The Art and Science of Getting Noticed

An ad-industry veteran and entrepreneur shares his insights about the best ways for small outfits to get and leverage media attention

By Bruce Kupper

Using public relations as a promotional tool for your service company is smart thinking, as I was to learn a quarter of a century ago, four or five years after founding my communications agency in 1977. Back then, I was looking for ways to build the business and finally realized that if I had greater credibility in the marketplace, I could move the sales cycle faster.

It is amazing to me how the written and the spoken word can be seen as such a powerful endorsement of a company's model and strategic plan. Yet, time and time again, I have seen that the media may very well create a better advertisement for a service business than almost any paid advertisement.

In the service business, I've learned that credibility trumps creativity, that a writer's recommendation carries more weight than a copywriter's unique selling proposition, and that a third party endorsement is more meaningful than a primary participant's pronouncement.

GOING FOR MOMENTUM.

  In those early days, at Kupper Parker Communications (KPCG ), to take my own example, once I understood the powerful vehicle of public relations, I no longer had to start at step one with prospects. That's where you have to "build media awareness." Then you go to the client, figure out the needs, research what you can do to help, and get back to the client with a proposal.

Instead, I was able to start right at step three, where you go to the client and say, "We're here. You know us. Now tell us what you want for deliverables."

It was a critical lesson, one that didn't come without introspection. And it's one that I want to pass on to other entrepreneurs in service businesses. Some of the tactics we use at Kupper Parker include touting our case studies and industry accolades and broadcasting our deal-making endeavors, all of which I'll discuss in this article.

But first, about that introspection: It came in the way of my figuring out what the financial press -- and, in particular, the local and regional outlets, which is where exposure usually begins -– is really all about.

LEVERAGING PERSONALITY.

  The media aren't into running stories that trumpet how well your company is doing. Instead, they want personality-driven copy, stories that inspire and uplift. My own experience has been that entrepreneurs and business leaders are as thirsty for good news as are the typical consumers who tire of the latest fire or murder or crash.

All of us in business are searching for the inspirational and the imaginative items that compel us to come into work and push our employees and ourselves to the next level. As much as we have experienced over the years, most of us still get excited when we see one of our contemporaries break through and stand out. It not only inspires us; it also gets the old ego going to get our stories out and into the marketplace as well.

The good news for entrepreneurs is that they stand a better-than-even shot of being the story, and thus, a more-than-reasonable chance of getting the coverage that leads to the type of exposure that benefits their company. They can talk about what they love, the mistakes they've made, the companies that bear their personal stamp. All of this is fodder for the personality-driven stories that entice the local media.

LEVERAGING PR.

  Getting public relations, however favorable, isn't the same as leveraging it, and that's where the tactics I mentioned above come into play.

The most powerful for categorical marketing is the case study. When you tell an industry how you assisted one of their own, then a number of others clamor for the same type of services, namely your company's offerings.

We have utilized this technique to build our healthcare, interactive, business-to-business, telecommunications, and retail practices. In each instance, we have taken examples of actual events or assignments at which we've excelled and approached industry-specific trade publications. They are, of course, interested in leading marketing trends in their various categories. Our function is fairly straightforward. We make them aware of our actual successes and give them sufficient numbers and data to define that success. They get the word out for us.

The second dependable way to gain valuable exposure is through the announcement of various deals, ranging from mergers and acquisitions to restructuring existing operations and beginning strategic initiatives.

INK AND EYEBALLS.

  A small company like ours has made it into The New York Times on three occasions via the deal route. The most recent was when we announced a minor deal, the purchase of a company with annual revenue of under $1 million. The day that story appeared, I immediately received about a dozen phone calls.

We have also gotten numerous exposures in the major trade publications. Advertising Age and ADWEEK have both found our deal making more newsworthy than our regular account wins and losses. There just seems to be a certain amount of definition in a deal announcement that simplifies the reporting for the press and the acceptance levels for the readers.

Many decision makers pick up on these stories and notice our firm from this type of publicity. The niche that we seem to occupy from this publicity is that our firm is big enough to matter in their industry, while still small enough to care about individual businesses, when compared with the large multinational holding companies against which we may be competing.

The third technique that has proved to be meaningful for us is the so-called industry accolade. Programs such as the highly regarded Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award (which I won in 2000), the KPMG Quality Awards, and our industry's lists of top agencies -- top public relations firm, top interactive agency, and so on -- have all been helpful to us in positioning the company as a significant player.

The beauty of accolades is that someone else is creating PR for you. You aren't hyping yourself. If you issued a press release about your accomplishments, no one would care, but if a third party does it, everyone picks it up. All you're doing is being a sport and going along for the ride.By Bruce Kupper

LEVERAGING BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT.

  Winning awards is nice. However, they are not important unless you have a credible and visionary marketing effort to exploit this type of exposure. It doesn't give me a thrill to read my name in the newspaper; what's exciting is being able to use the citation as a lever for landing a substantial client.

We have found that the coverage is solid from the organizations giving the awards. The real difference seems to lie in two areas. One, you need to inform clients and selected prospects that you are winning these type of accolades, and two, you need to look for trends in the awards you win and utilize these to position your business as such and such in a certain regard.

We have been able to harness our entrepreneurial nature into stories on how we became the marketing department for some of our accounts. We also were able to gain coverage for our representation practice, which combines consulting and strategic marketing introductions for a certain segment of our clientele.

Stories like this give us a certain air of exclusivity in the space we occupy. In addition, since we only enter contests with objective judging criteria, we are able to point to specific areas of expertise when wooing clients. These factors, coupled with our more standard marketing efforts, seem to offer perspective clients a glimpse into our more "cutting edge" approach.

PACKAGING THE NEWS.

  This idea of being a proven entity on the edge of new developments has helped us to leverage our exposure and translate it into additional sales. That is because the bottom line is that clients want new and experimental approaches. They just want these approaches carefully tested with someone else's marketing dollars.

So depending upon the markets your company serves and your plans for harnessing the power of public relations, you will find that any one or a combination of these techniques will pay dividends for your business. Your defining moment, however, will be not just the achievement of the coverage, but rather your ability to package and market the materials concerning your operation to your prospects and current clients. That's when you will see your company really profit.

Bruce Kupper, 51, founded Kupper Parker Communications, in 1977, and currently serves as president and chief executive officer. Based in St. Louis, Missouri, the advertising and public relations agency and its European and affiliated businesses have combined annual revenue of $16.5 million and employ 255 people. In 1977, he joined the advertising agency, Young & Rubicam Inc., as account supervisor for the Midwest Service Office. Kupper, who handled both the Chrysler/Plymouth and Dodge accounts, was named the agency's National Account Executive of the Year in 1977. He declined a promotion to vice president in the Detroit office to open his own agency

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