From the December 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Getting Real

Hiring a public relations professional can improve your visibility and bottom line. Just make sure your expectations are realistic

Unreasonable Expectation #1: We're in this for a sale

Truth: PR Is Education, Not Selling

Often when I tell people what I do for a living, they say, "Oh, you're in advertising." Nothing could be further from the truth. Public relations allows experts in their respective fields to educate the public and offer advice on how to do things better; in our case, how to handle financial planning better. This is done for "free."

Though you may have hired a pro to get you interviewed by a reporter or on TV, you are really sharing your knowledge as an advisor for public awareness. So why take the time and effort for this altruistic enterprise? The byproduct of sharing your knowledge is that people will come to you for your expertise regarding their financial needs. You must establish yourself as a problem solver, not a salesperson offering a service or product. My former mutual fund client with dreams of appearing on Oprah! viewed the media only as a marketing venue. Consequently his efforts, and mine on his behalf, were for naught. This brings me to the next expectation.

Unreasonable Expectation #2: I'll tell them what they want to hear

Truth: The Message Is the Medium

Together with your public relations counsel, you must clearly define the messages you want to convey to the public through the press. For example, if your specialty is managing client portfolios through mutual funds, you need to explain your process and give specific recommendations. Offer tips to take and mistakes to avoid.

Your PR counsel should work with you to determine the content of the messages and their appearance--deciding how to illustrate the messages using examples, anecdotes, and analogies. Together you should think of sound bites to make the messages come to life, since these are what make it into print. What people most remember are quotable quotes.

Your goal is to leave the media and their audience with something memorable and useful, in addition to the impression that you are qualified and honest. If you can do this and have them remember your name and company, you've been successful. Don't think you're dumbing down your message to get press coverage. Think of it as providing a way for clients to latch on to an abridged version of your complete message that you'll provide later on in your relationship. Regardless of how great your full message is, or how unique your range of services is, unless you attract a client, the message is wasted.

It's important not to change the messages all the time, but to be consistent and repeat the messages. It is through this repetition in different media outlets that the point becomes known and the information internalized.

Unreasonable Expectation #3: I don't need to be involved

Truth: You're in This Together

Sometimes a client will hire PR counsel and assume that's the end of their involvement in the public relations process. They don't want to be involved, and instead just ask their PR counsel to "Let me know when the big stories are going to hit." For public relations to be effective, the active participation of the client is required. It can take a fair amount of time, so be prepared. It is critical to provide information to the PR firm, so it can provide that information to the media. After all, you are in the trenches of financial planning and know what is happening with clients and investing. In addition, you will need to give approval for items like news releases and be accessible at reasonable notice to reporters and editors. Many clients squander good PR opportunities by not responding to reporters and to their PR counsel.

Reasonable Expectations

So if those three expectations above are unrealistic and misguided, what can an investment advisor or financial planner expect from her public relations pro? At the least, you should get the following:

A plan. Like most things in life, if you don't know where you are headed, you may wind up in the wrong place. Insist that PR counsel provide a plan of which activities will be undertaken on your behalf. Have the objectives spelled out and the value of the fee explained.

Instant accessibility. For the most part, you are paying for the relationships that your PR counsel has procured in the financial media, and his knowledge of financial stories and the industry. Be sure to hire someone with experience in financial services; check media and client lists and references. Ask to see samples of work and client placements in the financial press.

Strong writing ability. You should expect that your PR counselor is adept at writing. If you do not have collateral material, you'll want counsel to write it. Also, as a first PR activity for a novice, look to the counselor to write, edit, and then place bylined articles under your name in the local and trade press.

A statement of philosophy. While you have an investment advisory firm to run, you should allot some time to be in contact with your PR counsel. In addition, it is important to understand the philosophy of the firm or counselor. For instance, I believe in an orchestration of different activities, like byline articles and speaking dates, in addition to one-on-one interviews in print and broadcast outlets. In my experience, this has proven to be most effective in building public interest. If you are seen on TV, read about in the newspaper, and heard as a speaker, your chances of recognition are greater than just doing radio interviews from your desk.

Feedback. You are entitled to feedback on activities related to the PR plan. Do not expect overnight results, but do expect that your counselor is working toward your goals and that over time they will be achieved. If the program states that certain press will be approached with the intention of getting you ink or an appearance, then counsel should be contacting those outlets. If written material, such as a news release, is to be distributed, then it should be accomplished in a timely manner. Counsel should also let you know when a reporter is not interested. This way you can both work to reshape the story and give insights to make it more appealing.

Results. What kind of results can you expect? Your PR counsel should be executing the activities as laid out in the plan. This should result in quotes, article placements, and broadcast appearances in the financial press, as well as speaking dates to interested audiences. Often, results occur by attaching a client to something current in the news or a particular time of year or holiday, such as year-end tax planning tips or reaction to an election.

There are many ways to measure the performance of public relations. These include clients gained or assets under management increased, publicity obtained, new business arrangements made, clients retained, or conference speaking engagements received. Sometimes results can be as simple as people recognizing you or your firm's name. To really assess the results of public relations, you must be able to put a value on it. This is subjective in many cases, but more readily quantified in the investment advisory business. How valuable would it be if your business doubled or tripled? Say you went from $100 million in AUM to $200 million, which would mean another $1 million in revenue for your firm based on a standard 1% annual fee for managing assets. What if your firm attracted stronger employees through media exposure or business relationships? What if a suitor came along who wanted to buy your business? These are less quantifiable but certainly no less valuable.

What will it cost you? Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $2,500 to $5,000 as a monthly retainer for PR counsel. This is a reasonable amount, compared to the potential doubling of your business, the increased prospects for long-term client retention, and continued fee revenue growth. Just as in investing, you have to use money to make money when growing your business. Just as past performance is not indicative of future results for investing, the same holds true for public relations. It is necessary to undertake the process and invest your time to reap the rewards.

Extending the Benefits of PR

Assuming the plan is going well and you see some positive results, public relations becomes a bridge to other opportunities. To leverage media articles, arrange to have reprints made (make sure you get permission from the original publisher) and then send them to existing and potential clients, use them at conferences and other speaking dates, and make electronic versions available for download on your Web site. To further your credibility and public awareness, you will want to write a book--this is the ultimate tool in terms of notoriety. By being in the press through bylined articles, quotes, and features, along with speaking to target audiences, you have become a credible expert in your field. You can now utilize those press clippings and approach publishers. Once you've gotten published, the whole cycle starts again by promoting the book through public relations activities that by now have become second nature to you. Again, PR counsel will guide you through these activities.

Many advisors believe they can do public relations on their own, but too many other parts of their firms are calling for their time and attention. A major benefit of working with a PR counselor is that the pro keeps the PR process in motion, freeing you for other endeavors. A good pro can also help keep you on message and in front of target audiences. He will help you concentrate on your strengths, rather than trying to be all things to all people. Usually, it's not until we try to put our thoughts on paper and talk about what we do that those thoughts become clear. Having a professional PR counselor can help you stay focused when talking to

the media.

Competition for advisors is growing. Therefore, it's more important than ever for investment advisors to distinguish themselves from the pack. Public relations can help you do this, and should be built into your plans for next year. Too many advisors think they are too busy to spend time and money on this important business-building process exactly when they need it most.

Speaking to your target audiences about solving financial problems through the media can be very effective. Share your knowledge for "free," and let prospects come to you. Instead of telling people how great you are, show them. With patience and some knowledge about how the process works, public relations can lead to a bull market for your business.

William Bongiorno is a public relations consultant with a decade of experience working with advisors and financial services firms. He can be reached at billbongiorno@yahoo.com.

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