PROFILE: Ek's journalism savvy upgrades PR at Priceline.com

Brian Ek, VP of strategic communications for Priceline.com, has been building a reputation for himself as one of the best PR pros in the industry since the time he got his first computer.

Brian Ek, VP of strategic communications for Priceline.com, has been building a reputation for himself as one of the best PR pros in the industry since the time he got his first computer.

Brian Ek's first computer affected his career far beyond its intended purpose. The current VP of strategic communications at Priceline.com bought an early IBM on the market to help him moonlight as an annual report writer for a biotech company after he left journalism for his first PR job at BorgWarner. Pondering how computers might develop beyond word processing, Ek wrote to IBM. He was stunned that the company called to talk to him about managing communications for its new venture - Prodigy. He accepted and has since spent nearly 20 years on the front lines of computer technology development. "Entering that sector in the mid-'80s put my career squarely in the path of the emerging internet," Ek says. "[It] gave me the privilege of being involved in the first mass-appeal online service, the first name-your-own-price form of commerce, and the first challenge to online free speech. I've been very fortunate." When Prodigy hired Ek, he went city to city explaining the concept of online services to the media. The company quickly grew to become the largest online service. Prodigy promoted Ek to communications director and named him acting government-affairs director. "One reason Brian is very successful is that reporters respect and listen to him," says Mark Darcy, head of communications for IBM Corporate Linux. Darcy worked with Ek at both Prodigy and Priceline. "One Wall Street Journal reporter says that Brian is one of the 10 best PR people in the industry. He's very humble. If he could improve on one thing, he could get a bigger ego." In 1995, Ek was named Prodigy's VP of government affairs and a chief lobbyist. He also served as a special adviser to the Congressional Internet Caucus, worked closely with MIT's World Wide Web Consortium, lectured on telecoms reform, and was chosen by his peers to act as internet industry spokesman during the government's attempt to pass the Communications Decency Act. "If you earn the respect of senior management, they will come to you for ideas," says Darcy. "Brian was very vocal that if the company was first to come out with World Wide Web access, it would be a tremendous news story [and] help generate new customers. It did both. The lead PR person is not always consulted on those types of decisions. But if they bring value, as Brian certainly did, they will have a seat at the table." Ek's biggest challenge has been adapting PR strategies to the impact the web has had on information. "Information now comes at consumers and the press through a virtual fire hose," he says. "In too many cases, people take for granted that what you see on the internet is true. For journalism, competition is much tougher than it was 10 or 20 years ago. You have to craft releases not from your or your company's perspective, but from the reporter's perspective. If there is no legitimate news hook, you're wasting the company's money." It's a rare talent that can envision how information that is meaningful to a firm can beneficially intersect with information meaningful to the media and drive that information to converge. Jay Walker, Priceline.com founder and chairman of Walker Digital, says that in more than 500 PR assignments, Ek has never missed telling him what news story will result. "He has a knack for looking at every story through each journalist's eyes - not just journalists in general," he notes. "He never tells you what you want to hear. He tells you what the other guy is going to say." Ek handled the launches of each of Priceline.com's services (except its airline tickets product) and managed the press during its 1999 IPO, which was the third most successful in Nasdaq history. Despite that, the company nearly tanked in the dot-com bust, but after dropping everything except its core travel services and mortgage business, it emerged as a profitable travel company. "We never thought of Brian as a PR person; we thought of him as a business partner," Walker says. "He delivered as a member of the management team. You know he's steady under fire and his decisions put the company first." Ek's toughest task is telling people that the things they want covered have no news value. "You must know what's newsworthy and be ready to push back if [what you have is] not. You have to look at your opportunities with the media as silver bullets that you can only use so many times. I typically don't contact them unless I have something important to say. If they tell me they're not interested, the conversation is over." PR for Priceline.com is unusual because it sells deeply discounted products from big-name suppliers who do not want their brands publicized. Ek often uses the company's database to mine information that interests the media without exposing clients. Ek says he's somewhat "personally dismayed" that so few PR pros have journalism backgrounds. "PR people are told to go place a concept and they have never worked in a newsroom," he says. "Clearly there's a vested interest, one that's not necessarily tied to news value. If you're a reporter on deadline in an office that has been decimated by layoffs and somebody who has no idea what you do for a living calls and badgers you, it doesn't take long to get a view that is not positive. You have to be very tuned into maintaining a high standard of ethics." Ek says he was influenced by former Prodigy colleagues Regis McKenna, a top tech-marketing consultant, and Geoffrey Moore, currently head of communications for Michael Milken. In turn, he has helped many of his employees develop successful careers. "I'm really proud that two folks who have worked for me have gone on to great careers of their own," Ek says. Carol Wallace, director of marketing communications at Siemens Business Services, says Ek taught her how to think like a reporter when he hired her at Prodigy. "It was like working in a newsroom every day," she says. "It was the most exciting time of my career." "He's a great sounding board," Darcy says. "If I have a question or I'm looking for outside advice, he's one of the first people I'd call. He's one of the more singularly focused people, especially on the PR side." Brian Ek 1998-present VP, strategic comms, Priceline.com 1996-1998 VP, strategic comms, Dow Jones Markets 1985-1996 Various posts at Prodigy: Comms manager (1985-1993); Comms/govt. affairs director (1993-1995); VP, govt. affairs and chief lobbyist, Prodigy Services Co. (1995-1996) 1979-1985 Comms supervisor, BorgWarner's protective services unit 1976-1979 Editor/reporter, The Courier-News, Bridgewater, NJ

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