MARKET FOCUS: BUSINESS-TO-BUSINESS PR - B-to-B bounces back Consumer PR is flashy and grabs a lot of attention. But business-to-business is on the rise. John Frank explores the differences between the two practices.

PR veteran John LaSage can remember a time in the 1960s and early ’70s when PR firms made their living primarily by creating business-to-business campaigns. LaSage earned his PR spurs years ago touting the benefits of heavy equipment to construction companies.

PR veteran John LaSage can remember a time in the 1960s and early ’70s when PR firms made their living primarily by creating business-to-business campaigns. LaSage earned his PR spurs years ago touting the benefits of heavy equipment to construction companies.

PR veteran John LaSage can remember a time in the 1960s and early

’70s when PR firms made their living primarily by creating

business-to-business campaigns. LaSage earned his PR spurs years ago

touting the benefits of heavy equipment to construction companies.

Consumer PR became the hot growth area in the 1980s, eroding the high

profile b-to-b PR had enjoyed, recalls LaSage, now chairman of the

central region for Burson-Marsteller. But b-to-b PR never completely


Indeed, in places like Detroit, it remains the predominant type of


Today, more and more traditional companies see the value of b-to-b


At the same time, a flood of Internet-related and techie start-ups is

trying to establish credibility in the b-to-b space. The combination of

the two has meant a boom in b-to-b PR. Established hi-tech b-to-b firms

are turning away business while even long-time PR stalwarts like Edelman

Public Relations are seeing increasing demands for b-to-b work.

Edelman’s business marketing unit, for example, saw revenues shoot up

above dollars 19 million last year compared with only dollars 3 million

in 1998, says Mark Shadle, EVP and GM of Edelman’s 45-person

business-to-business marketing practice.

And Burson-Marsteller has formed a new unit called the Business to

Business Specialty Group.

The Horn Group, a San Francisco firm that last year reported more than

dollars 6.6 million in b-to-b PR revenue, is getting 40 to 50 business

leads a week in its San Francisco office and another 20 in its Boston

facility, yet it figures it can handle only four new West Coast clients

this year.

Sterling Communications, another West Coast hi-tech b-to-b shop in San

Jose, expects to do dollars 6 million in revenues this year and was

telling possible clients in early May that they had to wait until fall

before Sterling could work with them.

’I think it’s going to continue to be a really hot sector,’ says Sabrina

Horn, president of The Horn Group.

Doing b-to-b is a different animal from consumer PR. B-to-b programs

must reach a much more targeted audience with much more in-depth


Some experts say it’s the difference between creating awareness and

thoroughly educating a potential customer about a complex product.

’It’s definitely a more strategic-level sell. It’s a more

sophisticated-level pitch,’ says Horn. John Bailey, whose Detroit firm

handles b-to-b for auto suppliers, notes that ’in some cases, you might

have only 10 or 25 targets’ - the major purchasing decision makers at

the Big Three automakers.

Often, that’s what b-to-b PR is all about: trying to convince company

decision makers to spend large sums of money on products. That process

takes time and requires more than a casual mention in a newspaper


Targeting through the media

At the same time, doing b-to-b can mean targeting messages to different

kinds of media outlets. Chris Carleton, a partner with Boston’s Chen PR,

says that when client National Microsystems was changing its focus from

a phone service for computers to being a network-service and

Internet-telephony provider, Carleton started pitching the story by

picking key media outlets and analysts in the new field, explaining the

company’s history and its plans for the future. Once those efforts

starting bearing fruit in the form of a rising stock price, he

approached general business media outlets with the story of a company on

the rise just as it was to release its latest earnings numbers. Dow

Jones News Service ran a story as a result of those efforts. Another

channel Carleton went after was the local business press in the Boston

area. Favorable stories there were a plus for employee relations, he


B-to-b PR means targeting vertical trade publications, regional business

press, national financial outlets like Business Week and The Wall Street

Journal and the new generation of Net business publications like The

Industry Standard. Online outlets must also be addressed. A major goal

of b-to-b PR is to establish a client as an industry authority. Doing

that means touching on all tiers of these publications. ’There isn’t a

client we’re working with who doesn’t want to be in the business and

financial press,’ says Marijean Lauzier, president and CEO of Weber

Public Relations Worldwide, which ranked first in b-to-b income last

year, according to data compiled for PRWeek’s annual agency ranking.

