ANALYSIS: Client Profile - Fortifying the dock of the eBay community. It started as a way to find Pez dispensers, and now eBay is the name in online auctions, with a stratospheric stock price and profits to boot. But can eBay maintain its warm, fuzzy imag

Ebay senior PR manager Kristin Seuell estimates that the company’s PR ’nerve center’ receives a minimum of 20 interview requests daily - on a slow news day. Over the next 60 minutes, media calls include the following: a Time reporter hoping to track down quotes for a story on Internet safety; a CNBC producer looking to score a sound bite on the recent hacker attacks; and a Newsweek writer seeking a new angle.

Ebay senior PR manager Kristin Seuell estimates that the company’s PR ’nerve center’ receives a minimum of 20 interview requests daily - on a slow news day. Over the next 60 minutes, media calls include the following: a Time reporter hoping to track down quotes for a story on Internet safety; a CNBC producer looking to score a sound bite on the recent hacker attacks; and a Newsweek writer seeking a new angle.

Ebay senior PR manager Kristin Seuell estimates that the company’s

PR ’nerve center’ receives a minimum of 20 interview requests daily - on

a slow news day. Over the next 60 minutes, media calls include the

following: a Time reporter hoping to track down quotes for a story on

Internet safety; a CNBC producer looking to score a sound bite on the

recent hacker attacks; and a Newsweek writer seeking a new angle.



’At some PR jobs, you have to make the rain. Here it pours everyday,’

quips Russell Brady, senior manager of international PR.



Certainly, such media attention has its advantages. In a world where

companies are investing millions in 30-second Super Bowl spots and

hosting bashes with the B-52s to rise above the din, eBay is probably

the one e-commerce company your grandmother would have no trouble naming

- because it’s quite possible she uses it. It’s also a dot-com anomaly;

a company that actually makes money. In 1999, fourth quarter operating

profit rose 56% on sales that more than doubled, and net income reached

dollars 19.4 million for the full year.



On the other hand, as the PR staff knows only too well, eBay’s high

profile carries a hefty price tag. Like other Silicon Valley household

names such as Cisco and Intel, if this giant sniffles, the press treats

it like a flu epidemic. Then take the much flashier stories eBay’s very

nature invites. Between site outages and human organ auctions, hacker

attacks and lawsuits, the four-and-a-half year old company has faced

more crisis situations than some encounter in a lifetime.





Protect the community -



’The challenge is in balancing the proactive work with the reactive,’

says Brenda Lynch, senior VP at Manning Selvage & Lee, eBay’s PR firm of

record.



Currently, the scales are tipped heavily toward the reactive side of the

equation. Though it still has a fairly lean in-house crew, the company

did add some media relations muscle last year with the hiring of

ex-reporter and political press aide Kevin Pursglove as lead

spokesperson - just in time, as it turns out, for eBay’s calamitous

22-hour site outage in June. With its immediate response and CEO Meg

Whitman on the front lines talking to cameras throughout the situation,

eBay’s crisis communications efforts were widely hailed.



’They were uncommonly calm and prompt in getting back to me even in the

midst of all the stuff going on there,’ affirms Forbes.com columnist Jon

Swartz, who covered the eBay outage while at The San Francisco

Chronicle.



Certainly, the outage (followed by subsequent crashes in the summer and

fall) helped Pursglove’s department hone its skills for the hacker

attacks last month. This time around - perhaps because the attacks were

seen as blameless incidents and potentially less damaging to the company

image - most of the calls and interview requests were ranked in order of

importance, with few getting through to Whitman or the engineers.



And as if hacker attacks and site crashes weren’t enough, eBay’s focus

on facilitating merchandise transactions between individuals means

sticky situations are always just a click away. While guns, drugs and

even human babies have made appearances on the site, eBay says that

problems with illegal sales have been mostly eliminated due to two new

policies. One requires sellers to register a credit card, and the other

instituted a ’community watch’ program that alerts management when

something questionable has been listed. However, when it comes to legal,

yet morally objectionable listings - like KKK memorabilia - the company

has chosen to take a laissez-faire approach.



’We have to do that if we want to be true to our stated mission, which

is that we help people trade practically anything,’ says Seuell.



Just holding the fort and fielding reporters’ calls is not going to be

enough to hold eBay together forever, however, especially now that more

and more competitors are nipping at its heels for a piece of auction

action.



With Gomez Advisors projecting a hike in consumer spending on online

auctions from dollars 1.5 billion last year to dollars 15.5 billion in

2001, players such as Yahoo!, Amazon and Excite have started their own

auctions. At the same time, a host of competing companies like

AuctionWatch and Bidder’s Edge have sprung up and are battling for the

right to cull from eBay’s listings.



Seuell and PR manager Jennifer Chu say that the folksy nature of eBay’s

trading community is the company’s strongest defense against

competition.



To that end, the PR team turns the lens on individual users’

experiences, identifying success stories that make for juicy media play.

For example, they found someone who had scored a great bargain on some

priceless printing-press artifacts and landed her a guest spot on Oprah

Winfrey.



’The eBay story is about personal loyalties based within the community,’

says Pursglove. ’No one has been able to copy our community glue.’ At

the same time, Chu claims that eBay’s numbers speak for themselves - and

her job is to make reporters aware of these statistics. ’It’s easy to

get listings, but no other auction site has the number of sales and the

value of bidding activity that we do,’ she says.



Ebay also aggressively positions itself as a barometer of pop

culture.



Agency and in-house PR staff regularly monitor postings on the site to

find connections with popular media, entertainment and general societal

trends, then craft a pitch surrounding the findings. For example, when

Blair Witch madness hit last summer, the site hosted an auction for the

director’s camera and landed spots on E! and Entertainment Tonight.



Will eBay be able to maintain such a homespun, community-oriented

approach as it moves into the 21st century and continues its explosive

growth?



In the past year, it has marched into new countries and markets, and the

PR team is still playing a game of catch-up. The company has beefed up

its worldwide communications efforts, hiring Brady away from Apple to

head up international PR. It has also hired regional PR firms to support

eBay’s new country-specific sites in Asia and Europe.





- And Wall Street will follow



But eBay has been hunting for a VP of corporate communications for more

than six months, which has caused some to take pause. Silicon Valley

recruiter Susan Flesher guesses that eBay might be having trouble

filling the newly created position. ’Candidates might be pausing to

consider whether or not this is a company that has shown a commitment to

senior strategic communications in the past. No one wants to have to lay

the pavement; they want to just get in and drive.’



It will also be tough for eBay to establish a more mature communications

function without compromising its down-home origins. Even so, the

company doesn’t seem overly concerned about the effect of controversy on

the bottom line.



’We don’t look at business decisions based on how it will affect the

stock price,’ explains Seuell. ’The mantra throughout the whole company

- and it goes all the way up to Meg Whitman - is ’If we do right by our

community, we do right by eBay, and Wall Street will do right by

us.’’





eBay



PR chiefs: Steve Westly, SVP of marketing; Kevin Pursglove, senior

communications director; Kristin Seuell, senior PR manager; Russell

Brady, senior manager of international PR; Jennifer Chu, PR manager

(consumer and vertical sites); Jenny Lee, IR manager



Agency of record: Manning Selvage & Lee (since August 1998)



International agencies: Fodor Wylie (UK), Cosmo (Japan), Tresena Karas

(Australia) and Dripke Wolff (Germany)



Revenues: dollars 224.7 million in fiscal 1999.



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