OP-ED: 'Outside' help gives firms an inside track to the media

It sounds like heresy: A public relations agency recommending a reputation-management program that doesn't rely on media relations.

It sounds like heresy: A public relations agency recommending a reputation-management program that doesn't rely on media relations.

Lest I inflame the sensibilities of the many talented and successful media relations practitioners within the ranks of our profession, let me assure you that media relations has always been - and will always be - a central component of our work for clients. But it can no longer be the only component. Even before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many of us had realized that the world had begun to spin faster, and that the extraordinary impact of digital technology had forever altered the communication landscape for our clients. Segue to April 2003: It borders on the impossible to try to interest The Wall Street Journal in a classic corporate profile. If a story doesn't concern the war, or if your company isn't embroiled in a financial or governance controversy, there's simply no more room in the newshole. Now more than ever, we need to embrace new means of communicating our clients' stories to their most important audiences. At Ketchum, one of our most successful approaches is something we call Influencer Relationship Management(tm) (IRM). The genesis of IRM occurred when we experienced some challenges in convincing major media that one of our clients - FedEx - had significantly transformed itself from an overnight delivery company to a full-service, air-ground network and logistical resource, with a unique strategy to compete collectively and cross-sell services, while operating independent business units. We were particularly frustrated because, unlike a lot of companies that had claimed to have "reinvented" themselves, FedEx really had. But while some reporters understood the strategy, a significant number, perhaps jaded by past hollow promises from other companies, just weren't buying it. Part of the problem stemmed from an age-old conundrum: There are some things the company simply couldn't say about itself with any credibility. But others - outsiders - could, if only we could convince them that the "new FedEx" was as exciting a story as we knew it to be. With the encouragement and active participation of FedEx's corporate VP of worldwide communications and investor relations Bill Margaritis, we started to identify just who these outside influencers really were. The list was enlightening. Yes, it included a few top securities analysts; digital analysts at places like Forrester and Gartner; experts at consulting firms like McKinsey; academics and think-tank observers; and a grouping of major customers and suppliers. But what made the list intriguing was its conciseness: 147 names. We reasoned that if we could convert these 147 individuals into evangelists, we would begin to create "concentric circles of awareness" as these oft-quoted influencers began to use FedEx as the exemplar of a company that "gets it" and helps other companies succeed. We began by creating a matrix in which we categorized each influencer and their current perception of FedEx, and assigned "ownership" of each influencer to the appropriate person within FedEx - right up to the CEO. We then instituted an outreach initiative that was designed not only to establish contact with these influencers, but to foster an ongoing relationship. Just as in a classic Customer Relationship Management (CRM) program, we kept close tabs on each interaction between a senior manager and his or her influencers, and tracked the number and tone of references to FedEx by these influencers. The results exceeded our most optimistic expectations. Within a remarkably short period of time - roughly the time it normally takes to place one major corporate profile in Fortune or BusinessWeek - the word about the "new FedEx" began appearing in research reports, monographs, at conferences, on campuses... and in the media. People took notice, and many of them participated in FedEx's success in a very gratifying way: they bought the stock, which climbed from the mid 30s to more than $80 before the stock was split. FedEx has now made IRM a key element of its communications strategy, and while they remain very actively engaged in direct media outreach, increasingly some of the best coverage of FedEx grows out of the IRM effort. Our IRM database has also shaped our issues and crisis management methodology. By maintaining relationships with influencers in good times, they come in mighty handy in bad times. Another one of our clients, Federated Department Stores, recently decided to close a number of locations in the Atlanta area, and, having identified the most crucial influencers in the market, went to each of them to make sure they understood that Federated is fully committed to Atlanta. In fact, it will soon be opening a Bloomingdale's in the market, a move long hoped for by many Atlanta shoppers. On announcement day, many of these influencers were called by media for comment, and our messages came through loud and clear. We now incorporate some kind of IRM into many of our programs, be they corporate positioning or marketing communication efforts. With newsholes contracting, it makes a lot of sense to add 147 people to your communications team.
  • Ray Kotcher is senior partner and CEO of Ketchum.

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