Think it's hard representing a client whose business is hard to
explain? Even worse, just imagine what it's like to represent a law firm
that can't talk publicly about what it's doing. David Ward looks at the
ins and outs of doing PR for professional service companies.
Professional services companies - such as law firms, accountants, and
business consultants - often face a dilemma when looking for press
Not only is it a business segment that tends to be spread out among
different reporting beats, but the firms often act as the "quiet right
hand" of high-profile companies, hindering their ability to seek
publicity for their work.
"One thing you have to realize about professional services firms is that
generally the story isn't all about them," says Roger Ardan, SVP of
legal marketing with Edelman Public Relations Worldwide.
But that doesn't mean that the media is unaware of the work of these
consultants. While many professional services firms discourage PR
campaigns aimed at raising their profile, they are still sought out by
reporters simply because of their positioning in the business
Among the leading journalists covering all or some aspects of
professional services are George Stein of Bloomberg News, Louis Lavelle
of Business Week, Tom Herman of The Wall Street Journal, Kerry Dolan of
Forbes, and Associated Press business writer Michael White.
"We've found that journalists are very interested in these people," says
Chris Kircher, senior managing director with Hill & Knowlton, which
lists Ernst & Young among its clients. "There are some misperceptions
about the accounting industry. In Ernst & Young's case, they're doing
way more than just providing traditional tax advice and auditing. They
just announced they've got a corporate finance unit. They do counseling
in the area of privacy and security in terms of information technology.
They are involved in a lot of different businesses."
Most professional service firms view discretion as the better part of
valor - especially when the story is about one of their clients. "They
can't be out in front of the media talking about specific strategies or
the business operations of their clients," says Matthew Doering, SVP at
Fleishman-Hillard New York, which counts KPMG and executive recruiter
Heidrick & Struggles among its clients. "But what they can do is be the
analysts or thought leaders in a particular area. By the nature of their
work, they know about trends ahead of time."
Edelman's Ardan adds, "It's generally getting somebody quoted in a
bigger story about some industry trend or what's happening in the
overall economy." The expert ends up being one of the many sources
Economic trouble all around
While professional service firms, especially the large global
operations, tend to be solid performers in both good times and bad, that
doesn't mean they haven't been touched by the recent economic turmoil.
Several of the major accounting firms, as well as a few consultants and
law offices, have been linked in the press to failing dot-coms. In some
cases, it's a shareholder lawsuit, while in others it's a disagreement
between the consultancy and its client (e.g., the spat between
Excite@Home and Ernst & Young has been a long-running story).
When a professional services firm is dragged into one of these public
spats, H&K's Kircher advises reaching out to reporters as soon as
possible. "Whether it's with a full statement or a partial reply, the
trick is to get on top of the situation quickly," he says. "You don't
want to allow rumors to build."
Simply because of their expertise, professional service executives are
often on the treadmill of commentators invited to appear on business
television shows, along with analysts and brokers. "Heidrick & Struggles
has been successful on CNBC with some of its people offering insight
after major mergers on what the implications for the human capital are
going to be, and how cultures are going to work together," says
Richard Wolff, Northeast region managing director with Golin/Harris
International, says, "It's a bit more of a challenge to get professional
services firms profiled than it is to position their individual
professionals as experts. When you do the latter, you are really doing a
favor in some way for the journalist simply because they need sources
and they need a perspective."
Fields merge along with companies
But journalists who ignore the actual business of professional services
may be missing a fascinating story. Not only have mergers reduced the
traditional big eight accounting firms to five, but the lines between
accounting, law, and business consulting are blurring as the practices
encroach on each other's domains.
Ernst & Young, for example, not only has its own legal department, but
has spun off its business consulting practice into a completely separate
company that's now owned by French company Cap Gemini.
This can present some branding challenges, says Marilyn Castaldi, senior
partner and healthcare practice director for Fleishman (which represents
Cap Gemini Ernst & Young's healthcare consulting practice).
Castaldi says that for the most part, she's had more success getting Cap
Gemini Ernst & Young into vertical outlets covering healthcare and
hospitals. However, she says that reaching out to the general business
media can be a bit harder. "You have to convince reporters and their
editors that there is an aspect that's important to the world at large,"
"It may be pitching The Philadelphia Inquirer or Baltimore Sun that
because of these business consultants working with a hospital, a medical
facility that was in financial trouble is now able to continue
functioning and open satellite offices. The end beneficiary is the
Wolff points out that stories need to have a consumer angle and not be a
simple business-to-business item. "The business pages over the last 10
years have become much more consumer focused with the rise of individual
ownership of stock," he says.
Paul Jensen, EVP with Magnet Communications, says the only way to
overcome some of the obstacles facing professional services PR is
patience. Magnet represented law firm Morrison & Foerster, and claims
that it took nearly 18 months to place a profile in the New York Law
Journal in part because of the reluctance by both the firm and its
clients to provide the examples the reporter was looking for. "We were
able to tell a story about the comeback of Morrison & Foerster as a
technology-oriented law firm," says Jensen. "We then took it to The Wall
Street Journal, and turned it into a B 1 story. The difference was that
it wasn't the same story. We found an angle that would appeal to a
general business audience: how in the old days only partners brought in
the business, but in the new economy even associates are going to Cyber
Suds events and bringing in new business."
WHERE TO GO
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Los
Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News
Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, Red Herring, Time, Newsweek
National Law Journal, Accounting Today, Legal Times, New York Law
Journal, Inside Consulting, Executive Search Review, Executive Search
TV, RADIO, WIRE SERVICES:
Bloomberg News, CNNfn, CNBC, National Public Radio, Associated Press,