College graduation season is upon us, and it is fun to reminisce about how much has changed since I graduated and started my first job in financial services. I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in December with econ and poli sci majors just in time for Christmas and literally began work on December 26. My new employer was growing and wanted all of their college grads to start right away, so I took no time off. While I was anxious to begin, I regret not taking a vacation to celebrate and transition.
I began work as employee number 36 at an asset management firm that would quickly double and triple. My initial client service job later led to roles as a team leader, a junior member of the marketing team responsible for direct mail and the manager of PR. Much later I even did a brief stint leading the HR function! I still cherish the opportunity I was given to learn the asset management industry from the ground up.
The good old days of financial news
It was the PR role that led to my 35+ year career in financial communications. When I first began, all of our interactions with reporters were over the phone. I’d get a little pink message slip with the name and phone number of a reporter. I’d call back and talk with each journalist about their story. No email. No websites with information on our products or funds. If the reporter needed background information, we’d mail or FedEx the information!
I subscribed to and read a stack of financial publications and kept lists of reporters who covered our industry. We subscribed to a news clipping service called Burrelles that scoured the media for clips about our company. I’d get a big envelope each week with copies of those articles. CNBC didn’t exist. Our portfolio managers did a few broadcast interviews with local TV stations when the markets were up—or down—big. The only financially focused TV show was Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street, a show with a cult following that aired on PBS every Friday night. PBS’s Nightly Business Report would also occasionally cover investing and the markets. But that was pretty much it.
While ETFs and index mutual funds were yet to take off, interest in traditional mutual funds was growing exponentially. Before the web destroyed print media, the Wall Street Journal was delivered in three thick sections, and the markets section included a daily column on mutual funds. Personal finance magazines like Money, Kiplinger and the now defunct Smart Money sported cover stories featuring rock star mutual fund portfolio managers. One major feature could drive millions in cash flows into mutual funds.
Compared to today’s non-stop media ecosystem where consumers are bombarded with information choices, investors mainly relied on newspapers and magazines for their financial information. And many read and paid closer attention to this news. For us, that meant there were many more opportunities for deeper and richer profiles, and you could build your brand with longer, more in-depth opportunities that connected with a wider group of people. Our marketing team would seek to extend the impact of these by producing beautiful color reprints they would send via first class mail to customers.
PR in the information age
Building awareness of financial brands today requires a different toolset that taps a number of skills to help build awareness. Today’s brand mosaic is made up of thousands of tiny mentions across traditional print and broadcast media as well as myriad online news organizations and ubiquitous social media. It is much harder to land the in-depth profile stories that used to be the bread and butter of PR, but there are more opportunities to build and extend your messages in the multiverse (see this post about how digital marketing partners up with PR to make the post of earned media).
So here is my advice to PR professionals entering the financial services industry today:
Think about messaging. As you work to elevate your firm’s reputation, you need to be disciplined about defining, elevating and repeating the core messages that matter. We’ve written about media messaging in the past. Think carefully about who you need to reach and what messages are salient to them. Then work to train your spokespeople to reiterate those key points. Embed the messages in your news releases, content and social media.
Give away your knowledge. The same concepts that drive authority marketing apply to PR. Help your experts demonstrate their expertise with educational content. Help them participate in educational discussions on the topics they are expert in. Help them create thought pieces that showcase their knowledge and use that content to get reporters’ attention. The most successful educational content—and the most valued by media–is broad and about more than just the product they are marketing.
Become an expert yourself. While at first it will feel like a firehose of information, spend at least 10 percent of your day learning. Sign up for and read industry emails. Spend time studying the complex financial products and services your organization sells. Read up on what your key competitors are doing. If you don’t understand something, ask someone to explain it.
Speak up. While at first it will feel uncomfortable when everyone around you seems to know more than you do, ask questions and eventually start sharing your ideas. If you work to build your own knowledge by becoming an expert, it will have a secondary benefit of helping you build your own confidence. And with that confidence, you can offer opinions and bring forward ideas. This is how you build respect within your organization.
Be helpful. With your growing knowledge, try to be patient and helpful with reporters. Your ability to help a reporter understand a complex topic will help you to grow relationships and build respect. If your expert is unable or unavailable to comment, provide a link to information online that may be helpful. You may even want to refer the reporter to an industry group or other outside resources. Reporters respect helpful sources and will come back to you in the future.
Pay attention to what other companies do right … and wrong. Watch the news with your PR hat on. When news breaks, watch for the official statement from the company in the article. Look up the relevant news release to see how the company positioned the news. Form opinions on what worked and what didn’t. Store away those examples and revisit and learn from when you face a similar challenge.