Five habits of highly effective public relations
Between February and April of 2002, CEO Jim Morgan of Applied Materials Inc., Santa Clara, CA, was featured in Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report and USAToday. He didn't even have to restate earnings or declare bankruptcy. How does an electronics CEO get ink like that these days without committing corporate malfeasance?
"The coverage is a reflection of the strength of our company," boasts Jeff Lettes, director of worldwide media relations for the semiconductor equipment manufacturer. "If you don't have a great company, you don't have a great story." But Applied doesn't have a great story to tell right now. Its industry is in the toilet, tech companies have lost favor with Wall Street and its third quarter sales, ended July 28, 2002, were down 7% to $1.46 billion from last year's third quarter. Nonetheless, Applied has been a media darling.
It helps that Applied Materials is viewed by investors as a bellwether technology stock, Lettes admits. It also helps that Morgan has a successful track record and has a reputation as an innovative manager. But there are two other reasons for these PR coups—reasons many executives ignore.
First, Applied Materials understands the importance of brand. "We've had a significant branding effort to let people know the role we play," says Lettes. That effort aims to make sure Wall Street, consumers and the press understand that Applied Materials enables chip-making and that chips enable everything from autos to blenders. Good branding, says Lettes, "is communicating the significance of what you do."
Second, Applied Materials understands that relationships are a key to getting good press. Articles in mass circulation magazines don't just appear; they often result from hours of work by PR staff and corporate executives to build rapport with reporters and editors. "This coverage is the culmination of a lot of years of effort by me and my predecessors," says Lettes. "It didn't just happen in six months."
Getting your CEO featured in four major publications in the space of three months is no small feat nowadays. With business conditions bleak and corporate scandals blossoming, it's harder than ever to generate positive press.
"The current environment is like the perfect storm," says Michael Markowitz, director of U.S. media relations for STMicroelectronics NV, with headquarters in Geneva and St. Genis, France. "In the movie, three storms collide to form the perfect storm."
Storm One: Companies cut PR and advertising budgets. Storm Two: Despite these meager budgets, executives demand better results from PR. Storm Three: Opportunities for coverage shrink as publications go belly up and survivors slash page counts and downsize staffs. "In good times, PR professionals can succeed in spite of themselves," says Markowitz. "In bad times, they have to be more strategic."
That means practicing proven habits of effective PR. Here are five such habits.
HABIT 1: Branding
A company's story is central to its brand. But most electronics companies don't understand that, says Susan Butenhoff, CEO of Access Communications LLC, San Francisco, a high-tech PR agency. "Brand takes more than a logo and a catchy phrase. They don't understand that the executives need to take time to define what differentiates them beyond the shootout numbers and specs."
Applied Materials' executives and PR staff strive to understand their own story and learn to tell it in creative ways, says Lettes. The company actually has several stories: a technology story, a management story and stories about the "brilliant people" that work at Applied, he says. USA Today featured Morgan in an article about managing during difficult times.
"The real challenge is to find the good stories, be knowledgeable about them and be able to tell them," says Lettes. He credits Morgan with leading the effort to understand the stories they have to tell. Morgan preaches that the stories must be told in a way anyone can understand. "You have to think of it as a high-tech story, but map it to the relevance of consumers and business users," says Lettes.
The PR pitches to general circulation magazines coincides with a $30-million advertising campaign based on the slogan, "Information for everyone," that Applied Materials launched in 2001. It has included ads in consumer magazines and on television, including spots on news programs and popular primetime shows "The West Wing" and "60 Minutes."
Behind every strong brand is a highly engaged CEO, says Maura FitzGerald, CEO of FitzGerald Communications LLC, Boston, a PR agency. "It is the responsibility of the CEO to create the vision and to be the custodian of the brand. Unless there is unity in the vision and the brand strategy, what evolves in the marketplace is a hodgepodge of messages and a fractured image."
HABIT 2: Relationships
Never forget the relations part of media relations. "PR is about building good working relationships with the editorial community," says Ryerson Schwark, director of PR and investor relations (IR) at Mentor Graphics Corp., Wilson, OR. "Any opportunity to do that is a good thing."
Mentor runs a series of dinners for Mentor executives, customers and the press. About 75 people gather two or three times a year for these programs, which may not even relate to electronics. (One of the most popular events featured the scientist who found the Titanic.)
"There's no agenda," says Schwark. "It is the nature of relationships that opportunities to work together naturally arise when you talk." He believes letting reporters informally meet customers gives them a chance to hear how Mentor's products solve problems.
"This coverage is the culmination of a lot of years of effort by me and my predecessors. It didn't just happen in six months." —Jeff Lettes, director of worldwide media relations, Applied Materials Inc.
Markowitz spends about one week in five outside his Phoenix office meeting press. He also routinely calls reporters who cover STMicroelectronics. "You hope that if a journalist is working on a story he or she will pick up the phone and ask for your help. That comes about as a result of building relationships with them."
