us," says Raskin. "We want to be wherever policy decisions are being made." ----- PR contacts EVP of communications Linda Nessim Director of communications Robin Raskin Director of public relations Harriet Brand

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