If we are now in an information society, than access to the media — the crucial web by which we all communicate — is critically important.
Think about it this way.
In the coming year several hundred thousand people will become licensed as real estate agents, the number of insurance brokers will proliferate and banking will become far more competitive. We’ll continue to churn out CPAs and financial planners at a rapid rate and another 30,000 or 40,000 law students will graduate.
The number of competitors in virtually every business and profession is increasing, but while we have more people vying for clients and customers we do not necessarily have more business to divide. We have reached a point where many fields are saturated with well-trained, highly-qualified professionals and the result is a buyer’s market of sorts, an environment where those who buy services are insufficient to support the growing army of professionals who covet their business.
Today it is not enough to have credentials and a quality product. Image and perception often spell the difference between success and failure in many fields and the practical reality is that those who communicate best have a stunning advantage over would-be competitors. Here’s why.
The Advantages of Public Relations
First, promotional skills are essential in many fields where products and services are often indistinguishable.
In the eternal search for market distinction, individuals and businesses try to stand out in the midst of competitive clutter. Because a large number of substantially similar choices are available in most fields, it’s difficult for consumers, users, buyers or clients to objectively select one competitor and not another. Since the alternatives are basically alike, there are no “wrong” choices and therefore decisions are often made on the basis of familiarity and name recognition, major by-products of media attention.
If we need insurance and the cost of one whole life policy is much like another, which policy do we choose? All brokers will tell us that they have the best deal and surely such policies seem largely identical.
In many fields product distinctions are unclear and one result is that we’re encouraged to have brand loyalty, not because we particularly benefit, but because brand names are often the only way the products of one firm can be distinguished from those of another.
Blindfold 100 people, have them ride in cars of similar size and cost, and the probability of their matching an auto’s comforts and ride with specific brand names is just about zero. The story is much the same with adhesive bandages, writing paper, photocopies, washing machines, paper tissues, gasoline, eyeglass lenses, canned corn and tires, to cite a few examples. Indeed, it’s entirely common for one factory to produce identical products which are then marketed under different — and sometimes competing — labels.
The world of services is even more perplexing. Professions have a way of homogenizing their practitioners. The person who finishes at the top of his or her class in medical school and the individual with the lowest passing grades are both known by the same title after graduation: Doctor. For the public, it’s tough to tell who’s best, who’s the most competent or why one should be selected over another.
If there are 100 lawyers in town and you need a will, which attorney do you choose? They all went to law school. They all graduated and passed a standardized bar exam. So who do you select? The one nearby? The one with the fanciest furniture — and perhaps the highest fee? The one your neighbor used?
As hard as it may be for service users to make distinctions among service providers, it’s also difficult for providers themselves to demonstrate differences. In the modern sense, there is little marketing experience in many fields, in part because licensure laws traditionally-banned advertising as “undignified” or “unprofessional.”
Now marketing is increasingly widespread in every field and profession, prices in many specialties have declined but to a surprising degree at least one old problem remains: How do you find the best lawyer, broker, banker, doctor or dentist?
New Clutter Versus Old Clutter
What has really happened is that we’ve replaced one form of clutter with another. Before it was hard to choose professionals because there were few objective standards by which they could be judged. Now it’s hard to judge professionals because advertising tells us not who is best, but who is available.
Given few objective clues, a consumer may well opt to buy from the car manufacturer who wins the most races and gets the most name recognition, rather than the firm which quietly concentrates on building a better vehicle. The broker quoted in the real estate pages will receive more referrals than the broker who makes little effort to market his or her services. The attorney who writes a weekly legal affairs column will stand out, not necessarily because he is — or is not — the world’s leading legal authority in a given specialty, but because his name is familiar.
Second, we increasingly define importance by the extent of media coverage received. If it’s not in the media it isn’t important. Conversely, receiving media coverage creates importance.
Suppose we have two candidates for political office. Barringer is athletic, telegenic, speaks well and has faithfully memorized 26 position papers prepared by his advisers. Springer, his primary opponent, is 90 pounds overweight, wears suits long out of style and has an entire campaign based on two flyers typed at home.
Who gets the most attention? Barringer. Why? Because he’s a media-oriented candidate. His ideas on a variety of subjects, or at least his adviser’s ideas, have been carefully prepared and written out. Every night another 20-second bite from his stump speech is used on TV. Barringer is seen as the “stronger” candidate because he gets more exposure and, in circular fashion, because he gets more exposure he is the stronger candidate. If Springer ever won, his victory would be described as a “major upset,” not because he beat a candidate who is objectively better, but because he defeated someone with greater media access.
Third, the Internet is wonderful but it has added to the issue of clutter. You can get a great website build for little money and it will look and feel pretty much like the site owned by the biggest company in town. This is “good” in the sense that now everyone has a chance to get their story out, but not-so-good in the sense that it’s hard to tell which company is better. It may be the company with the better website, or maybe not.
Fourth, to gain media attention, size and money are important, but not as important as creativity and packaging. Media marketing is among the most democratic activities we have. Anyone can play, you don’t need a huge inheritance or a powerful job to gain press attention (though such assets may help).
What Journalists Want
What journalists want are story concepts to interest their readers, visitors, viewers and listeners. If you’ve got such an idea, if you know how to package it, the probability of getting coverage is excellent. If you haven’t got a workable idea, then money, power and position are worth little. Wastepaper baskets and email accounts in newsrooms around the country are filled with releases from the nation’s largest firms and most prestigious institutions, organizations which — despite their size and dollars — failed to understand the media’s essential needs.
Some may read these words and argue that while promotion is important, you don’t need journalists to appear in print or on the air. Why bother with media marketing when you can buy as much space and time as you want, or at least as much as you can afford? The answer, as we shall now explain, is that advertising and editorial coverage involve markedly different values.