Corporate Case Study: PR coordination helps WWE grab hold of the public

Whether promoting its stars or community endeavors, World Wrestling Entertainment is using a concerted comms push to boost its fan base and earn the corporate world's respect.

Whether promoting its stars or community endeavors, World Wrestling Entertainment is using a concerted comms push to boost its fan base and earn the corporate world's respect.

Gary Davis and Neil Lawi are an important tag team for World Wrestling Entertainment. They don't toil in the ring, however. Instead, the two work in tandem to promote the company and its events, products, and stars. More than most companies, WWE has coaxed its corporate communications and its product PR to perform hand-in-hand. It does so through tried-and-true media relations, but also with savvy, cause-related marketing. In addition, WWE relies heavily on its hulking talent as ambassadors of the brand. Those bruisers are also pretty good at getting themselves into trouble - thus presenting some interesting crisis choke holds. All this has hatched a weird interplay of an innovative though scrappy company on the one hand, and its body-slamming representatives on the other. The company, 30% of which is publicly traded, makes its money by presenting hundreds of live events each year, televising many. It sells merchandise such as apparel, toys, video games, and music CDs. It also claims to be the world's largest pay-per-view provider. WWE just put out its fiscal year-end results. While revenues were down to $375 million from $438 million a few years ago, net income was a healthy $48 million after a loss last year. "Here's this publicly traded company making hundreds of millions of dollars off of men wearing spandex in the ring," says Davis, VP of corporate communications. "But it's an extremely profitable and sophisticated business in many ways." WWE strives to be taken seriously In a generally sunny BusinessWeek article earlier this year about WWE's prospects after a few tough years, the magazine quoted one holder of WWE stock as saying, "There's a natural aversion to taking this company seriously." But it is Davis' job to get people to do just that. He joined in 2000 with an unlikely background, after nearly 20 years in PR for energy companies. But WWE was looking for someone with his corporate reputation and crisis know-how. "When I first came here, the challenge was that we'd gone public, but everybody thought of us as the people on TV," Davis says. Now, he notes, WWE is hobnobbing with political heavyweights. It is working with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) at her "Next Generation Democratic Summit," while also joining Republican senators on visits to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. WWE uses charity outreach to boost corporate reputation and product publicity. It has programs in which it sends its stars out to schools to talk about the importance of education and reading. It has a voter-registration program called "Smackdown Your Vote!" in which it's seeking to get 2 million more 18- to-30-year-olds to the polls. It also partners with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. "All those opportunities build corporate reputation and help [VP of publicity] Neil [Lawi] in terms of people being more interested in us" for publicity purposes, Davis says. WWE has put demands on its fans. In March 2002, it split its brand between RAW and Smackdown! TV shows and rosters. In a recent analyst call, CEO Linda McMahon admitted to some "hiccups" in steering that transition. The company has now successfully reeducated the fan base that "different stars are on different nights," she said. Dennis McAlpine, managing partner of media-research firm McAlpine Associates in Scarsdale, NY, says that the big hurdle the company faces - besides declining revenues - is its recent talent turnover. Major names like Hulk Hogan, Brock Lesnar, and Stone Cold Steve Austin have left, while The Rock is distracted by Hollywood. Building up the new talent Those stars' absences means there's a new slew of wrestlers to promote. "They've got to create names for the talent themselves," says McAlpine. "That's going to take time. They don't have a lot of luminaries at this stage." McAlpine is apparently one of only two analysts who cover the company, another reason it must put itself out there to gain respect. WWE has so many events and products - it now produces feature films - that Lawi has his hands more than full. The company has a nationwide, American Idol-like search for a new "diva," or female wrestler, to join the roster with a $250,000 contract. And Lawi - who joined the company a year ago after a decade of doing music publicity at Sony Music Entertainment's Columbia Records - also secures PR opportunities for the McMahons, the husband-and-wife team of chairman Vince and president and CEO Linda. Chad Williams, editor of The Hollywood Reporter's East Coast edition, dealt with the WWE PR team for a March special section celebrating WrestleMania XX, the Super Bowl of pro wrestling. "We never had any problems setting up interviews for the various writers I had working on the pieces," says Williams, who did an in-depth Q&A with Vince McMahon. And then there is the way Davis and Lawi, who report to EVP of marketing Kurt Schneider, bring it all together. For example, last month they were busy promoting a pay-per-view event - The Great American Bash. Because WWE was offering it free to military personnel and USOs around the country - military folks are huge wrestling fans - it offered angles to buff the company's image. Davis coordinated outreach to military and trade titles, while Lawi pursued media outlets such as Access Hollywood and USA Today. Another example is the release of Ric Flair's autobiography, To Be the Man, that will include a national book tour. Local groups will be on hand to offer voter registration as part of the WWE drive, a plus for corporate reputation. The wrestlers themselves play a starring role in the PR efforts. When WWE held a press luncheon in March to debut its video-on-demand service, called WWE 24/7 - it owns 75,000 hours of video - wrestlers Flair and Triple H hopped from table to table just like the McMahons and other executives did. For the company's secondary offering earlier this year, wrestlers walked the floor of the underwriters. Lawi says a key part of what WWE and its PR pros do, especially with all the new faces, is power-lift the wrestlers' profiles. He offers the example of John Cena, from Boston, who's getting a big push. "You can't just throw him on Letterman and say, 'Go do it'," adds Lawi. "We're building him up. We're starting [by looking at] features in The Boston Globe. Then we get bigger. An AP story. Over time we'll build him up so he'll get to a level [where he can] do a huge national TV program." "They're incredibly smart [and have] incredibly good business programs," says Sal Cataldi, president and creative director of New York-based Cataldi Public Relations, who began working with WWE earlier this year. "Even the production elements they brought to the 24/7 launch, the video presentation - they're in the business of doing TV, they bring that to the table." Crisis control Crises do pop up, such as accusations of steroid use among wrestlers and about matches upping violence among kids. A good example happened last month in Munich, Germany. John Bradshaw Layfield churned the crowd by doing the Nazi goose step and salute in the ring. The incident didn't cause much of a stir until CNBC fired him as a financial analyst over it. (In addition to being a wrestling bad boy, Layfield has written a personal-finance book.) Davis says the company followed its plan for such situations. It began getting e-mails from fans, whose input helps gauge a crisis' ebb and flow. WWE developed a position as soon as the e-mails started coming in, got it cleared, and put the position out on its website. The statement said that WWE regretted the incident and that Layfield had been reprimanded. It also stressed that the wrestlers are only playing characters, a point Layfield repeated over and over in a June 10 Washington Post piece on the flap. Davis and Lawi, however, are not playing characters. They're the real thing: a corporate communications and publicity tag team that makes it work. PR contacts VP of corporate comms Gary Davis VP of publicity Neil Lawi Manager of corporate comms Kate Cox Manager of community relations Sue Aitchison Corporate comms coordinator Adam Hopkins Administrative assistant Mary Ringwood Agencies Cataldi Public Relations, Dan Klores Communications, APCO Worldwide

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