MEDIA ANALYSIS: Use kid gloves to woo money guru

If PROs want to get their client's financial product featured on moneysavingexpert.com, they had better not anger founder Martin Lewis. Matt Cartmell finds out the best way to ensure good coverage on the site.

With representatives of the high street banks soon to appear in court for what the Office of Fair Trading claims are illegal bank charges, it is worth a look at the influential website that launched the issue into the public consciousness.

The site, www.moneysavingexpert.com, run by personal finance guru and media star Martin Lewis, is highly popular among cost-conscious consumers and the PROs keen to target them.

Indeed, it is hard to avoid the rambunctious Lewis at the moment. The site has spawned a TV show, Five's It Pays To Watch, plus numerous appearances on GMTV, LK Today, BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2. Lewis's book, The three most important lessons you've never been taught, was published this month.

As Lansons Communications managing director Ian Williams says: 'He's one of the most influential people in personal finance.' It is a view shared by Consolidated Communications acc-ount director Elspeth Rothwell, who adds: 'He's all about getting the best deal for consumers. He's passionate.'

Fighting back
Passionate could almost be an understatement to describe Lewis's personal mission to save consumers cash. 'We spend our lives being screwed by companies for profit,' he declares on the home page. 'This site is about stopping them and (legally) screwing them back.'

Indeed, Lewis is so enthusiastic about his cause that he and his band Oystar have released a novelty record, I fought the Lloyds, to highlight the issue.

Journalist and former Brunswick PRO Lewis started the website in 2003, after writing a money-saving column for the Daily Express and appearing as resident personal finance expert on Gloria Hunniford's Open House programme on Five. He started by sending emails to his friends with tips, which he realised were being widely circulated.

Five years later, Lewis is assisted by an editorial team of seven. He insists the buck stops with him but it is clear that his team do much of the detailed work for the site. 'Don't call me, call my editorial team,' Lewis advises PR professionals. 'I make the decisions but their job is to field information to me. I am massively short of time, and when people try to push through, I get angry.'

Lewis needs little prodding to reveal the PR mistakes that anger him the most. Top of the list is being contacted about financial products that are not the best value on the market.

'If I've just written a column about life insurance, contacting me about your product the next day is going to make me write something nasty about that product on my blog.'

He also hates it when PROs have no idea what the website covers. 'I'm never going to write about final salary pension schemes,' he seethes. 'I write about things people can act on to save money.'

A common mistake is that PR professionals try to pitch issues-based stories to him. 'I don't care about issues,' he says. 'We are a product loophole and money-saving website. That's it.

'Nothing angers us more than if you tell us your product is a best buy but don't tell us when it is no longer a best buy. Alliance and Leicester always tells us ups and downs. We're less inclined to do a nasty on it (the company).'

Clearly, you have to be cautious with Lewis. As Consolidated's Rothwell says: 'You don't "PR" to him. You tell it to him straight. It's something he believes very strongly in.'

Consolidated has worked with Lewis on a student finance campaign for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills - he wrote a foreword for a brochure on financial packages.

'He believes people shouldn't be put off going to university by their finances,' explains Rothwell. 'He will only do things if he feels it's right. He says he could be a millionaire if he charged for everything.' With no advertising on the site, Lewis instead makes money from 'ethical links' to best-buy products only.

Tough reception
But Lewis's methods do not work for everyone. As Penrose head of retail Claire Burston says: 'There's not much we do with him, because mostly he isn't that amenable to press releases.'

Lewis encourages PROs to take an active role in the site's forum. But he emphasises that they must declare their affiliations: 'If you don't, you're going to find your name is mud. And if you try to do it underhand you won't last half an hour.'

Williams says his PayPal team often responds to comments on the forum about the brand. But it always tells Lewis it is going to do so beforehand.

Lewis advises that if a company has a good product coming out, he would like the details two or three days before the embargo, so they can review it. 'We don't rely on your numbers,' he says.

PROs should also be aware that if they are told one of their products is going to hit the weekly email, they need to stick to the deadline if extra information is requested by Lewis's team. Also, make sure you are prepared - a company could get 100,000 responses if a product is well placed. 'We crash sites,' says Lewis, with a hint of satisfaction.

His first job was in PR - working at Brunswick. 'It was interesting but my natural political instincts go the other way,' he says. 'I decided to get out before the pay got too high.'

So, we ask with trepidation, what are his thoughts on the PR world now?

'The PR world is still focused on newspapers. It's fascinating that PR professionals are living in the 1980s. When they say it's more important to get in The Independent than on Radio 2, I think they are not living in the real world.'

QUICK FACTS

Deadlines
- To be included on the weekly email, give information as early as possible on a Tuesday. The team collates the email during Tuesday and sends it out on Tuesday night and Wednesday

- Contacts
Send product information through to editorial@moneysavingexpert.com. One of Lewis's team will then get back to you if they want to cover the product

- Audience
There were 2.9 million visitors to the website in December. They made six million visits. Last week's email went out to 1,709,748 people. Over 4.5 million people have downloaded Lewis's charges template letter.

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