The press is not instantly drawn to midsize companies, though many merit coverage. David Ward finds ways firms can interest business reporters in their smaller clients
In an ideal world, every PR agency client would either be the hard-charging leader of a glamorous industry or some exciting new start-up with products that dramatically revolutionize the way we live.
However, the reality is that the bulk of the companies looking to outside agencies for media relations help don't have the type of messages or executives that business reporters will immediately clamor to cover.
"It's the nature of the press that they cover the large, controversial businesses," says Shawn Whalen, SVP with Schwartz Communications. "But the engine of the economy is really being driven by small and midsize companies, and [most] of those are in unglamorous businesses."
While it can vary dramatically, the good news for PR pros is that many midsize companies have a pretty good grasp of the media challenges they face. "The large, publicly traded companies create a lot of noise because of all the disclosure and all the releases they put out every week," explains Terri Pond, director of marketing for privately-held Washington, DC-based IT firm Intelligent Decisions. "And once you hit a certain level of revenue, you cannot grow 300% every year, especially if you are growing internally and not through acquisition. So for a private, midsize company, it's hard to cut through the clutter, and [they] kind of get buried in the news."
Cos Mallozzi, president and CEO of New York-based Gibbs & Soell, says the first thing any agency representing a midsize company must do is make sure it's not a numbers game. "The biggest challenge is developing interest beyond financials," he says. "To do that, you need to focus on a company's innovative technologies or position it as part of a larger trend."
You can also take a close look at members of the company's executive team, as many of them have stories far more interesting than those of blue-chip CEOs.
"A lot of times, the head of a midsize company has a personality that goes beyond their organization," says Thomas Ciesielka, president of TC Public Relations in Chicago. "So even
though you won't have a killer announcement about the business every month, you can look at other things, such as how the business is involved in the local community or how they do things different from the big boys, and magnify that."
Adds Whalen, "Business writers may want to write about Bill Gates every week, but when you go beneath the surface of a lot of these midsize companies, there's usually a fascinating story. You can look at whether there are women executives you can highlight. Perhaps there are key minority executives or executives under 40 who you can pitch to Inc. magazine for their '40 under 40' feature."
One of Whalen's clients is the TriZetto Group, which provides technology for insurance company back offices. "One of the things we found out was that their CEO, Jeff Margolis, had Crohn's disease, and one of the reasons he founded the company was that his own experience showed him that the healthcare process needed improvement," Whalen says. "We were able to take that personal story and get trade coverage that eventually led to an article on BusinessWeek's website, which in turn was helpful in getting a piece in The New York Times."
The key to this, of course, is getting midsize clients to be open not only about themselves, but about their operations. "A challenge you sometimes get is being stonewalled on what kind of performance information you can share," says Scott Signore, founder of Matter Communications. "You have to make sure the information you're offering journalists is client-approved, but being aggressive with that content can really help you place stories that exemplify thought leadership."
Signore also cites client Sonopress, which replicates CDs, DVDs, and other optical discs, as an example of a solid, but low-profile company that was able to drive coverage by bringing its customers, many of whom are leading entertainment and video-game publishers, into the story. "You can tie their name to their customers, and both companies can share success," he says, adding that with the right approach, most customers are usually willing to participate.
Scott Hanson, president of Phoenix-based HMA Public Relations, says most midsize companies know that a lot of their early coverage is likely to be geographically narrow. "We try to discuss this with them in advance," he says, "and I always try to tell them that they need to walk before they can run. That can be done with regional and local business journals."
Though it doesn't happen a lot, Hanson points out, these local stories often have legs that can surprise you. "Today's media is so integrally linked, such as the American City Business Journals or Gannett, which owns a lot of different publications," he says. "So there are opportunities for, say, an Arizona Republic piece to be picked up by the AP. Then, all of a sudden, it's a national story."
Stephen O'Keeffe, president of O'Keeffe & Company, also notes that midsize companies often need to be aggressive in bringing stories to business reporters that shake up the status quo. "I'm a firm believer in disruptive PR," he says. "One way to do that is to lead with a study, and then position the executive as a spokesperson who can comment on those results."
One of O'Keeffe's clients is Intelligent Decisions, and Pond says that the best thing any PR agency can do for its midsize client is understand not only its business, but where it's looking for growth.
"I'm sure our president would love his black-and-white sketch on the front page of The Wall Street Journal," she says. "But when it comes down to it, we really want that focus on vertical titles of the markets we serve - especially the federal market - because that is what will drive our business. And that's why we need a PR firm that understands the intricacies of the federal market and how you get mindshare of key decision-makers."
Do pitch locally. Local business journals and papers can help establish companies as great employers and partners in any city or region
Do take the time to really get to know your midsize client and how it gets things done. That element might prove to be the key to gaining a business writer's interest
Do manage expectations by sitting down with a midsize client early on to make sure it realizes the types of coverage you can - and can't - get for it
Don't lead with the financials. Most midsize companies won't have the huge blue-chip revenue or year-on-year growth of start-ups. As such, doing a story solely on the numbers is unlikely
Don't assume the press only wants high drama. A successful company that consistently delivers for customers, staff, and stakeholders is a relevant story in today's uncertain economy
Don't flood the business press. A flurry of press releases won't make a midsize company seem any larger