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Michael Frisby: Find a new angle Imagine this nightmare: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that your company’s CFO has been cooking the books. National Public Radio is using that story as the basis for a series about corporate governance. And late-night comedian Jay Leno is cracking jokes at your business’s expense. After your outside counsel, who do you call next? Make it your media strategist. In these publicity-crazed times, strategists are an obligatory part of any lobbying battle. Their vocabulary includes phrases like “shaping the debate,” “rearranging the facts,” and “societal alignment.” Their goal: providing a credible version of the truth that changes the way the public views their clients. As Joel Johnson, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton now with the Harbour Group in Washington, D.C., declares, “There is no legal problem and no legislation problem that is not a communications problem.” Whether working on a legislative campaign or a corporate account, media strategists use two tactics to change public opinion: “earned media” and paid advertising. Often, the two work hand in hand. “Earned media” means persuading a reporter to write about your client’s issue on the merits of the story alone. But that strategy can be risky, says Johnson. “It’s always dangerous. There’s another side to every story, and if you get a journalist interested in a story, they will quite often take a turn you don’t want.” Another problem is that most clients don’t really know what a good story is. “In this business, I’ve met a lot of bright CEOs who know how to run companies and make billions of dollars,” says former Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Frisby, now a senior vice president at New York-based public relations firm Porter Novelli. But those same CEOs may have a misconception of what makes a story click, notes Frisby, whose clients have included the family of Chandra Levy and the National Cancer Institute. “They’ll think they have something fresh and new,” says Frisby, “and it’s, ‘Well, no, guy, that thing’s been written 20 times.’ “ Strike it big with earned media, however, in a major circulation newspaper-the Journal, The New York Times, or The Washington Post-and your client has a level of validation that even the best-financed lobby campaigns can’t match. Get The Public On Your Side The alternative, of course, is to buy space for your point of view in a print or broadcast advertising campaign. Firms that specialize in such issue advertising include Sawyer Miller in New York, and the D.C. shops of Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Burns & Associates; TSD Communications; National Media Inc.; and Murphy Pintak Gautier Hudome. There’s a trade-off, however, between being able to tailor your message and getting the public to believe it. “The benefit of advocacy advertising is that it shows up exactly as you want it to appear,” says Richard Mintz, chairman of the U.S. public affairs practice at New York’s Burson-Marsteller. “The downside is that it’s less credible media.” While earned and paid media each have their advantages, they work best in sequence. That means a few earned news stories followed at the right time-perhaps the day before a crucial congressional hearing-by a blast of paid advertising. “Sometimes there’s a lot at stake,” explains Mintz, “and you want to buy every edge you can. So you choose when to use advertising to blow the thing open.” Don’t Do It All Yourself The most credible form of paid media is to enlist a respected third party to plug your position. When the message is always coming directly from the client, “after a while reporters won’t be that interested in what you have to say,” says Donald Goldberg of Chambers Associates Inc., a D.C. lobbying and public affairs shop. Consider the politically explosive decision by President George Bush to impose tariffs on imported steel. “We had to find somebody who believed steel tariffs are in the interests of the U.S. economy,” says a media strategist who worked on the subsequent “Stand Up for Steel” campaign. Tariff supporters eventually enlisted Peter Morici, a University of Maryland professor of international business and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. “We would scan the paper every morning for steel stories,” the strategist recalls, “and pass them on to Morici. Every morning, he’s supposed to make five to ten calls to these reporters, offering a comment.” Morici’s role, augmented by traditional lobbying, demonstrated what media strategists consider the best way to generate friendly press: become a regular, multipurpose source. “If you simply come to a reporter when you have something you want them to put into the paper, and that’s the extent of the dealing, that won’t work,” says Rory O’Connor, a vice president of strategic communications at D.C.’s Dittus Communications and a former journalist. “The reporter won’t see any value in the exchange.” Additionally, O’Connor says, there’s a lot more to the media than a handful of star, D.C.-based reporters. The proliferation of radio talk shows, for example, can make it easy to get airtime. Says David Dreyer, a former Clinton White House speechwriter, now a partner at TSD Communications: “There’s a nonmonolithic nature to the press. Sometimes you have to play to the trade press. Sometimes you want to place an interview via satellite on the local news station that has the right demographics for the campaign you’re operating-as opposed to [coverage by] the Washington reporter.” What’s Your Angle? Media strategists stress coming up with the most relevant and newsy angle for the media outlet you’re targeting. Consider the client who’s won a new contract with a big manufacturer to sell its software and wants to get the news into the Journal. Says O’Connor: “The answer often comes down to ‘You’re not a publicly traded company, and the value of this deal, while significant, does not come to the value threshold of the Journal.’ “ Dreyer, whose firm has worked for Napster Inc. and Microsoft Corporation, explains that the press is looking for stories that “can be localized and personalized” and that help readers understand why a particular deal should matter to them. So, repositioning that big contract win from a news story to a feature may ultimately get you the attention you want. Political Push Issue advertising is another category. To be judged a success, ads and “advertorials” have to motivate people politically. According to Carolyn Tieger, “The message really resonates when the intended audience is mobilized to take action,” such as contacting a member of Congress. Tieger’s D.C. agency, Goddard Claussen, created the famous “Harry and Louise” ads that helped kill President Clinton’s plan for universal health care. When deciding how to attract coverage for a client’s issue, consider using a boutique firm or even a do-it-yourself approach. “At the big shops, it’s bodies, bodies, bodies, bring in the business, and bill hours against the business,” says Michael Feldman, principal of the Glover Park Group in D.C. “But when there’s a really important press effort under way, do you want a bunch of twenty-somethings dialing news desks and reading off of talking points? Or do you want [former Clinton White House press secretary] Joe Lockhart, who knows what a reporter wants?” Feldman got together with Lockhart and advertising veteran Carter Eskew-the chief strategist for Al Gore’e 2000 presidential campaign-to start the Glover Park Group last year. It works on both earned and paid media, for clients that include the U.S. Telecom Association, Microsoft, and U.S. Steel. Eskew is one of only a handful of political types to cross over into corporate issue advertising. Steven McMahon, whose D.C. firm, Issue and Image, focuses exclusively on issue advocacy advertising, is another. “What we sell is advertising, and if you’re going to buy our advertising, you get everything else,” says McMahon. He’s referring to the polling, focus groups, and other research tools that help craft an ad campaign. “There’s a relatively small group of people who do a lot of this-and a huge group of people who do a little of this stuff.” And why not? It’s lucrative, with top clients paying millions of dollars in fees. That, says McMahon, has lured former political specialists like him to the corporate side. According to a veteran ad executive, issue advertising is especially attractive to political consultants looking for work between elections. “In the off-season they all figured out where the big money was, so they want to pick off an association-based advertising campaign. They all want PhRMA [the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association], at $20-30 million a year. That’s a hell of a way to make up for the off years.” Spin Control Ultimately, the political specialist won’t succeed as a media strategist unless he can succeed in making the client’s point of view palatable to the public-”changing the boilerplate of the debate,” as Michael Gelb puts it. Gelb, who spent ten years at Washington’s Powell Tate/Weber Shandwick, started his own D.C. firm, Gelb Strategies, in 2001. Take the securities litigation reform fight of the 1990s. “When we came on board, it was the high-tech and accounting firms on one side and [Ralph] Nader and the trial lawyers protecting investors on the other side,” says Gelb. “But we said the real way to protect investors is to eliminate frivolous lawsuits-they take up time and energy, hurt share value, and the plaintiffs only get three cents on the dollar anyway; the rest goes to the lawyers. That’s the conversation we came up with. And we changed the color of the debate.” Clinton wasn’t convinced; he vetoed the bill. But his veto was overridden by Congress in 1995. Another example of making an issue palatable is the activity that surrounded the Community Reinvestment Act. The act, which encourages banks to make loans in low-income neighborhoods, was in danger of being gutted during the debate over a 1999 financial services modernization bill. Porter Novelli’s Frisby helped reframe the issue. “Our first strategic decision was to position this as a civil rights issue,” he says. The strategy worked: The banking reform bill passed with the CRA intact. Even when legislation isn’t the issue, corporations and industries frequently need to polish (or totally revamp) their image. That way, when legislation they support does come to the floor, skittish members won’t be so eager to oppose it. “You’re selling your image, or protecting a reputation, or building a brand,” says McMahon. Corporations, he notes, often have views of themselves that differ markedly from those of their customers. A case in point: pharmaceutical companies, which see themselves operating at the highest moral level, are often viewed as price-gougers by the public. In such situations, McMahon advocates what he calls “societal alignment” between the two perspectives. Media strategists are critical in achieving this. They are, he says, “the therapist between the corporation that has one view of itself, and the public that has a different one.”

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