Conducting public relations in a down market is like buying stocks in a bear market: rather than seeing an opportunity, many instead flee. With everyone calling themselves a financial advisor these days, it’s important for authentic advisors to differentiate themselves from the pack. Public relations can do this and should be built into your plans for 2003. But like those investors, many advisors skip 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,” rather than buying advertising. 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.

Have you ever sat at your desk watching CNBC, thinking “I know as much as this guy. Why is he on TV and not me?” Maybe you dream of being quoted in The Wall Street Journal or Business Week. There’s no reason to dream: you can make it a reality. But you must remember the following three key points of public relations:

1. You Are the Expert No one knows how to solve financial problems for clients better than you. Your methods and case studies are valuable to individual investors who will either try to implement your ideas themselves, or come to an advisor like you.

2. Form a Clear Plan Like giving financial advice, you must first start with a plan when doing public relations. Set it to paper. What are your goals? Do you want to double your business? How much public awareness would it take? Break it down like a public relations professional would by delineating the following issues:

Positioning What are the key aspects of your firm? List the highlights. Then enumerate your strengths as an advisor. For some advisors it might be a unique approach to asset allocation. For others it might be a strong interest in technology. Others might have insights into a certain niche market.

Objectives What are you trying to accomplish (your goals again) and with what kinds of clients?

Target markets Are you seeking high-net-worth individuals, pension plans, or corporate clients? Depending on your potential clients, your PR program will shift directions.

Target media Which press outlets serve the audiences you are trying to reach? But don’t approach competing publications at the same time with the same information.

3. Implement the Plan Once you’ve decided what you want to accomplish, and with whom, you’re ready to implement your plan. Writing will be the first exercise.

Put your opinions on paper. Write down your take on what’s going on in the industry or the investment field, particularly in your specialized area. Once you’re published, you can move on to one-on-one interviews on topics on which you have a strong opinion.

Take a meeting Invite a reporter from your targeted media out to breakfast. Find out what she’s looking for and how you can help.

Budget Figure out how much you’ll need to spend on writing, printing materials, buying those meals for reporters, and the like.

Tools Determine the basics you need to develop, such as a written biography, head shots taken by a professional photographer, and a press kit of information on yourself and your company.

Make a List List the media outlets you’d like to appear in.

Getting Started

Your first goal should be to have a bylined article published in a trade publication or local newspaper. First, contact the editor by phone and ask if he’s interested in having you write an article in your area of expertise, whatever that may be. The editor will likely want an outline of the article. To increase the odds that the editor will say yes, pick a timely investment topic and take a strong position.

A bylined article also helps to establish credibility. Credibility in terms of public relations depends on getting positive answers to three questions: Do people believe that you can deliver your product or service? Would they come to you to satisfy their needs? Do they think you’re honest?

The best way to get into the media is to think like a journalist. First, read the publications or watch the programs you want to be in. What would a reporter want to tell readers? What’s a unique or underappreciated perspective? What practical knowledge would be most helpful to those readers or viewers? If you can provide those services to the media, you’re going to be successful. But you should also be prepared to be unsuccessful, especially at first. A mantra when conducting public relations should be, “Those without a thick skin need not apply.” Get used to rejection. Remember that your aim is to go on record as someone with an opinion who’s also accessible.

Television is an important medium, but it should be the last one you pursue. TV follows print: if you can send reprints of your bylined articles or a profile of you as a leader in your field, you have a much greater likelihood of being accepted as a guest on TV. If you’re quoted in The Wall Street Journal or Fortune, you can use that as a stepping stone to get into television–send them the clips.

Calling On a Professional

If public relations sounds like a full-time job. that’s because it is–when done properly. You may want to call a pro. The argument for using a PR professional is the same as using any other professional–for the expertise and experience. Professionals know the writers, producers, bookers, and personalities in the media and, more importantly, they know what those gatekeepers like and don’t like.

Typically, PR firms work on a monthly retainer basis and fees can vary from $2,000 to $4,000, and, in some cases, higher. Many firms will work on an hourly basis: some freelance PR pros charge around $100 an hour. Professionals can streamline the process of developing articles for the press and broker discussions for you appearing on television. They can pick the right press outlet at the right time. Choose a public relations firm with experience in financial services. Ask a friendly competitor to recommend someone or check any library for O’Dwyer’s Directory of Public Relations Firms.

From a credibility standpoint, there is a generally accepted industry equation: getting a half-page editorial article is the equivalent of three times the cost of a one-time ad in the same space. If you were profiled in a half-page article in The Wall Street Journal, how much would you have to pay for equivalent advertising? Multiply that by three as a credibility factor: that’s how to quantify press exposure. An ad is paid publicity. When a reporter writes a profile about you, the reader knows it came from the news source and that provides far greater credibility than advertising.

Whether you’ve decided to go it alone or hire a PR firm, it’s important to market your press writings and appearances after the fact. It may have been August when that big profile ran in your local newspaper and many people were vacationing or there may have been a snowstorm the day you were on CNBC. That’s why you should send reprints to existing and potential clients, allies, your other contacts, and other, non-competing media outlets. Get the word out: don’t let those press clips gather dust.

Is It Worth It?

By now, you may be thinking that the PR process sounds like a lot of work and time, and you may be wondering what tangible benefits a good public relations campaign can bring.

Consider the case of an advisor we started working with in late 1997. He had $150 million under management, but he knew he needed to do some kind of marketing to move his business forward. His goal was to reach $500 million under management in five years. Using the steps above, we orchestrated a public relations campaign. By 2000, he had reached his goal and was not only featured in the trade press, but also mainstream media like Fortune and Business Week, and became a regular on CNBC and CNN. One day while he was stopping for a hot dog in New York, the vendor said to him, “Hey, you’re the guy on CNBC.” It certainly was worth the time and effort for this advisor whose dreams had come true.

William Bongiorno is vice president of Mount & Nadler Inc., a public relations firm in New York that specializes in financial services. He can be reached at bill@mountandnadler.com.