Clinton Wilder, editor at large at Optimize magazine, Manhasset, NY, who has worked at various trade and business publications, agrees. "What creates good relationships from my perspective is the sense that there is a human being on the other end of the phone who understands what I'm looking for."
And media relations is not just the job of the PR staff. "The individuals who run companies must make sure they've got an ongoing dialogue with influencers who interpret and report the company's news," says FitzGerald. "Strong corporate communications are rooted in these relationships. It takes a long time, a lot of commitment and consistency."
The effort pays off, says Lettes. He, his staff and Morgan met with editors and reporters at Newsweek and the other publications more than once before getting feature treatment.
Ironically, some trade press reporters complain that Applied Materials doesn't return calls. Some relationships are more important than others, apparently. A chagrined Lettes offers a PR-correct response: "I encourage any reporter who feels this way to try again. I'll try to do better."
HABIT 3: Integration
PR, advertising, marketing, sales and other parts of the company should all tell the same story. "Companies that don't have integrated communications end up with different pockets with different priorities," says Tom Galvin, vice president for corporate communications at VeriSign Inc., Mountain View, CA.
At VeriSign, integration begins with an organization that places PR, marketing, advertising, branding, Web marketing, analyst relations and employee communications under one senior vice president for worldwide corporate marketing—Bill Fasig, Galvin's boss. The entire team meets once a week, says Galvin.
Galvin's PR team also meets weekly, with marketing, advertising and government affairs often attending. CEO Stratton Sclavos occasionally attends. Galvin's team also meets regularly with sales to learn of customer case studies that can be offered to the press.
"There is a lot of lip service to integrated communications, but I think it's rare," says Galvin.
A company's message is too important not to coordinate, says FitzGerald. "Companies can't afford to not have marketing, advertising and PR work toward a common goal. But they too often operate in silos."
Given recent corporate scandals, it may be time for PR and IR to break down their silos, too. In most companies, the IR director reports to the CFO and the PR director to head of marketing. One exception is Mentor, where Schwark is director of PR and IR. "There's often not enough communication between PR and IR," says FitzGerald.
HABIT 4: Planning
Everything from product launches to trade shows garner more coverage if they're effectively planned. "You must have a strategy that takes you beyond one press conference, one photo op or one product launch," says Jeff Weir, director of worldwide PR for National Semiconductor Corp., Santa Clara.
For example, planning for CeBIT, an electronics show each March in Munich, begins several months before the event. Weir and his staff huddle with product managers to find out what products might be ready for the show. Weir also checks with key customers to find out what products they will announce. "We trade this kind of information with all our key partners. You can build on what they're doing."
A little more than a month before the show, decisions are made and National begins to pre-brief appropriate reporters and editors. Before this year's CeBIT, one European reporter visited Silicon Valley in December. National gave him extensive briefings, including one with CEO Brian Halla, on everything they would announce at CeBIT. Without this planning, Weir says, National never would have been able to thoroughly brief the reporter on the key messages it would deliver at the show. The effort paid off. The reporter wrote a trade magazine cover story soon after the show.
Weir also determined that CEO Halla should attend this year's CeBIT. Weir got the sales staff to line up customer meetings for Halla in Europe so the trip would have more than one objective. Weir got two days of Halla's time and scheduled a dozen interviews, including several for TV.
A key to planning is media training for executives, says Butenhoff. "It must provide spokespeople with a better understanding of the objectives of meeting with the journalists." Galvin concurs that training's important. "We're big believers in it. Last year, we trained about 20 executives."
HABIT 5: Global message, local dialect
National's experience at CeBIT illustrates another key factor—your message must be global, and yet you need to tailor it. "When you build a fab in Japan, you have to tell the local press how this will effect Japanese customers," says Weir. "You need regional messages."
John Burnham, manager of corporate communications at Juniper Networks Inc., Mountain View, agrees. He has a staff member whose job includes monitoring Juniper announcements worldwide. They must mirror the corporate message, but often have a regional flavor. "The regional people need to trust that corporate has a message," he says. "And corporate needs to trust that the region can carry it."
Juniper recently rolled out a new router that has different features—such as different interface speeds and protocols—for different markets. So the specifics of the message were tailored to each region, depending on what Burham's regional people told him. "I rely on them to tell me what matters to those customers."
PR people also need to understand the cultural differences in the media. "The relationship between the press and business is different in Asia and Europe than in the United States," says Weir. In the States, for example, the press is borderline hostile, less technology-oriented and more business-oriented, he says. In Europe, it is more collegial and accepting and technology-oriented. In Japan, it's technology-oriented, formal and noncontroversial. "The Japanese won't challenge you nearly as much," says Weir.
Applied Materials has quite a bit of global experience. "Jim Morgan says all communications are global," comments Lettes.
Morgan must know what he's talking about. During the three months that he appeared in those major U.S. magazines, he also scored significant feature treatment in the Financial Times of London.
Bill Roberts is a contributing writer to Electronic Business. You can reach him firstname.lastname@example.org.