To find e-biz message, find a good PR agency

In this column, I have written a lot about technology and marketing issues in relation to e-business. But there's one aspect that I haven't yet touched upon: public relations.

Some would argue that PR is not a strategic decision, and therefore doesn't deserve to occupy much of our precious brain resources if we are tying to launch an e-business.

Not so.

I speak from personal experience. Before I became a Gartner Group Inc. analyst, I was a high-tech journalist for more than a decade, and dealt with just about every PR agency in this industry.

In the old days, PR people were there to line up interviews, pump press releases over our fax machines, and answer questions about the company (this was before everyone had their own corporate Web sites -- and it was when people still answered their phones).

New product releases were the staple of the high-tech PR agency, and they lived off of industry giants such as Microsoft Corp., Lotus Development Corp., and Oracle Corp.

Back then, PR people did not get a lot of respect from the writing crowd (let alone technologists), and their role could easily be characterized as the "go-between."

More than hype

Flash forward to 2001 and consider the role of the PR agency in e-business. For one thing, a PR agency's client base is now likely to be a mixture of established players and e-business wannabes.

Fred Haberman, co-owner of Minneapolis-based Haberman & Associates, a PR agency that has helped several new e-businesses, says most e-businesses need help figuring out what their "message" should be.

As a result, the PR agency is not just there to tell you how to get covered in the media; it's there to help you figure out where you fit in the industry.

Remember that for every great e-business idea there are a half-dozen other companies (or more) with similar ones. Getting anybody's attention -- especially an industry reporter's -- about a new e-businesses is a challenge these days, and a good PR agency can help.

On that note, here are some tips from Fred and myself for finding a PR agency to represent your e-business.

* Beware of the bait and switch. This is not a new concept, but one that is as damaging as ever. Said PR agency has a couple of heavy-hitters (seasoned and dynamic public relations professionals) whom they parade in front of prospects to win work.

Once the deal is sealed, however, they hand the account -- which may be tiny compared to others the agency has -- to a very young and very inexperienced individual.

To avoid this, look for agencies that require their associates to have some business experience, and meet as many of them as you can before you sign on. Meet the individuals who will be working on your account and ask to see samples of their work. Ask for references, and call them.

Having PR people who can talk intelligently to the press and analysts is essential today.

* Look for firms that can help you generate customers and capital, not just create a media buzz or land you media "hits." One of the biggest problems for e-businesses is the ability to clearly articulate what they do. That is because the principals of the company are usually so caught up in development efforts that they have trouble seeing their business in relation to the rest of the industry. Rely on your PR counsel to help.

* Look for an agency that can strip out the jargon. The output of your public relations agency should be clearly written and understandable prose. Rule of thumb: If your mother wouldn't understand it, don't send it out.

* Spend a lot of time on your media kit. A well-done media kit -- one that is full of customer stories, analyst feedback, and resources -- is a great tool.

Also, as you roll out new products and services, make sure that your materials convey the market demand for your product or service.

Barb Gomolski is a research director at Gartner, a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm that helps clients achieve their business objectives through intelligent and efficient use of technology. Send her e-mail at BarbaraGomolski@earthlink.net.

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