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
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
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
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
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
’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
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
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
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.