Corporate Case Study: PR entre puts Eaton Vance on the media's radar

Since VP for PR Meg Pier's arrival in 1999, mutual fund manager Eaton Vance, mostly unknown by the media to that point, has become both a presence and a resource to business reporters.

Since VP for PR Meg Pier's arrival in 1999, mutual fund manager Eaton Vance, mostly unknown by the media to that point, has become both a presence and a resource to business reporters.

In 1998, Eaton Vance, the then-74-year-old Boston mutual fund manager, earned a peculiar accolade from Barron's. The magazine dubbed the mid-cap firm its 1998 Fund Family of the Year, but did so under the headline, "Eaton Who?" Why the subtle dig? Because Eaton Vance, while earning praise within the industry for its investment management, found itself largely unknown to the people who cover finance. While it had leapt in one year from 17th to the top spot in Barron's ranking, its success seemed a secret, but not intentionally so. Eaton Vance hired Meg Pier to change all that. She did it through executing and teaching the basics of PR. PR 101 "Basically, it was kind of PR 101," says Pier, who became Eaton Vance's VP for PR in June 1999. Previously, she was VP of investment management PR at Scudder Kemper Investments. "When I arrived there," Pier recalls, "they [never] had a PR function. They had no one dedicated to either reactively or proactively interacting with the press. In a larger sense, they were not necessarily the household name that I think they are becoming. They didn't really have any presence in the press to speak of." Jim Hawkes, CEO of Eaton Vance since 1996, didn't want to go with the traditional advertising that competing firms used to establish that presence. "I didn't think, and we still don't think, that's the best way to approach it," says Hawkes. "It's certainly not the most cost-efficient way." PR would be the better option. "We are basically in a people business," Hawkes says. "We don't manufacture automobiles. We don't make steel or cornflakes. We're in a people business where people manage portfolios and deliver investment performance. So what is there to promote about an investment management company? Well, how you do your job, what you do, and who does it." Pier set about getting Eaton Vance's people on the minds and in the Rolodexes of reporters. She traveled a lot - to Chicago, LA, Washington, DC, and New York - alerting reporters she had met in her 20 years in PR to where she was now working. She let them know that Eaton Vance's expertise was a phone call away. But before meeting with reporters, she wanted to prepare Eaton Vance for what she hoped would be greater media interest. "In advance of that, in meeting with the portfolio managers and the investment pros," she says, "I kind of gave them a tutorial on how to interact with the media, what the expectation is, how to build a media presence, and how to be a resource to them. I explained to the portfolio managers that if I offered them up as a resource, they had to be accessible. They had to be willing to make the time to have these conversations with reporters, that more and more they would be quoted as experts offering perspective on the market or the news of the day." Pier worked with a budget of $40,000 and one other employee, PR assistant Deborah Porter, who started in Eaton Vance's nascent PR department in August 2002. Pier also worked against not only Eaton Vance's lack of notoriety, but, by 2001, against a slumping stock market and a recessionary economy. The first two years were heady for Pier and Porter. The work came fast. But, eventually, so did the payoffs. In a one-year period, starting in early 2001, Eaton Vance drew mention in 876 stories. The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, CNN, CNBC, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times would all cover Eaton Vance, including some with lengthy features. The 'unexciting' entices the media "While many fund firms have tried to boost their competitive standing by promoting go-go technology funds with white-hot 1999 performance," begins a June 2000 Wall Street Journal story, "Eaton Vance has used a strikingly different approach: It pushes the dull and unexciting." The story noted that Eaton Vance's strong suits "include municipal bonds, 'bank loan' funds, and tax-efficient trading strategies." Aside from the analysis and beyond the numbers, the coverage of Eaton Vance has always come back to that of a squeaky clean firm quietly booming in a rocky industry - in other words, the fruits of nearly pitch-perfect PR. To keep it going, Pier makes an effort to whet reporters' curiosity. "A big part of what I do is trying to anticipate what will interest the media and what they'll need to cover," says Pier. "I look for ways to give them a different perspective, useful information, and related story ideas." Pier started regular surveys to keep this dialogue with the media going. The surveys gauge investors' feelings, and they provide reliable grist for the ever-churning mill of media coverage. A recent investors survey, for instance, came just before Tax Day on April 15. "[Reporters] have to cover investors' attitudes day in and day out," Pier says. "They're always looking for a news hook. These surveys can provide that. We did our first one, I think, within six months of my joining the company." Pier and Porter also keep up with the ebb and flow of financial news. They can then put forth Eaton Vance people as experts just in time for deadlines. "We pay attention to when the Federal Reserve is meeting or when there's economic data coming out," Pier says, "whether it's from the Department of Labor in terms of jobs or what have you. We'll issue an advisory in advance saying that our chief economist is available to comment on the next day's Fed meeting and what comes out of that meeting. "I think the key to our success has been putting myself in [reporters'] shoes," she adds, "and understanding their needs and their deadlines, and being respectful of that." Keeping track of reporters is also a chore. "Sometimes, reporters don't stay with a publication long," Porter says. "We like to be on top of who is where and what they're writing about at more than 90 outlets." Key role in marketing mix PR fits into Eaton Vance as both its media liaison as well as an unofficial, yet integral, part of its marketing. Pier worked with the internal IR operation and with fund managers to better understand their strategies for individual products. "I worked with management to ascertain how I could support the marketing effort through media relations," Pier says. "And that's basically what I see myself and Debbie [Porter] doing. We're there to support the sales and marketing effort of the products and then get the word out about Eaton Vance as a brand. And Eaton Vance is a publicly traded company, so there's obviously a benefit to having more analysts who cover that sector being aware of what the company's all about." Besides Pier and Porter, the only other PR people for Eaton Vance are culled from an ongoing relationship with Northeastern University, whose students usually intern there for six months at a time. Eaton Vance does not work with any PR agencies. In the end, Eaton Vance's PR success through a slim budget and small staff springs from the simple basics that Pier has called PR 101. It's a meat-and-potatoes approach of building a brand and drawing favorable coverage through research and rapport. "Nothing I did was rocket science," Pier says. "I'm boggled by the fact that I've served on panels with reporters, they talk about their likes and dislikes, and I always hear [that] there are professionals out there who don't follow through on their obligations to reporters, both in terms of responding and serving as a liaison with whomever they represent." PR contacts Vice president for PR Meg Pier PR assistant Deborah Porter

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