FOCUS: CONFERENCES - Making your clients panelists. Appearing on conference panels heightens a speaker’s profile and puts a face to a company. John Frank explains the ins and outs of conference speaking

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 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

to deliver.

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,

says Mathias.

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.

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