Friday, December 14, 2007

Attention editors & customers! – Media relations at a tradeshow

By Robert E. Sheldon, APR, Public Relations Director, Creative Communications Consultants, Inc. (and PRSA San Antonio president elect)

Power Gen International, Days 2 & 3

Making sure you get key editors to the show booth is a straightforward matter of inviting them and then making sure that their time and attention will not be wasted. Getting customers to visit the booth is much the same problem: you need to extend an invitation to key customers who will be attending the show and then make their time worthwhile.

Other exhibitors at the show also try other methods of getting people into their booths. Not far from the Cummins booth, another generator manufacturer has stationed very attractive female models (known in the business as “greeters”) at the corners of the booth to attract attention. They DO attract attention – but I observe that it is mostly furtive glances from men as they pass by in the aisles. They’re pretty, but they are not the technical experts the customers are looking for.

At another large booth, a card-shark magician puts on a display of slight-of-hand that is quite amazing. He draws a large crowd of people throughout the day, entertaining them with humor and skill. Like the pretty women in the other booth, the ploy attracts attention – but for all the wrong reasons. In much the same way that pretty women have nothing to do with generators, card magicians have nothing to do with them either. The lesson seems clear: you’ve got to build booth traffic for the “right” reasons – and yet manufacturers continue to confuse sex and entertainment with substance. Of course, the trick is finding interesting and exciting ways of drawing attention to a client from the right prospects – and that includes editors.

Handling surprises

On the final day of the show, I have four editor visits scheduled and several unconfirmed meetings. The editors show up and the meetings go well as they did the day before. Towards the end of the day, a publication editor from the UK stops by. At the end of our brief meeting, he asks whether he can return in an hour with a video crew and interview a Cummins expert on the new products. The publication with the intimidating title – Cogeneration and On-Site Power Production – is a very important global magazine in the power industry that also has a good web site. The web site is now featuring short videos in addition to editorial content, and the editor wants to shoot a two and a half minute segment on Cummins for their site.

Luckily, one of the top Cummins experts is in the booth and I convince him to submit to the impromptu video interview. After quickly reviewing key messages with the expert, we shoot about 10 minutes of questions and answers for the segment. My expert does a wonderful job and I make sure the company logo also appears in the background on several of the shots.

YouTube for techies

The lesson here is that the Internet is opening up new and exciting ways of communicating with narrow markets and audiences – it’s like YouTube for the techie set. Only, the payoff will be greater awareness of my client and its products. Additionally, the details are still important -- putting your best foot forward, supporting the brand and the marketing messages. This is the value we bring to our clients.

By the end of the show, I had met with 13 key editors and had gathered a handful of article ideas for future follow-up. I will summarize these for my client after I get back from the show.

In general, trade shows are very expensive communications mediums for companies. The investment in space rental, booth graphics, materials and manpower is substantial – which makes it doubly important to get the most you can out of the opportunity. This means making as many customer contacts as possible and enlisting the help of key publication editors to leverage publicity in the months following the show. In the week after the show, we will mail out the press kit to key editors who did not attend the show and follow-up with the attending editors to answer questions and encourage use of the materials we distributed.

Katrina’s legacy – where are the people?

There were two large conventions in town this week, but I could tell immediately that the city was not crowded or as vibrant as I remember from the recent past. It’s already been more than two years since the devastating hurricane that flooded New Orleans, and yet the “recovery” is still trying to get started.

My downtown hotel faced empty office buildings in the front and the back. Through the dingy windows I could see that most of them had been gutted, leaving visible empty ceiling tile grids and dangling wires. The problem, according to the hotel people, is that so many people have permanently left the city that there is no one to rent office space to. Restaurants were doing an okay business, but many are still closed or have reduced hours because they can’t get employees -- because there is no housing.

The French Quarter, untouched by the flooding, was nonetheless almost barren of people the few nights I ventured there. I remember Bourbon Street flooded with people in the warm evenings in years past, but not now.

