The old saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. But these days, PR pros have added a new variation of that: one speech can reach a slew of audiences and be worth a lot more than the time it takes to deliver.
The old saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. But
these days, PR pros have added a new variation of that: one speech can
reach a slew of audiences and be worth a lot more than the time it takes
Getting your client on a panel at an industry conference can be a key PR
tool for reaching the media, customers, potential customers, employees
and future employees. Indeed, conference speaking ’is becoming equally
important as media relations,’ says Kevin Cook, SVP in the reputation
management practice at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide.
That’s partly because conferences offer the chance for media coverage
from reporters at such events. But perhaps more importantly, they offer
a captive audience of motivated listeners. After all, attendees go to
sessions when they’re interested in hearing what a speaker has to
A conference audience thus can be seen as a highly targeted group of
potential customers, or of potential employees, depending upon the
Even if you don’t want to sell anything specific, speaking presents the
opportunity for corporate brand building. Having speakers at key
industry shows establishes a company as a thought leader in its field, a
position that can generate future revenue possibilities.
’Here’s an opportunity to tangibly show the profit opportunity available
with public relations,’ notes Larry A. Mathias, director of public
relations at Click Commerce, a Chicago-based company that makes
extranets. As he works to raise Click’s profile in the e-commerce world,
Mathias has set a goal of 40 speaking appearances for his company’s
executives this year.
Cook is using speaking spots as a key part of his work with client USG,
a building-materials company trying to tell Wall Street and others that
it has substantially improved its business prospects.
Arthur Andersen, in the midst of a major PR-driven corporate branding
campaign, also plans to use speaking opportunities to establish itself
in areas that it has targeted for future business growth.
Effective use of speaking engagements requires careful planning and
advance work. That planning begins with a company’s business objectives,
says Brian Schwartz, an account manager with the Hoffman Agency in San
Jose, CA, who has worked on conference-speaking opportunities with
client HP Education, a training arm of Hewlett-Packard. ’Publicity for
its own sake doesn’t do any good,’ Schwartz says of such
Finding the right engagement
Indeed, participating in a conference should support a company’s
business interests. To best do that, you should:
- Target meetings that best conform to a company’s business
- Pick the best person in the company to speak at the particular
- Include presentation training for key executives to ensure speeches
contain information that audiences want to hear.
- Build on speaking opportunities with advanced media work before a
speech and also with coverage of the speech itself.
- Piggyback sales efforts with speaking engagements.
When determining whether the meeting is right for your client, factors
to consider include how many people will attend and whether attendees
fit the profile a company wants to reach. ’You really have to do your
due diligence’ before accepting speaking offers, says Cook. That means
checking on a conference’s past attendance, both in terms of numbers and
titles of attendees.
Arthur Andersen, for example, is looking for shows that attract CEOs,
CFOs and chief information officers from potential clients. ’It’s not
just quantity’ but the quality of conference attendees that matters,
says Jane Ostrander, who heads up media and public relations at
Generally, conferences put on by the major business magazines such as
Business Week, Forbes and Fortune are seen as the top tier of speaking
engagements. But Cook counsels clients to consider meetings held by
regional business and economic clubs around the country. And more and
more trade publishers are staging conferences tied to their magazine
titles. Some of those shows may better target the audience a company
wants to reach than a larger, national show would.
Industry-specific shows can also be more productive if a company wants
to garner more business from that particular industry. ’A lot of times,
the greater fruit is in the verticals,’ i.e., industry-specific shows,
Conferences can also be targeted by time of year. Conference planning
starts as much as a year ahead of time, so PR pros need to be cognizant
of planners’ schedules when looking for shows. Speaking at a conference
scheduled when a company is planning a major announcement can add impact
to that announcement, for example.
Also important is pinpointing which individuals in a given company will
project the best image. While CEOs are often the embodiment of a
company, their time is valuable and limited, so they should not be sent
to just any meeting. Rather, match the speaker to the importance of the
meeting, the audience involved and the purpose that appearing at the
show will serve for the company.
’You want to always be a 10,’ says Betsy Buckley, a principle with
Minneapolis-based McGrath Buckley Communication Counseling. ’Almost no
one can be a 10 everywhere.’
Kathleen Hessert, president of Communication Concepts in Charlotte, NC,
advises putting together a roster of speakers below the CEO level who
may be appropriate for other forums. ’If people don’t have set criteria
(for who will speak where), they end up in the wrong venue at the wrong
time,’ she says.
Anyone who might speak - from the CEO down - should undergo presentation
training. Sitting on a panel is different from answering media
’Presentations require charisma; some CEOs have it and some don’t,’
notes Buckley, who is also PR chair for the National Speakers
Association, a professional speakers organization.
Part of the training is to stress that speeches shouldn’t be blatant
commercials for the speaker’s company. A panelist might get away with
one commercial, but conference organizers are loath to invite back
presenters who simply deliver a 20-minute promotion for their company.
’Once they’re up there (speaking), you’re helpless,’ notes Rich
Mitchell, editor of ID World magazine (’The Magazine of Personal
Identification and Biometrics’), based in Chicago.
Mitchell has been involved in conference planning for his publisher,
Faulkner & Gray, for more than 10 years. When planning a program, he
looks for speakers who are experts on topics they are being asked to
address and ’who we’re pretty confident won’t give a sales pitch for
their company,’ he says.
Mathias agrees: ’Nobody wants to hear a commercial from a vendor.’
Indeed, Mathias already has one auto show coming up in Singapore for
which he’s asked a client of Click’s, Hyundai, to speak in the company’s
stead, feeling that having a satisfied customer talk about his company
can only add to its positive image.
Projecting a positive image
Though commercials are out, speakers should convey a sense of a
company’s expertise and business competence. Cook notes, ’You need to
find that nuance of where you blend those two objectives’ - namely,
speaking on an assigned topic while at the same time projecting a
positive image for the speaker’s organization. For example, Cook sees
USG chairman William C. Foote, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant, as a
speaker who ’has all the intangibles’ to have a positive PR impact
through speaking engagements; he’s charismatic and is comfortable making
his points in front of audiences.
When an appearance is scheduled, the PR pros should get going with
advanced media relations work. Andersen’s Ostrander says she plans to
use panel appearances by Andersen executives as opportunities to contact
local media for interviews with those individuals. Pre-conference
interviews provide excellent venues to get the company’s message across
to key media.
As for sales leads, Hoffman account manager Schwartz advises clients to
have salespeople in the audience when a client speaker is talking at a
conference. After-speech conversations among audience members can
generate sales leads, as can audience members chatting with speakers
after formal presentations are over. Hessert advises sending speech
advances to key clients and inviting them to the talk. Key prospects
should also be invited.
As with any PR technique, planning and proper execution are keys to
obtaining the best return on speaking engagements. ’I always talk ROI
(return on investment) with them,’ says Hessert about giving advice to
CEOs about speaking. The return can come from clients, media coverage
and employee morale, she says, adding she counsels firms to put CEO
speeches on company intranets so employees can hear what the CEO has to
say. Others advise putting speeches on a company’s Internet site so that
conference planners can see and hear with streaming video how a speaker
does in front of an audience.
One good speech can generate other good speaking opportunities, and all
of them put together can generate positive brand awareness and more
business for a company. That’s good news for PR pros wanting to show
exactly what their efforts are worth.