PR TECHNIQUE: Show and tell: making the most of trade events

Trade shows have the power to inspire big ambitions, but it takes careful advance planning and the right approach to reporters to make an impact.

Trade shows have the power to inspire big ambitions, but it takes careful advance planning and the right approach to reporters to make an impact.

Pick any major city and almost any non-holiday week of the year, and it's nearly guaranteed that it is hosting a trade show of some sort. According to Tradeshow Week magazine, each year there are 5,500 trade shows of all shapes and sizes in the US. They range from mega-events like the International Auto Show, Comdex, and PC Expo, to the small one-day shows for niche industries. Heading into to any convention, a company dreams of making new deals and dominating the attention of the attending press. "Conventions are both a blessing and a curse," says Kristin Greene, VP with Switzer Communications. "They give you a venue for you to launch your news. But you have to be realistic about the press you can generate." Indeed, no matter how grand a PR plan on paper, the actual event has a way of throwing everything askew. Appointments are delayed or missed entirely, press releases are lost in the flood of paper, and the endurance of both clients and agencies is tested by having to stand on your feet smiling for 12 hours a day, often for several days in a row. For an agency, the most important lesson in convention and trade show PR is getting in front of your clients well in advance, and setting expectations. "The key is not to promise anything," says Rhonda Sanderson, president of Chicago-area agency Sanderson & Associates. "You want to remind them that there are hundreds of other companies all hoping for the same thing they are. That way if you over-deliver, everyone is happy." Given the chaos that routinely accompanies a large trade show, Michelle Robertson, SVP and general manager of The MWW Group's New York office, says it's also important to begin to present your story to the press well before the show. "You want to have the reporters' attention before they reach the show floor," she says. Just how far in front of an event you want to begin setting up appointments depends on the event and the client. But, Robertson says, "If you're looking for pre-show coverage, you want to begin two months in advance. If you're looking to set up interviews, it's a month to six weeks." Many PR people recommend taking a close look at whatever pre-convention events may be on tap. Jon Pepper, a former journalist, grew so frustrated at trying to maintain a schedule and write stories during a hectic convention, that he and his partner formed Pepcom, which produces showcase events on the eve of every major tech show. "We put together an exclusive showcase for 60 to 80 of the top technology companies, and invite only the higher top-tier media," Pepper says. "We control the atmosphere, and everyone has a six-foot display table. Not only is there less stuff going on, but the press and sponsors are fresh, so it's easier for the PR people to get their message out." Even the most modest trade show or convention usually has some sort of room set aside for media only, where reporters can either work or relax by themselves. Because of that, PR people should venture there with caution, and only to look and listen, never to pitch. But even with this sanctuary, reporters still like to get away from it all. Spending all day in a brightly lit, crowded, and often noisy convention hall can wear on anyone's soul, so many journalists are more than willing to go either to a hotel suite or off-site venue for a meal and some drinks - especially if someone else is picking up the tab. Off-site events "can be effective, especially if you have executives coming in for only a few hours and you want to get them in front of a few top-tier journalists," says Greene. "But you have to expect it to be for relationship building, and you shouldn't count on an immediate story." Maureen Farley of Edelman's Seattle office suggests that if you're planning a major press event away from the main convention, make sure you have some way for the press to file their stories. For Microsoft's pre-Electronic Entertainment Expo event for the Xbox game console, Edelman set up a private press room for the announcement. "Not every journalist is on deadline, but for those who are, it's good to have a place they can go," Farley says. "Plus, it ends up being a good place to conduct interviews with executives after the announcement." Most conventions also run sessions or seminars during show hours, and Christine Bock, president of wireless-technology PR firm Bock Communications, recommends doing all you can to get your clients on key panels. "They are great ways to obtain industry-expert credibility," she explains. While they may privately resent having to lug home press kits, most reporters don't mind carrying other spoils, such as T-shirts, small toys, and coffee mugs. It can be heartening to see a throng of reporters fighting with other attendees for that last key chain carrying your client's logo. But, says Sanderson, "if you're spending $2,000 or $3,000 a show on tchotchkes, and in three years you haven't tracked one sale or one article back to those things, then you should spend that money somewhere else." Finally, it's important to remember that the news doesn't end when the convention floor shuts down. Shoba Purushothaman, CEO and cofounder of The NewsMarket, says, "The after-convention follow-up is critical." The NewsMarket is a VNR archive and delivery platform that enables companies to post broadcast-quality video and other content that can be downloaded by television journalists both in their newsrooms and at the convention. Purushothaman says that many journalists often make a mental note to follow up on companies or products they see during a convention, but that it can take weeks or even months before those stories actually run. "In the three days of the International Auto Show, we had 320 requests for video from broadcasters," she says. "But in the two weeks after, we got another 104 requests. A lot of times, there's so much noise during the show that people need to be able to go back and get the information they need at a later time." ----- Technique tips Do reach out to members of the media early to schedule appointments and to pitch pre-show coverage Do talk with your client in order to establish realistic expectations for media coverage during a convention Do get the cell-phone numbers of everyone you're supposed to meet, and be flexible about appointments Don't issue too many releases during a convention unless your client has breakthrough news Don't obsess with just generating stories. It's just as important to use a convention to solidify long-term media relationships Don't forget that conventions are, first and foremost, designed to generate business and sales for your client. Sometimes, media outreach has to take a backseat

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