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May 28, 2009

PR Breaking News Bonanza: 11 Huge Tips for Getting Your Thought Leader into Every Major News Story

By Frank Zeccola

After the subprime mortgage crisis spiked in August and September of 2007, the Fed frantically adjusted interest rates—and news headlines predicted a rocketing stock market. However, two visionaries from a small investment bank saw through the hype. Together with an ambitious PR firm, the principals from Westwood Capital—virtually unknown at the time—began espousing bearish warnings that would land them at the center of media coverage when the global financial crisis finally hit a year later.

As the crisis drags on, Westwood's managing directors, Daniel Alpert and Len Blum, continue to offer advice on how to fix the crisis to media outlets like The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and CNBC. In fact, during a nine-month period, they were quoted in The Wall Street Journal 17 times.

Jumping into the news conversation: Dukas PR takes a small, unknown boutique investment bank into the big time.

It all comes down to playing into the broader news conversation, says Richard Dukas, president and CEO of Dukas PR, the New York-based PR firm that led the campaign. "The beauty of this campaign is that we never once issued a news release about the client," Dukas says.

"Of course, we could have talked about how great Westwood is—but the press wasn't writing that story. The stories at the time were about Bear Sterns, TARP, the housing crisis, AIG, Fanny, Freddie, Lehman and Obama. It was a tremendously busy news year. We positioned Westwood squarely in that debate and built their credibility to the point where they're now being thought of in the same breath as many of the great thinkers in the industry."

However, Dukas and his colleague Seth Linden, Dukas PR's vice president and media director, caution that you can't just pick up the phone and pitch your client when news breaks. "You have to see the storm coming before it arrives," Linden says. "We had Westwood's principals meet with journalists months and months before the storm really hit. We did sit-down breakfasts, lunches and a lot of background calls before all the source room was taken up. That's the lesson and the take home: When you see a trend happening, you have to bring it to the media at the very beginning."

The results: Dozens of repeat hits in top media—and enormous brand recognition for Westwood. Before this giant thought-leadership campaign, Westwood had done very little media outreach, Dukas says. Yet between January and September 2008, Alpert and Blum were quoted or featured on 165 occasions in the county's most widely respected financial and national media outlets. This included 17 stories in The Wall Street Journal, 6 hits in The New York Times, 4 mentions in The Financial Times, 17 appearances on CNBC, 13 Bloomberg TV stories and 14 hits on Fox Business Network. In addition, dozens of wire-service stories in the AP, Reuters and MarketWatch led to hits in many other top outlets, including CNNMoney.com, Forbes.com, the front page of Yahoo! and others.

And the media paid off for Westwood: The volume of quotes and television appearances resulted in a massive increase in Westwood's brand awareness. Through Dukas PR's efforts, Westwood established a national reputation for honesty and forethought in a volatile marketplace. Additionally, the frequent coverage has led to major media advocacy for Westwood's proposed solution to the nation's housing crisis. This coverage continues today as America struggles to climb out of the crisis.

"They were unknown [before the campaign]," Dukas says. "This really put them on the map. It took a little bit of a leap of faith on our part. We were impressed with them. They were articulate and had good perspective and solutions. We were willing to bring them to top press and put them together with top outlets and leading reporters in the country, like Joe Nocera and Mark Gongloff. We felt comfortable making the arrangements. We felt good about going to bat for the client—but only after significant media coaching."

Tips for success: Read on as Dukas and Linden offer more tips and explain why this campaign won two Golds—in Best Investment, Banking & Financial Services Campaign and Best Campaign Under $10,000—at the 2009 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations & Publicity:

1. Stay ahead of the trend curve and develop media relationships before news breaks. "Don't just think like a reporter—act like a reporter," Linden says. "Follow the news flow and anticipate news as much as possible. Constantly build media relationships before news strikes. You can't succeed long term if you just sit at your desk. You have to go out and meet reporters constantly. Then, make sure your pitches are relevant. You have to understand what the reporter writes and what they're interested in."

2. Pitch to news issues, trends and context dominating headlines—and pitch your client's credibility and views, not their news. "The real strategy in this campaign was to use the myriad, on-going financial stories, events and issues in the media as a springboard to get our client into the press to talk about their views and solutions to many issues their own clients were facing," Dukas says. "We never talked directly about them—it was all very reflective of the bigger issues taking place. We knew what the press was writing about."

