Client Profile: Napster grabs the PR wheel in time to crash With no PR plan (or pros) to speak of, Napster became a household word as its Web site turned into the battleground over the future of digital music Now, as a federal judge threatens to pull the

At a time when start-ups are sinking millions into marketing, employing everything from costumed skydivers to logo-wrapped cars to generate buzz, Napster presents a frustrating example of autopilot PR.

At a time when start-ups are sinking millions into marketing, employing everything from costumed skydivers to logo-wrapped cars to generate buzz, Napster presents a frustrating example of autopilot PR.

At a time when start-ups are sinking millions into marketing,

employing everything from costumed skydivers to logo-wrapped cars to

generate buzz, Napster presents a frustrating example of autopilot

PR.



Without spending a dime on advertising and without the aid of either an

in-house communications pro or outside agency counsel for the first

seven months of its existence, the San Mateo-based start-up managed to

become one of the most popular sites on the Internet. Among the coveted

college and young-adult demographic, Napster achieved - seemingly

overnight - name recognition rivaling giants like eBay, Yahoo! and

Amazon.com.



However, as with most Internet success stories, there’s more PR to the

Napster phenomenon than meets the eye. And PR promises to play an even

greater role as the company faces its greatest test: a continuing legal

battle with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) that

threatens its very existence.



Obviously, the fact that Napster’s software (which enables users to swap

MP3 music files online) doesn’t cost a dime sparked its initial

popularity among the college crowd, a place where hardcore music fans

and high-speed Internet connections coexist. ’The whole thing is really

a no-brainer,’ says Jim Welte, a Business 2.0 staff reporter who covers

digital music.



’We all know the best PR trick in the world is to yell, ’Hey, we got

free shit over here!’ If Wal-mart decided to open its doors and give

everything inside away, we would write about it, too.’



Of course, as word of Napster spread like wildfire on college campuses,

it was practically inevitable that journalists would come sniffing

around for a story. Add to that the technology angle, with Napster’s

software responsible for launching a new category of ’peer-to-peer’

computing, along with the David-and-Goliath aspect of 19-year-old

founder Shawn Fanning’s battle against the big bad record companies, and

it all adds up to an irresistible news hook.



’Basically, we walked into a situation where it was wall-to-wall calls

all day, everyday,’ recalls Dan Wool, a former account director for

mPRm, the Los Angeles PR firm Napster hired in February to handle the

growing torrent of media queries. A second agency, New York-based Girlie

Action, was also enlisted to juggle consumer and music press. ’Up until

about three months ago, the work was 99% reactive in nature,’ Wool

says.



’But to do reactive PR strategically is a whole challenge in and of

itself.’



According to mPRm VP Julie Gladders, one of the first orders of business

for Napster was simply determining how to talk to its various

audiences.



’When we were hired, the company did not have its core messages

developed, nor did it have anyone in-house handling PR,’ she says. Adds

Girlie Action partner Jill Mango, who has been responsible for securing

coverage in Vanity Fair and USA Today, the initial challenge was

combating the myth that Napster was a Web site where consumers

’downloaded’ music. To that end, the agency drafted up a media fact

sheet clearly explaining how Napster worked.





Pirate or populist?



With the business press, the challenge came in recasting Napster from a

renegade company geared at ’aiding and abetting piracy,’ as the RIAA has

charged, to a company ’at the forefront of a paradigm shift in the music

industry,’ that was actually ’helping CD sales rather than hurting

them,’ says Gladders.



In addition, when Metallica filed a copyright infringement lawsuit

against Napster last April, mPRm corralled the head of KNAC.com, a

popular heavy metal Web site, to speak with media about how the fans

were reacting to the band’s actions. ’We knew that if fans were not

happy, any bands that were considering suing Napster would think twice,’

explains Gladders.



The vocal show of Napster support from major music stars such as

Courtney Love, Chuck D. and Prince has also played a key role in the

success of its public image - especially as Metallica raged against it.

And as you might expect, most of these endorsements didn’t simply land

on the company’s doorstep. At the very least, both Girlie Action and

mPRm provided reporters with names and access to pro-Napster artists,

many of whom just happened to be on Girlie’s client roster. And in some

cases, deals, such as the sponsorship of a concert tour by rap-rock band

Limp Bizkit, were actually brokered by Napster marketing VP Liz Brooks.

’The free Limp Bizkit tour was absolute genius for both sides,’ says

Spin assistant editor Greg Milner.



Whether it was the messaging or the artist endorsements, most of the

Napster coverage up until lately has had an arguably positive tilt.



As Salon.com asserts in a recent article, ’Too often the complicated

dispute between the online start-up and the music industry has been

painted in the most simplistic terms - a reductive tale of

forward-thinking entrepreneurs outsmarting head-in-the-sand record label

executives.’



Even more surprising, perhaps, is the generally forgiving treatment

Napster received from the business press. What with the company’s dearth

of concrete moneymaking strategies, you might think at least one of the

so-called ’new economy’ pubs might have taken a closer look under the

hood.



’I admit that Napster is much more of an interesting technology story

than a business story,’ says Business 2.0’s Welte. ’And the fact that

they have no business model and are not making any money just adds to

their defense that they, unlike the record companies, aren’t in this

just to make money.’



But Napster’s free media ride may have come to an end. While a stay of

Judge Marilyn Hall Patel’s original July 26 ruling halted an injunction

against the company, legal pundits predict that RIAA will ultimately

prevail in court. A defeat in court would be a death knell, as Napster

would be limited to hosting online chats and swapping files of unsigned

artists.



With so much at stake, it’s no surprise a third PR expert has joined the

Napster mix. Rikki Seidman, a Washington, DC crisis and litigation

support expert who acted as a media adviser on Bill Clinton’s 1992

presidential campaign, was brought on board in June. However, some

industry watchers think this may be too little, too late.





Dismounting the high horse



’Napster is saying, ’We’re abiding by the rules, but the users are the

ones violating the copyright laws,’ but the only reason people use their

site is to do illegal activity,’ says Steve Honig, SVP for the corporate

digital entertainment group of Bender Helper Impact in Los Angeles.

’They need to get off their high horse; what they should be saying is,

’Hey guys, the technology just got ahead of the business model,’ and the

focus should be on finding the solution now.’



Further, as BusinessWeek chronicled in an August 14 cover story, when

Judge Patel issued the July 26 edict ordering Napster to halt

file-trading, Seidman and company were caught ’completely unprepared.’

Ultimately, it took two full days after the ruling for Napster to issue

a full statement, according to BusinessWeek, which concluded that the

one-time media darling is no longer.



No matter what happens, one thing is certain: Napster has opened the

door and others will follow. The appearance of newcomers such as

Gnutella, Scour and AppleSoup prove that peer-to-peer is the

business-to-business buzz of the future, and a whole new raft of PR

opportunities awaits the veterans of the Napster craze.





NAPSTER



In-house PR team: Liz Brooks, VP of marketing; Josef Robey, PR

coordinator



External agencies: mPRm (LA) handles business and technology press;

Girlie Action (NY) handles consumer and music press; TSD (Washington,

DC) handles crisis communications and litigation support.



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