MEDIA ROUNDUP: 'Best of' lists prove to be among finest PR avenues

Best-of and other top lists, be they annual or even more frequent, continually grow in both importance and popularity. David Ward looks at some of the most effective methods to make the grade.

Best-of and other top lists, be they annual or even more frequent, continually grow in both importance and popularity. David Ward looks at some of the most effective methods to make the grade.

The US media prides itself on being as objective in reporting the news as is humanly possible, but every once in a while, journalists like to let out their subjective side. Increasingly, those opinions are showcased in "best of" lists that seemingly every print and internet outlet - and a growing number of television and radio news programs - turn to at least once, and in some cases, several times a year. Everything from the movies, music, plays, vacation getaways, gadgets, and even condiments now get judged and slotted into a top-10, top-20, or top-whatever list by outlets ranging from trade magazines to websites. "Magazines have always had them, but I think you're seeing more in the fast-breaking general news media," says Jennifer Baker, VP of media relations with Golin/Harris International. Given the breadth of "best-of" journalism, the quality of these lists can vary dramatically. Wendy Flanagan, SVP and partner with Fleishman-Hillard's St. Louis office, says some are painstaking, yearlong efforts involving outside market research and outside judges, while others are almost journalistic afterthoughts. "We have to be very strategic in our evaluation to determine if they have a credible judging panel or if it's something to drum up publicity for the magazine." It helps to be on the list But even the most superficial best-of list can be considered a plus for the media outlet. Americans seem to have an unwavering love affair with rankings and statistics that determine the sexiest man alive or, yes, the best PR stunt of the year. Best-of wrap-ups tend to be among the most popular issues publications put out, ensuring not only more readers, but more advertising revenue. "It may be a gimmick, but it's a positive gimmick," says Adam Sohmer, VP of consumer technology at Magnet Communications. "The only thing you have to make sure of is that it's not pay for play," where outlets reward top advertisers by anointing them with best-of mentions. "But we see very little of that," Sohmer adds. "There remains a very strong separation of church and state, because even in these tough economic times, credibility is key for publications." Above and beyond the audience and advertising boost, best-of lists can raise a media outlet's profile. "They can put out a release that gets picked up by the general-interest press, and then they can get their editor out there to explain what were the criteria in choosing the best city, the best companies to work for, and so on," says MWW Group VP Matthew Messinger. No wonder best-of lists have expanded beyond their traditional December/ January timeframe into other parts of the year. "There's a huge surge in back-to-school best-of lists," says Erin Walsh, account manager with San Francisco-based Switzer Communications, whose technology clients include PDA maker Handspring. "We worked with Peter Lewis, the tech columnist for Fortune, on a back-to-school story, and it turned out to be the best of what to take back to college." Consumer-outlet rankings remain the most sought after - the bigger the circulation, the better. But Stacey Bender, president of the Bender-Hammerling Group, says even Progressive Grocer's annual list of best new packaged foods or condiments is sought after by her clients, such as French's. "These are very good to be on because you can take them to a supermarket chain, and it can improve your sell-in of a product," she says. Coordinating with the media The media rarely compiles these lists without their context in mind. "A lot of these lists are worked into trend stories," says Bender, who also represents toy maker Hoberman Designs. "If it's toys, it's a chance for a Parents magazine to consider not only what are the best toys, but what does that mean in terms of consumer taste - are we shifting toward more tech toys, or are we heading back to basics?" Best-of lists are so popular that many media outlets now compile several at a time. Some are based on outside experts, some on the editorial staff's opinions, and others on audience surveys. Most PR pros diplomatically admit that their clients would be thrilled to be on any of these lists. But, Messinger notes, "an expert opinion often counts more. If it's a Jean Chatzky at Money magazine recommending the best investment house or online brokerage, people are going to value her opinion." It's inevitable that every company wants to be on as many best-of or top-10 lists as they can be. But ironically, many of these lists - especially those that focus on consumer products - come out in January, after most Americans have splurged on holiday spending. "You want to get your clients in a gift guide for holiday sales," says Golin's Baker. "The best-of guides that come out in January are more for brand- building and brand awareness." But can PR have an impact on these annual best-of compilations? The answer depends on both the type of list and the journalists compiling it. "With something like 'the top-10 best cities to live in' list, there may be some input from convention bureaus, but you can pretty much guess that it is generated solely by the editorial department and is internally driven," says Baker. "The list that most PR pros can pitch are those that are very product-driven." Sensitive to any suggestion that they can be pressured or influenced, most journalists, regardless of their beat, resent any hint of the hard sell. But the right type of press release timed to arrive during the decision-making process may make a difference. "If a product comes out in March, it often gets forgotten by the time the best-of lists are compiled," says Dan Harnett, cofounder of New York-based Highwater Group, which represents video game publisher Acclaim Entertainment. "But if you can frame that product by its total sales numbers or the success of the overall franchise, and give them a story in one fell swoop, you can have an impact." "For us, it's not necessarily a news-release type thing, but making sure we're in contact with the right people," adds Switzer Communications' Walsh. "This is especially true with the review reporters who play a big part in determining the products that are selected." Unprecedented popularity What's surprising about best-of journalism, especially given its popularity, is that until very recently it tended to be almost the exclusive domain of print and the internet. Now, Bender reports, programs such as Today, as well as CNN and CNBC shows, have begun to lead a move by broadcast into the arena. Given that best-of lists are everywhere now, will they ever lose their impact? Fleishman's Flanagan doubts it, although she stresses it does mean a lot more work for PR firms, which have to continually track and evaluate the outlets producing such stories. "We spend much time surveying the criteria judges look at," she says. "You must be tenacious. But companies like the lists because they offer third-party credibility that they can't duplicate internally. And that translates into brand equity and better customer relationships." ----------- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times Magazines BusinessWeek, Forbes, Fortune, Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, Entertainment Weekly, Maxim, Stuff, FHM, Premier, Parents, Parenting, Child, Consumer Reports, Fast Company, CIO, Blender, Rolling Stone, Spin, Town & Country, Worth, People TV & Radio Today, Good Morning America, CNN, Fox News Network, VH1, E! Entertainment Television, MTV, ESPN Internet CNET, ZDNET, Amazon.com, Forbes.com, Fortune.com

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