Sold on teamwork

Partnerships between PR and sales help both sides, and the company most of all. Michael Bush learns how cooperation boosts the bottom line

Partnerships between PR and sales help both sides, and the company most of all. Michael Bush learns how cooperation boosts the bottom line

Eight months ago at the quarterly meeting of Aflac's strategic advisory council, the company's sales force was asked a question: Is there anything we can do that can help you do your job better? The response was that the company could better target business owners with fewer than 20 employees. "They think we're too expensive for them" and "They think they're too small to work with us" were among the misconceptions salespeople were encountering.

Laura Kane, second VP of corporate communications at Aflac, says that meeting led the PR department to begin a test campaign pitching article ideas to business journals read by small-business owners, such as the Atlanta Business Chronicle and the Cincinnati Business Courier. Radio was also identified as an effective way to reach the demographic.

"Because we don't live in those markets, the agents were really helpful in saying, 'These are the kinds of shows and publications small-business owners in my community read,'" Kane says.

Aflac got executives on local radio talk shows, as well as the Wall Street Journal Radio Network.

Since the test campaign launched, salespeople have reported that small-business owners are responding. "It's been easier for the agents to get in the door because the businesses have been more receptive to us," says Kane.

This is an example of the two-way street that exists in most financial services companies. At Aflac, this process is very structured. Along with the strategic advisory council, there's also the multicultural advisory council. Teresa White, SVP of sales support and administration, says the interaction between the sales force and PR department on such things as multicultural outreach helps to make sure all the bases are covered.

"This way we don't miss anything from a messaging perspective," White says. "The sales force will say, 'This message isn't important to the Hispanic community; what's important and will resonate better are these types of messages.'"

From there, the PR department lines up what publications and media outlets to target with the appropriate messages.

"This relationship is what has made us very successful," White says. "We're trying to understand what the gaps are in the insurance market, but people who are out there can tell you what your research might not.

"When they do that," White continues, "there are certain things that we can do here immediately, such as changing a message, changing an approach as to whom we are actually marketing certain things to, what trade magazines and pubs we should start marketing our products in."

AXA Financial runs PR efforts for its products and services, but also has a PR division dedicated solely to promoting its sales professionals in their specific markets, including to local media. Jo Ann Tizzano, director of external communications at AXA, says this is a PR strategy that not all financial services companies utilize.

"When people come over from different companies in the industry, they tell me this isn't something they had as a formal offering at their previous employer," Tizzano says. "It's an actual program here at AXA with support at the corporate, divisional, and local levels."

Henry McNeese, a financial professional with AXA Advisors based in Greenville, NC, says he's benefited greatly from the work of Tizzano's department. McNeese works with individuals and "closely held" businesses, providing them with strategies and products and services to assist in the areas of wealth accumulation, asset protection, and estate preservation.

"PR for me is image-building," McNeese says. "I deal with the affluent, and with them, everything is done through word of mouth."

McNeese says one article recently published in The Daily Reflector in Greenville helped generate more than $4 million in new business. The piece included his photo and focused on his community involvement and work with the church.

"A client of mine brought the article with her to her country club and showed her friends and asked them, 'This is my financial planner, where's yours?'" McNeese says. "She told her friends about the work I did for her, and they wanted to meet me. As a result, it brought in over $4 million of new business.

"This is the power of what we're talking about here," he says. "If I didn't have these things popping up in the newspaper from time to time, I'd just be another small fish in the big pond working with everyone else. Once people say they know who I am and my reputation... I no longer have to sell."

Tizzano says her department also utilizes the feedback AXA's sales force gets from consumers to formulate story pitches on such issues as retirement and estate planning.

"If they tell us retirement is a big concern, we pitch a story on the different ways to prepare for retirement," Tizzano says. "We'll pitch the local financial reporter and offer our salesperson and a customer they have helped as sources. Getting them both in the article is great... there's nothing better than an actual customer testimonial."

Prudential uses PR events to help its sales force increase business. This year, the company is launching "Stepping Out," a communications program for its insurance division and its prospective clients. Bob DeFillippo, Prudential chief communications officer, says the program is designed to help women be more financially independent. Events are being held in California, Chicago, and New Jersey.

DeFillipo says Prudential's PR efforts benefit the sales force on different levels.

"The first is the strategic level by improving the company's brand image in the eyes of consumers, analysts, investors, and shareholders," he says. "Second are the communication strategies we create for products and services. This directly supports their business objectives of improving and increasing sales."

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