3. Distill complicated issues and topics into media-friendly sound bites. "Westwood was very strong on the content end and we gave them sound bites through media coaching to attract media," Linden says. "The opportunity was in getting our clients to take 30 years of knowledge and put it into sound bites. You have to speak in sound bites and you have to break the issues down. We worked together to come up with a balance: They offered their points intelligently but still resonated with media. A good media relations campaign can be intelligent and still attract the media with intelligent yet still simple messages. You can still convey intelligence through clear, concise communications. That's something that people who are just learning about PR need to realize: you don't have to sound 'intelligent.' The people who are the brightest convey their ideas clearly."

Adds Dukas: "The Fed was lowering interest rates, and as the market reacted, the headlines claimed the stock market would rocket. However, our client poured cold water on the party. They came out with statements like, 'This is like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.' They were bearish and sounding the alarm right up until the crisis."

4. Put your client in front of a camera to ensure successful TV interviews. "Media coaching is something we take seriously," Linden says. "We did TV sessions in front of a camera. We did coaching before and after interviews. It's not something you can do once. You have to keep honing."

5. Media train smaller clients to create quotable, credible sound bites for big-time ink. "Size matters, but it's not everything," Dukas says. "The press would always rather talk to the newsmaker or the chief economist at Goldman Sachs. But they won't get those people too often. They're more than willing to take other sources as long as they feel they're credible and smart. One of the keys to success of our agency is that we take that approach. We aim and land high when it comes to the media. We're not intimidated and we feel that it's really the quality of the spokesperson and the relationship that you have with the media."

6. Run it like a political campaign: Stay on top of the news and be ready to react every single day. "A real great key to success in any campaign is a very strong account manager. In this case, we had Doug Hesney managing the account. We were in the shadow of the presidential election, and Doug helped us run this like a political campaign. We were at it every day. The budget wasn't that large, so we had to watch our hours. But there was so much news breaking that we were at it constantly to stay ahead of the media."

7. Be a resource by being available and responsive. "We made ourselves available on the weekend," Linden says. "If we weren't available on a Saturday, we made sure someone was. To run a successful thought leader campaign, you have to think and act like a reporter. A lot of people talk about thinking like a reporter. But they don't act like a reporter. Acting like a reporter means being available constantly and on the Blackberry at all hours. You have to go in with direct, relevant pitches, know when it's a fit and what reporters look for. Then, you work with the client to make sure the reporter has what they need from the client."

8. Stare into your crystal ball: Develop relationships with reporters ahead of major trends you or your client can forecast. "You must constantly build relationships with reporters in advance—before the storm hits. This way, when the storm his, reporters know the Dukas team will give them someone who's smart and has credibility."

9. Hit reporters with good stories and sources—the minute news breaks. "When I first got into the business, the mantra was, 'Never call a reporter on deadline,'" Dukas says. "But that's the best time to pitch a reporter. If you call a reporter at the right time and they need a source, it's like manna from heaven. PR people have an identity crisis at times and think they're at the mercy of the media. But the media needs us. If you come to them at the right time with the right message points, you're helping them do their jobs."

10. Manage client expectations: Give honest feedback during media training and pre- and post-interview breakdowns. "First, you need to have a strong day-to-day manager who's constantly managing the client, keeping the trains on time and making sure the job gets done," Linden says. Dukas adds: "Then, you need to be honest with the client. If a client doesn't do well in an interview, particularly at the beginning of a campaign, we tell them. We say, 'Here's what we recommend. Here's what you should do differently,' and we coach them accordingly."

11. Educate the client to understand the value of breaking news thought leadership campaigns—and how it will impact their brands and bottom line. "Although not experienced in talking to the media, our clients were very smart in terms of what a media campaign can do for a company's brand," Dukas says. "We often go to a client like a hedge fund that trades equities, and we'll say, we have a chance for you to speak to The Wall Street Journal about the Fed and why their policy of low interest rates isn't helping economy. The client will say, 'Why are you bringing this to me? I'm not a macro economist. I want to talk about me and my investment strategy.' With those kinds of clients, we try to tell them that by being out there, they will be perceived as a leader. They either buy it or they don't. Most do eventually get it."

At the same time: "We have clients like Westwood that understand that if you get five minutes on CNBC to talk about the Fed, you'll look like a smart investor and your prospects will be impressed—and that's important to your brand," Dukas adds. "They were willing to push the envelope and move out of their sweet spot because they knew that's what gets press. Sometimes you can make the client see the light, sometimes not. Westwood got it and continues to get it-from a brand-building and media point of view."

Winner's Profile:

Dukas Public Relations (DPR) is an award-winning Inc. 1,000 firm known for developing and implementing high-level communications campaigns that result in regular coverage in the industry's most influential business and national media outlets.

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