The recovery will happen, of course, but apparently not as soon as everyone would like. Everybody you talk to agrees is it simply sad – a bittersweet backdrop to an otherwise successful week.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thinking like an editor

By Robert E. Sheldon, APR, Public Relations Director, Creative Communications Consultants, Inc. (and PRSA San Antonio president elect)

Power Gen International, Day-1

Any kind of media relations is an exercise in getting into the mind of the editor – understanding what he wants, understanding what his readers want, and knowing the kind writing that is appropriate for that publication. Most of these trade publications are aimed at educating and informing their readers about the latest products, latest technical and market trends and how various problems are being solved in the field.

The material we provide to these editors can never be a blatantly commercial for the client – unless it’s a simple announcement for a new product. Features or application stories need to have substance that transcends the client’s identity and provide a lesson in engineering, design, problem-solving or analytical skills. News releases need to be objectively written with facts clearly stated and opinions or analysis attributed to a company spokesperson. Materials that don’t follow these simple precepts end up in the “round file” instead of the editorial columns.

One-on-one meetings

On the first day of the show, I have visits scheduled for six editors representing such publications as Power Engineering, Utility Products, Consulting-Specifying Engineer, Worldwide Independent Power, Modern Power Systems and Distributed Energy. While these titles may seem boring to the average lay reader, these trade publications reach important niches in the power industry and are read by tens of thousands of design engineers, consultants and building owners who own or operate on-site power systems. In addition, each one of these publications also has a web site which is an equally important outlet for content. In fact, the web is even more content-hungry that printed publications – a fact that is becoming clearer with every passing month. Getting into their editorial columns on a regular basis assures my client of a steady stream of inquiries from potential customers, as well as all-important brand name reinforcement.

What you want editors to do is to have their editorial columns fairly represent your client in the marketplace. There is no way to prevent an editor from giving your client’s competitors their due, but without a proactive public relations program and a steady stream of suitable editorial material, your competitors may be the only companies mentioned in publications. Through inaction on behalf of your client, you will create an editorial vacuum that the editor will fill with somebody else’s news and information. Gone are the days when editors had staffs that actually went out and got news!

When an editor arrives for a meeting, I first of all thank him for all the editorial coverage my client has received that year. Next, I hand off the press kit and then preview the four new product announcements and draw their attention to a new technical feature in the kit that explores the topic of noise control of generator sets. If the editor expresses interest in any one particular product or topic, I introduce him to one of several experts in the Cummins booth to help answer technical questions.

Staying on-message

As the Cummins expert explains a topic, I listen carefully in order to insert leading questions to the expert so we can be sure that the key marketing messages get mentioned. The engineers are experts on their topic, but they usually need guidance in staying on-message. That’s an important part of my job – helping to interpret or translate all the high-tech information for journalists while making sure that our intended marketing messages are conveyed.
There is often no predicting what editors will be interested in – and it often depends on what they are thinking about for their next issue. Before the day is out, I have gone through this routine for all six editors and reaction to the material has been very positive.

Customer traffic in the booth is light on the first day because many attendees are still registering and are busy standing in long lines outside the hall. But, by later in the day, we get busier. In addition to wanting to find out “what’s new,” customers also bring questions about their individual power problems and there is a constant scramble to find this right Cummins expert to handle the questions.

The first day goes very well and I even have some spare time to walk around the show floor in search of other potential clients.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Media Relations Power-Play

By Robert E. Sheldon, APR, Public Relations Director, Creative Communications Consultants, Inc. (and PRSA San Antonio president elect)

December 10, 2007 – New Orleans, LA

For about the eighth time in as many years, I’m off to a trade show called Power Gen International, the premier world conference for utilities, industrial power users and manufacturers of power generating equipment. This time it’s being held in New Orleans – the first time I’ll have been there post-Katrina.