The other commonly used tools of b-to-b, in addition to media relations,


- Analyst relations. Public companies have long worked to attract the

attention of Wall Street analysts, and that’s still part of b-to-b


But increasingly companies that use technology also must get positive

attention from research firms like Forrester or IDC. ’These are people

whose views are fueling perceptions in the market,’ says Andy Miller,

chairman of Miller Consulting Group in Boston.

- One-on-one customer relations. B-to-b PR targets decision makers

within companies, reaching those people on as personal a level as

possible. Tactics to do that include speaking at and hosting events for

industry trade shows, Webcasts and even charity and community


- Measurement. Hi-tech firms often start their b-to-b PR spending at

dollars 30,000 a month and ratchet up from there. For that kind of

money, they want to see results. The story’s the same for other b-to-b

PR, whatever the spending level. ’Measurement is very important in the

b-to-b sector,’ says Keith Burton, GM in Chicago for Golin/Harris


In addition, b-to-b offers plenty of opportunity for cobranding


When it was doing work for Ernst & Young’s Ernie electronic consultant

service, New York agency PepperCom created the Ernie Media Watch, a

small-business trend-of-the-month story for trade magazines in IT, human

resources, accounting and management, says Edward Moed, PepperCom

managing partner.

Publications agreed to run stories on the trends, and Ernst & Young’s

online consulting service gained credibility among potential


Targeting b-to-b messages requires a great deal of knowledge of a

client’s company and products as well as of the industry. That’s one

reason Gary Slack, managing director of Slack Barshinger & Partners, a

Chicago integrated marketing firm, says ’we can’t put a green kid right

out of college on a business-to-business account.’

When to speak tech

Yet some experts caution that b-to-b work can get too technical sounding

for its own good. ’All too often with tech b-to-b, PR folks get very

techie very quick,’ says Chen PR’s Carleton. Sending highly technical

press releases to non-techie reporters can guarantee a placement in the

trash bin, Carleton and others agree. B-to-b PR messages have to be as

sophisticated as the audience they’re sent to. For most clients,

messages have to be reformulated for the various media and analysts

being pursued as well as for the company decision makers who ultimately

will buy a client’s offerings.

Bailey gives examples from the world of the automotive trade press,

saying, ’Automotive News wants some details, Automotive Engineering

wants every detail. Some (trade pubs) are focused on the sales process,

some are focused on the manufacturing process.’

In hi-tech b-to-b, the media relations challenge becomes more


Marianne O’Connor, president of Sterling, gives an example for one of

her clients, DoveBid. The company, which used to be known as Dove

Brothers, had been in business 64 years, auctioning off unneeded

business assets for companies like Raytheon and Boeing. It now plans to

Webcast auctions, a technique that will allow it to auction assets in

various locations at the same time.

Sterling took the company’s changing business strategy to Auction News,

an industry vertical pub. The message for that book was that Dove’s

plans to Webcast unaggregated assets would enlarge the auction


It next targeted techie business pubs like The Industry Standard with

the message that this was a traditional company embracing the Net. Since

the company also has an eye on going public, The Wall Street Journal and

other business pubs were pitched with the message that this was a

growing marketplace of b-to-b online auctions and here was a company

that was leading the charge. Industry analysts were told of the

company’s expertise and experience to set it apart from all the startups

in the market. ’It’s all about targeting the message properly,’ says

O’Connor. Dove got coverage in the Los Angeles Times, Red Herring and on

In addition to media relations, the company’s CEO hit the conference

circuit. Speaking at the right trade events is often a key component of

b-to-b work. Some, like Slack, advocate sponsoring events such as

dinners at trade shows so clients can talk to their business prospects

one-on-one. ’You’ve got a barrel and you’ve got a lot of fish,’ Slack

says of such events. Bailey advises his clients to get involved in the

same charities as their hoped-for customers. Charity events are a good

opportunity to sell the reputation of a company to a potential customer,

he says.

The future of b-to-b is bound to include more Web-based events,

forecasts Weber’s Lauzier. Webcasts, customer intranets and other

techniques allow establishing a sense of community and loyalty between

business customers and their suppliers, she contends.

Whether using the Web or old-fashioned paper trade pubs, b-to-b is sure

to continue growing this year. Tech PR firms agree that b-to-b will be

the action part of the Web this year and that will fuel the need for

more b-to-b PR programs. As Burson’s LaSage notes, the PR pendulum has

swung back to b-to-b.

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