The market is hardly ripe for PR pitches. But some companies have
been thriving ever since September 11, which has left their PR reps with
a dilemma. Julia Hood reports.
Nearly one month has elapsed since the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon became terrorist targets, and there are signs that companies,
consumers, and PR agencies are getting back to business.
Some industries are even experiencing a boost if their products or
services are related to security or communications. Teleconferencing,
for example, is a service that's getting more attention, since it offers
an alternative to flying to meetings. Cellular service and security
technology systems, which could now have expanded applications, are
other industries in the spotlight.
Other types of companies may also be benefiting, whether they want to
admit it or not. The New York Times reported that book publishers are
already producing texts related to the tragedies, but are only
cautiously promoting them. Books about terrorism and Islam top
Amazon.com's bestseller list, but publicists for the company did not
return calls to the Times for comment.
That's not surprising. Any firm that experiences increased business as a
result of the terrorist attacks faces a big challenge. How do you
promote your product or service, and focus on your sales successes
without appearing to mercilessly exploit the situation? Is it even
possible to plan a long-term PR strategy based on the immediate
aftermath of these tragedies?
Some want the truth, some don't
The investment community wants the straight news, says Joele Frank of IR
firm Joele Frank, Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher. "IR is a fact-based
communication, and in this environment, whether you are telling good or
not-so-good news, people have to communicate what is actually happening
to date, without speculating on the future. The market currently appears
to be appreciative of companies that communicate openly and
straightforwardly. This is not a time for spin or hype. Just the
But even if the financial community won't be offended by hearing tales
of how your company or client has leapt in to save the day, media
relations is still fraught with high-profile peril. The Wall Street
Journal recently ran an article headlined, "In attacks' wake, PR firms
find pitches fall flat," which described a few of the PR faux pas that
followed various incidents. One executive in Massachusetts used the
attacks to introduce a pitch on saving for higher education, while
another in California sent out a press release about a Kit-Cat Clock.
Quantum Tech, a Tennessee data storage company, sent out a release on
September 13 about how its services helped a WTC resident get up and
running the day after the attacks.
But these examples are not representative of the entire PR industry,
many of whose practitioners have cautioned clients against rolling out
their stories of pitching in the aftermath of the attacks.
When the media comes calling
However, keeping a low profile is tougher when the media is coming to
you. Not long after the hijackings, Identix, a biometric technology
company that manufactures a fingerprint scanning product that can be
used to screen airline employees, began getting calls from
Clearly, technology would be a factor when discussions turned to
improving security, but hawking a product right after the WTC collapse
Therefore, Blanc & Otus, Identix's recently hired PR firm, helped to
prepare a holding statement, as well as plan mid- and long-term
"The first day was clarification, to make sure that people had a good
understanding of Identix's role, and to be responsive to questions,"
explains Rebecca Hurst, VP of B&O. "Subsequently, we met with executives
and really talked through what the company believed it could provide as
The approach focused on providing a resource for journalists in lieu of
speaking about Identix's product. CEO Bob McCashin was offered as an
expert on biometric technology and issues - such as privacy - that go
along with security questions. CNET, CNN, The New York Times, and the
San Jose Mercury News ran the story.
However, Identix has had its detractors in spite of its cautious
Insidetruth. com, a website dedicated to unmasking what it deems
over-hyped companies, issued a sell/sell short recommendation against
"Insidetruth. com wishes to alert the public to avoid speculating in
stocks based upon misleading and manipulative news issued by companies
seeking to take advantage of a national tragedy," the report stated.
The piece went on to dissect various news segments featuring McCashin,
saying that in spite of the company's claims, fingerprint scanning would
not prevent hijackers from boarding airplanes. "Insidetruth.com believes
(this) to be a classic example of abuse of the news dissemination
Success in the aftermath
Other sectors have also had to weigh up the benefits of talking about
the opportunities that recent events have brought.
Demand for video conferencing increased during the Gulf War, and it has
jumped again. When the markets reopened, companies like Polycom and
PictureTel saw double-digit stock price increases.
"There is no question that, especially in the immediate week after the
attacks, teleconferencing was used fairly broadly," says Steve Gold,
president of TVN Communications Group. "Although we are struggling to
get back to normal, a lot of people are still loathe to fly, and most
companies are being responsive to that." However, Gold agrees that
knowing how to communicate that message to the media is tough.
Medialink has also reported an increase in video conferencing usage, and
has chosen to use its service to hold discussions about the attacks.
Last Thursday, Medialink hosted a webcast of its own featuring Jim
Wiggins, a VP in corporate communications from Merrill Lynch, who
discussed crisis planning.
The telecom industry has also had to tussle with how much to shout about
its emergency responses. Several passengers used their cell phones to
say goodbye to loved ones, and overall phone usage skyrocketed in the
days after the attacks as people across the country checked in with
their friends and family.
As a result, more new users are expected to sign up for cell phones this
quarter, according to Wireless Week magazine. TracFone, a pre-paid
cellular phone service, hasn't had to worry about whether to be
proactive in publicizing its potential sales spike: "We are getting
calls from media that never thought to report on our product before,
like the San Jose Mercury News.
The New York Times wrote a feature on us last week," says PR manager
Brand also says that he continues to offer the media positive case
studies about existing customers, without mentioning the attacks at all.
"We feel that our product sells itself, before and after the
So it appears that the fastest route to successful PR at this sensitive
time is to concentrate on supplying relevant information to the media
and investment audiences rather than specifically offer brand names as
the answer. As with many things, subtlety is key.