As in the past, I’m attending the show on behalf of Cummins Power Generation, the world’s largest manufacturer of diesel engines and the number-two supplier of power systems based on reciprocating engine technology. Caterpillar is number one in reciprocating engine power systems in terms of number sold, but Cummins excels at so-called mission-critical power systems – systems that provide standby and emergency power for hospitals, data centers, banks, fire and safety and government facilities.

My purpose for going to the show is to hold one-on-one meetings with key engineering trade editors who will also be attending the show. I primarily do “marketing public relations” for Cummins – which uses the news and information value inherent in products to gain editorial space, generate inquiries from potential customers. By getting editorial coverage of Cummins products, customer applications and technical topics, there materials also educate readers and build credibility for Cummins as experts in the field.

The number of editors attending this show (that draws up to 35,000 visitors from around the world) varies from year to year. One of the primary sponsors of the show is a magazine called Power Engineering – a techie but much-respected publication that draws engineering readers from the utility, electrical, electronic and industrial manufacturing market segments. As is the case with other trade shows that are sponsored by media, some competing publications are barred from attending. But, by and large, the media covering the power industry are well represented at the show each year.

Getting Ready

In preparation for the show, I first met with my client to get an overview of what was going to be introduced and displayed at the show. It turned out that several new generator products and generator control systems were going to be featured. These new items were not earth-shaking enough to deserve a press conference, but they did inspire a press kit that I would be handing out in my editor meetings.

Editors are busy at these shows with more than a thousand exhibitors seeking to get publicity for their products or services. Which brings me to the invitation letter that sent out to nearly 40 editors about three weeks before the show. The personalized e-mail letter invited editors to stop by the Cummins booth during the two and one-half days of the show and view and discuss the new products. The letter included brief (and hopefully tantalizing) summaries of the various new products in an effort to emphasize that we had information that would be of special interest and importance to their readers.

Editors are looking for “what’s new” at trade shows and don’t care much about what’s old. If the publication is product-oriented, the editor’s interest will be focused on new products. If the publication is more issue-oriented (say, those directed at upper management at utilities or industrial segments that use a lot of power), the editors will be interested in my client’s take on industry trends or how technology is changing the search for solutions.

The editor’s looking for new product information are the easiest to satisfy. Those looking for industry trend information have to be dealt with specially by usually arranging an interview with an appropriate representative from my client. While such interviews don’t inform readers about new products, they do raise the awareness of my client as an industry leader, which, in turn, builds credibility for my client in a very competitive marketplace. When you sell power systems costing millions of dollars apiece, it helps when your potential customers have confidence that they are dealing with an industry leader.

Of the 40 invitations that went out, I received prompt responses from about ten editors – which is about normal. As Cummins is a major player in the power generation industry, even editors I didn’t contact will tend to find the booth and seek out any press information that may be available. By the end of the two and one-half days, I expect that I’ll have met with somewhere between 10 and 15 editors.

Tomorrow will be the first day of the show.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Marketing to College Students who are "Clueless" about Marketing

There was an interesting article in AdAge recently about 10 things college students don’t know about marketing. The article was titled, “Millennials: Clued In or Clueless” (Nov 19, 2007, registration required). According to the author, Carol Phillips, college students don’t know that the “average household income does not support a cleaning lady” or that “retailers, not manufacturers, set the price.”

The article describes each of the 10 briefly and provides – in one or two sentences – the implications for marketers. It’s a useful piece for a 101 on marketing as well as for getting a better glimpse of today’s college students.

The only one I raised an eyebrow about is the one that says college students don’t know “it’s illegal for ads to lie.” Granted, I am a GenX and am thus highly skeptical of ads. And I majored in advertising – knowing I would never be an advertiser. But come on, no lying in advertising? No stretching the truth even a little? No misleading claims? No pretending the blue blade cuts better or that the right beer can get you girls?

Well, I feel so much better now. I can keep my finger off the mute button when the TV commercials come on. I can even let my kids watch them.

So that’s why the sun was shinning brighter today (cue sappy background music).