Financial planning isn't as thrilling as stories of stock market success, so it can be a hard sell to the media. But David Ward finds a few ways to make the subject worthy of coverage.Following a multiyear detour into the exciting - but ultimately heartbreaking - world of do-it-yourself stock trading, many consumers are gradually returning to traditional (and somewhat boring) financial planning as the way to ensure their long-term futures. And the media is slowly following them back.
"When things were going so well, you could throw your money in and do well with any stock,
says Bill Schilling, managing director with FRB/Weber Shandwick's Chicago office. "Now there are a lot of consumers asking, 'What do I do now, and to whom do I turn when deciding on a financial planner?'"
The financial planning sector's lack of excitement is problematic for business journalists. While personal finance writing can be a glamorous subject (especially when penning a cover story on a hot investment trend, or profiling average people who got rich in the bull market), reporting on financial planning is more like its dowdy cousin. Stories on setting up a retirement account or planning for a child's college fund are simply not that exciting to either pitch or write. "I think the media views traditional financial planning - the allocation of cash versus bonds versus stock - as a less-interesting story,
explains Golin/Harris International SVP Allan Jordan.
In fact, financial planning was so unappealing that many media outlets gave it only cursory coverage during the dot-com-induced Wall Street frenzy of the late 1990s. "Financial planning in a buoyant market was kind of regarded like dentistry,
says Richard Mahony, executive vice president and deputy general manager of Edelman Worldwide's financial communications practice. "You have to have it, but nobody really likes it.
"Now the media is realizing that planning does have a place in people's financial thinking, and they're taking it much more seriously,
"We're certainly working a lot more with reporters on tax planning and estate-planning issues, and these are longer-term strategies."
A different approach to pitching
Pitching a company involved in financial planning, either as the subject of an article or as a potential expert in the field, requires a different approach than a campaign for a product or new company.
"We focus on building long-term relationships with the media outlets," says Eric Miller, VP with FRB/Weber Shandwick's Los Angeles office. "So instead of going to the beat reporter, we reach out to a higher editorial level. That editor might kick it back downstairs to a reporter, but we initially try to develop that higher-level introduction."
Given the complexity of financial planning, Mahony adds that it also helps to provide the reporter with real-life examples. "The challenge is really to humanize these issues,
he says. "On their face, they can be fairly dry and sometimes dense, particularly when you're dealing with tax matters. But behind those issues are real people.
The only concern with this type of approach, however, is the privacy of the individual or family involved. But Mahony says that can be avoided by dealing in only general information or, in some cases, omitting the real name of the family.
Since there are few reporters specializing in financial planning, the competition to get the press' attention in this space can be intense.
FRB/Weber Shandwick's Schilling says that the traditional media kit or press release is not nearly enough. He recommends having key executives fly to media centers such as New York on a regular basis for desk-side meetings with reporters, as well as appearances on financial news broadcasts. The goal, he says, isn't so much to pitch a particular story as it is to establish the executives as thought leaders.
"We're constantly scanning our clients to find out what trends we can take to the media as potential stories,
The audience demands excitement
Despite this return toward traditional reporting on financial planning, there's still a portion of the media that insists on covering the financial world as an exciting roller-coaster ride, in part because that's what their audiences demand. This is especially true in television and radio, where many of the listener and viewer forums center on which companies are going to double in value in the next six months.
"There's been a shift in focus toward more broad financial planning news, but the demand for stock pickers is still high,
notes FRB/Weber Shandwick's Miller. "A lot of mutual-fund companies won't offer stock pickers, because it's against their philosophy. But if you approach a client and find out they've got a stock picker, it's, 'Oh good, we can get them on TV."
Given the overlap between reporting on personal finance and financial planning, a list of the most influential reporters in both fields would be almost identical. They include Ken Harney of The Washington Post, syndicated columnist and author Kerry Hannon, Vivian Marino of The New York Times, Christine Dugas of USA Today, Ruth Simon of The Wall Street Journal, and Lou Dobbs of CNN's Moneyline.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for coverage of financial planning in the long term is the continued rise of "common sense
authors and commentators, such as Jean Chatzky and Suze Orman.
Sandi Mendelson, president and COO of Hilsinger-Mendelson, handles publicity for Orman. She says Orman's success is evidence that the financial planning audience is interested in more than just dry facts about 401(k)s, and instead wants a combination of advice for the long term, along with some discussion of the emotional issues related to money and the success that can come with it.
Already a successful author and CNBC contributor, Orman recently expanded her influence with a national radio show that is simulcast on CNBC on weekends. While not advocating any particular PR strategy, Mendelson does point out that Orman's focus on basics - such as getting out of credit-card debt, and drawing up a will and establishing a trust - are the things that resonate most with her audience. "It's all those nuts-and-bolts things that people need to do to get their financial houses in order,
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: The Wall Street Journal; The New York Times; USA Today; Los Angeles Times; Financial Times; Investor's Business Daily
Magazines: Worth; Smart Money; Personal Finance; Kiplinger; Personal Finance; Business Week; Forbes; Fortune; Barron's; US News & World Report; Newsweek; Time; Women's Day
TV & Radio: CNNfn; CNBC; Oxygen; The Today show; Good Morning America; Moneyline; National Public Radio; Bloomberg TV; numerous local and national financial radio programs
Websites: CNBC.com; Money.com; MSNBC.com; WSJ.com; Barron's online.