MEDIA ROUNDUP: Press reserves space for internet's success stories

Because the internet is no longer a novelty, getting coverage of a dot-com is trickier than it used to be - unless there's a focus on the company's viability and a slew of satisfied customers.

Because the internet is no longer a novelty, getting coverage of a dot-com is trickier than it used to be - unless there's a focus on the company's viability and a slew of satisfied customers.

Several years after the dot-com boom went bust and took with it almost the entire segment of tech-centric business publications such as Red Herring, The Industry Standard, and Upside, the internet is on the comeback trail as a media topic. "Recently there's been a lot of interest in companies that made it through the crash," says Betsy Smith Isroelit, partner with RBI Communications. "A lot of the dedicated high-tech outlets have gone away, but there's more opportunities for consumer coverage." That's not to say things are coming back to where they were a few years ago. Not only is a revival of the tech-centric-magazine phenomenon unlikely, but newspapers are choosier about the internet companies they profile. "Almost all of the major papers still have a dedicated tech section, but they've gotten a little smaller, so on one level it's a little bit more of a fight to get in them," says Mike Nikolich, CEO of Chicago-based Tech Image. "But on another level, there aren't many companies out there looking for coverage, so it's kind of leveled the playing field." The past five years have changed the media's view of not only the internet, but also of the PR people who pitch online-themed companies. "The journalists that are left have been burned so many times by companies and PR people, either with revenues that don't stand up or customers that don't stand up, that they've now pretty well indicated that fluff doesn't fly in 2003," notes Clint Woods, account supervisor with Houston-based Pierpont Communications. "So it's become a matter of establishing trust again with the reporters. What they now want to know - more so than if you have a great technology - is if your client is viable. Do they have customers, and will their customers speak with them?" Rebecca Fuller, VP with the San Francisco office of Blanc & Otus, says the PR focus these days needs to be on specific business values rather than wild claims about how the internet will permanently change lives. "I think a lot of reporters got caught up in the dot-com frenzy as well and, like everyone else, they learned some hard lessons," she says. "So now they scrutinize what they cover in a much different way. Three or four years ago, you could get a story based on the company's personality or the executive's personality, and that doesn't sell anymore." Get creative to get coverage With the demise of so many internet- and tech-themed media outlets, PR people have had to get far more creative to get coverage, and often that means pushing well beyond the technology beat. "If you wait for those online-site roundup stories, which now come around once every five months, and limit yourself to technology reporters, then pitching dot-coms will fail," says Linda Burns, SVP and director of the central media group for Fusion PR. "Dot-coms have to be tied to other beat reporters - lifestyle, food, travel, and anywhere else you can work it in - because the technology reporters are not impressed by online anymore." The good news for agencies representing internet clients is that most reporters now realize their audience is very comfortable with the online world. "It's all become mainstream," says Smith Isroelit, who represents leading online car dealer Autobytel.com. "I mean, 60% of people use the internet to buy a car, so it's really kind of back to basics, and we're working with publications like Family Circle, Parade, and USA Today." Smith Isroelit notes that this better understanding of the internet - along with the desire to return to basics - has even impacted the PR tools that are being used to pitch web-themed stories. "We all know that e-mail is not as effective as it was once upon a time, so people need to look at non-technical tools to reach the technology press, such as mailings and one-on-ones," she says. But this mainstreaming of the internet has had another impact on the media, as reporters are now looking to augment interviews with analysts and experts with more testimonials from average Americans to support the claims of any online endeavor. Customer stories count for more Burns, who represents the online photo album site Sacko.com, says she gathers specific customer stories, such as graduating high school classes that use Sacko to post and label a photo history of their academic years. "Our strategy is to go after regional dailies and target lifestyle reporters or education reporters, and we pick cities where our clients have customers," she says. "That way, the reporter can localize it and put a human face on the dot-com." Among those reporters who lived through the dot-com collapse, there's bound to be some lingering distrust of anything perceived as an internet company, but PR people say that's not usually a major obstacle. Bella Alabanza, PR specialist with the San Diego-based software company eHelp, says, "When you have a small e in front of your name, it's reminiscent of the dot-com era, so we're always prepared for the possibility of skepticism. And we immediately address that with reporters in our initial corporate overview, noting that eHelp is an established leader in its field, we're growing, and we have a solid customer base that includes Fortune 500 companies." Perhaps the most welcome change in coverage of the internet has occurred within the dot-com and tech companies themselves. Gone are the days when executives actively sought out cover stories or strove to be touted as an online visionary in The Wall Street Journal. "What you saw during the height of the boom was a lot of egos driving these decisions," says Nicolich. "And what we see now among the companies that survived is a focus on the bottom line, so clients are much more receptive to our advice than they may have been two or three years ago." That means that media outreach for internet stories is being centered on vertical trade publications that will actually generate sales leads. But even that remains a challenge, because magazines such as CIO, InfoWorld, and InformationWeek have also been hit by the ad slump, and are running fewer editorial pages. Ironically, even in the midst of what remains a dot-com-triggered tech slump, PR people claim that their clients are increasingly appreciating the internet - especially sites such as TechRepublic and CNet - as an influential editorial medium. "A very interesting phenomenon for us is that three years ago our clients we're not very impressed with internet placements," says Ken Krause, senior account manager with Tech Image. "But now it's more important to them than it used to be, especially if it's a client that's just launching, because you can get almost immediate coverage." ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; San Jose Mercury News; The Dallas Morning News; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; San Francisco Chronicle Magazines .net; eMedia; Fortune; Fast Company; Business 2.0; Time; Newsweek; US News & World Report; BusinessWeek; Forbes; Parade; Family Circle Trade Titles InfoWorld; Information Week; CIO; Internetweek.com; InternetWorld; Advertising Age; AdWeek TV & Radio TechTV; CNNfn; CNBC; CNN; PBS; national and local news and lifestyle programming; NPR Internet Techrepublic.com; MSNBC.com; Cnet.com; Internet.com

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