Manufacturing still greatly interests the media, but it now must work harder than ever to find its own place with reporters that most often cover it in the context of other industries.
Fifty years ago, manufacturing was the engine that drove a considerable part of the American economy. As such, it received the lion's share of the business press' attention. The heads of US Steel, Kaiser Aluminum, and other major industrials were not only huge employers, but also the public face of American business known to both reporters and the average man on the street.
Since that time, however, manufacturing has decreased in importance as a news story. And when it does make news, the focus is often on the challenges of American manufacturing competing on the global stage, or the shift of factory jobs from the "rust belt to other parts of the country or world.
"There has been a shift in industries that drive the economy, notes Bill Brikiatis, account supervisor with Porter Novelli's Boston office.
"It used to be companies involved in the supply chains that produce industrial products. Now it is companies that are part of the digital information supply chain. Consequently, traditional manufacturers don't receive the same attention, especially by the major business media."
Yet, despite the perception that America has moved from a production-based society to a service-and-information-based economy, there are still numerous factories in the US. Manufacturing, at least in aggregate, remains a key barometer for the nation's business health. "For some economic reporters, it's something of a canary in a coal mine, explains Darren McKinney, director of communications and media relations for the National Association of Manufacturers. "Because of that, manufacturing is not necessarily hurting for media attention."
What is changing is the ability of individual manufacturing firms to maintain a high media profile. This is especially true in business-to-business segments, like steel, which are part of the supply chain, rather than the producer of a finished product.
"Manufacturing is still being covered, but now it's often as part of a larger story, such as the automobile industry or pharmaceuticals, says Michael Kempner, president and CEO of the MWW Group, which represents Bethlehem Steel and Kaiser Aluminum. "The focus is on what is manufactured, as opposed to how it's manufactured."
A more challenging PR landscape
While manufacturing does not command the same press attention it once did, the PR for it has become far more complex. "It is a little more challenging than before, admits Robert Donohoe, associate VP with Philadelphia-based Tierney Strategic Communications. "The manufacturing industry arena has been around for years, and I still think it is the pulse of the economy. It's just that there are these spikes and valleys in other segments."
In pursuing a manufacturing-related story, there a labyrinth of issues, ranging from global trade to the environment, that could interest the rather sizeable media that covers this area.
"We have a huge media list of what we have identified as manufacturing reporters, says McKinney, whose organization represents 14,000 companies of all sizes. "Some are small business, international trade, or labor reporters, others are health and safety reporters, and still others may be tax reporters. In our office, the person next to me may be dealing with international trade reporters, while I'm working with labor reporters on an OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) safety issue."
Many of these stories start off as national policy debates originating in New York or Washington. But increasingly, reporters are looking to illustrate the impact of those policies by interviewing executives at small and midsize factories scattered across the country. "Most reporters don't feel that their readers are specifically interested in the type of widget that is being made, but they are interested in the business case, says Brikiatis.
McKinney points out this journalistic trend of focusing on the small factory owner generally works in favor of manufacturing industry as a whole. "We have executives who speak on issues, and Jerry Jasinowski, our president, is known among the DC press corps as one of the best, he says. "But it's not quite the same as hearing from a little guy who has to meet payroll."
A well-educated media
Despite the complexity of the modern, technology-intensive factories, and the ever-changing world markets in which they compete, Brikiatis says most of the major business reporters have a firm grasp on both the details and the big picture. "Frequently, the national business press reporters made it up through the ranks of the trade media, so they have a background in manufacturing, or the technology of manufacturing, he says. "Consequently, they have a pretty good understanding of what drives the business."
Among the most influential reporters are Adam Aston, industrial management reporter with Business-Week, Industry Week managing editor Tonya Vinas, and Joe Hallinan of The Wall Street Journal.
The bulk of manufacturing coverage is done in the print media, either through trade outlets, business magazines or newspapers. But there are some opportunities in television and radio - especially on the financial networks such as CNNfn, CNBC, and Bloomberg Television and Radio. McKinney says: "We pursue them largely on an ad hoc basis, as we do with new media.
But the truth is they get all their ideas from reading the major newspapers in the morning. There are very few TV reporters enterprising their own stories. There's no doubt that pursuing print exposure is the most effective way of getting your story out."
If given a choice, most business reporters would rather interview new economy executives such as retailers Michael Dell and Jeff Bezos, and software visionaries Bill Gates and Larry Ellison. Thus PR pros representing manufacturing concerns must be proactive in getting executives into the spotlight. "You want to get to the CEO roundtables in New York or Washington, and be the representative of the manufacturing companies at the table with the other business segments," says Donohoe.
There are also opportunities, especially on a local level, to give reporters a firsthand look at a factory in operation, although several of the PR people we spoke to cautioned against giving a journalist unfettered access to a plant and all its workers. "Usually you want the plant manager to handle interviews, says Donohoe. "Most of them are trained for media and crisis relations."
That assumes, of course, manufacturers even want the press attention.
"Today's industrial manufacturers are a little less inclined to discuss their business with the press, says Brikiatis.
The manufacturing industry prefers to operate under the media radar because when it gets press, it's often for the wrong reasons. "They tend to get covered mostly when there's trouble, whether it's a scandal or financial restructuring, says Kempner.
But given that this is a country that prides itself on its productivity and work ethic, there will always be a place in the business press for positive manufacturing stories that focus on making products better, faster, and cheaper. "People still like to see things roll off the assembly line, notes Kempner.
Trade titles - Chemical Week; F&M (Fabricating and Metalworking)
Magazine; Industrial Machinery Digest; Modern Machine Shop; Production
Machining; Metalworking Insiders Report; Automotive Design & Production;
Auto Week; Plant Engineering; Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry;
Medical Product Manufacturing News; Engineers Digest; Machine Design;
Midwest Industrial News; Tooling & Production
TV & Radio - CNNfn; CNBC; NPR
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers - The Wall Street Journal; The New York Times; The Washington
Post; USA Today; Chicago Tribune; Detroit Free-Press; Cleveland Plain
Magazines - BusinessWeek; Forbes; Fortune; Barron's; Industry Week; The
Trade titles - Chemical Week; F&M (Fabricating and Metalworking) Magazine; Industrial Machinery Digest; Modern Machine Shop; Production Machining; Metalworking Insiders Report; Automotive Design & Production; Auto Week; Plant Engineering; Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry; Medical Product Manufacturing News; Engineers Digest; Machine Design; Midwest Industrial News; Tooling & Production TV & Radio - CNNfn; CNBC; NPR ]]>