WWE grapples to broaden its reputation

The company is using many avenues to show that it offers much more than in-ring theatrics

From Hulk Hogan to pay-per-view extravaganzas, very few people don't know of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) brand and its unique blend of sports and spectacle. However, the WWE is now seeking to spotlight its evolution into a publicly traded global company and present its media content to consumers, who know the brand, but might not realize all that the WWE has to offer.

These goals align with the recent hiring of new communications leads – EVP of marketing Michelle Wilson and VP of PR and corporate communications Robert Zimmerman – who seek to tailor the company's PR strategy to the multi-platform entertainment company it has become.

“If you go back and look at how the WWE started, [chairman] Vince McMahon was in the wrestling business in a very regional basis as a promoter... and built this business by talking to the fans,” Wilson says. “We've really evolved as an organization... and our strategies have had to as well.”

While WWE still features entertainment couched in wrestling, the company is global. Its points of operation include live and televised entertainment, digital media, filmed entertainment from WWE Studios, and publications.

PR, for the most part, is handled internally, and “we're really looking to beef up the internal staff here,” Zimmerman says.

Agencies assist on a project-by-project basis. Presently, Reyes Entertainment helps with Hispanic PR outreach, Cataldi PR focuses on trade outreach, and Hired Gun provides some entertainment outreach.

WWE also strives to speak with the investment community and potential corporate partners in media and advertising, Wilson notes.

The company is presently starting a dialogue with business outlets, such as BusinessWeek and Fortune, to present itself as a global entertainment company. “People like to put WWE in a box of being professional wrestling and that's not the case,” Wilson says.

One story the team hopes to communicate is that the company is a PG-rated organization, with content that is not violent.

Another messaging point is that the WWE is overseen by three women and that 40% of its fan base is comprised of females. In terms of the company's TV audience, 24% is Hispanic and 20% is black, with tailored outreach to those audiences.

“We have closet fans out there,” Zimmerman notes. “People would be surprised to know how deep our fan base goes.”

The global communications focus is on having a “tailored but consistent approach,” says Wilson, who highlights the communications supporting the 25th anniversary of WrestleMania, which was held in Houston on April 5. About a year and a half ago, the team began mapping out a global communications strategy for the event and investigated corporate and key pay-per-view partners who could help promote the message locally, Wilson says.

Local market promotions included WrestleMania Madness with corporate partner Kmart. It featured meet-and-greet events with various WWE superstars.

Though the company used to promote only to its fan base, it now seeks to leverage itself to sports and entertainment media. Such efforts include the recent release of the film 12 Rounds, with appearances from the movie's star, wrestler John Cena, on The Tonight Show.

Communicating with fans remains critical to the company's success, even as it includes investors and business media. Online, 26 million video streams from WWE.com occurred in January, in addition to another 14.3 million unique users in the US. The company has official Web sites in all Latin American countries, China, Japan, and other markets.

In addition, the company's online fan community, WWEUniverse.com, which launched this past July, totals more than 300,000 members. It provides fans with the opportunity to connect through blogs, photos, videos, forums, and chats.

“The basis for our success is [our] fans, [who] become very engaged in the story line,” Wilson says. “It's good versus evil, and it absolutely drives our business. Digital gives [fans] a way to feel more connected to the story line.”

At a Glance

Company: World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (WWE)

Leaders: Vince McMahon (chairman); Linda McMahon (CEO)

Headquarters: Stamford, CT

Key Trade Titles: Broadcasting & Cable, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Brandweek, Multichannel News, Ad Age, WWE Magazine, WWE Kids

Comms Budget: Undisclosed

2008 Revenue: $530 million

PR Team: Michelle Wilson, EVP of marketing; Robert Zimmerman, VP of PR and corporate comms; Kate Cox, director of corporate comms; Kevin Hennessy, senior publicity director; Gary Davis, VP of global public affairs; Sue Aitchison, director of community relations

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