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Corporate Communications Strategy

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Corporate Communications Strategy

National and Business Media
Our senior specialists intimately understand the business, consumer and technology media.

We have established relationships with key reporters and opinion leaders, and maintain them in ways that establish our credibility so that reporters call us with requests. And with our journalism background, we understand reporters' beats and interests, how they work, what they look for (i.e., customer references and news before their competitors get it, for example), what they don't like (i.e, calling "just to follow up" or to offer a story after it appeared in their competition), and how to get them to pay attention to our clients. We learn our clients' objectives and match them with the right media, whether print, broadcast or online. We provide critical insight that transforms facts, information and strategy into compelling, timely stories.

We use the national media as the focus when developing strategic media relations programs because companies must pitch a more substantive perspective than new product features to interest business reporters. We develop comprehensive programs, supported by story angles that take advantage of that perspective and enable us to provide reporters with something they all ask for: context – how much a deal is worth, what are the implications for the industry, etc. – in other words, why the story matters. This focus also enables us to reinforce our clients' strengths, their business and competitive position, which synchs us with their business objectives.
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Strategic Planning
Beyond national media strategy, Birnbach Communications advises clients on other aspects of corporate communications and strategic planning. We handle key major events in the development of a company's life: securing the first round and follow-on financing; going public; mergers or acquisitions; announcing new CEOs; and handling crisis communication. Using our Rapid Response Toolkit™ service, our tested and proprietary process to respond to breaking news, including competitors' acquisition or clients' stock drop, we provide senior-level counsel on business implications and how to handle potential media reaction. We also ensure confidentiality at the most critical times for our clients.
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Executive Visibility
Often the best spokesperson for a company is its CEO. Through a CEO, reporters can tell a company's story more effectively, using the CEO's personality to shed light on the company's culture, for example. A lot of business reporting – particularly in the magazines – is the tale of the rise (but hopefully not the fall) of heroes and the obstacles they overcome. Online sites, daily papers and TV focus on breaking bottom-line facts; but magazines like Forbes in particular need more than facts to tell a story: they need a personality to humanize the facts. An online site might tell you about the price of a recent Pirelli deal; a magazine is more likely to tell you about the vindication the Pirelli executive feels in buying a company run by a former mentor.

For many companies, Executive Visibility often is an ad-hoc tactic – with the CEO's calendar, not whether the company has real news, the determining factor. But ad-hoc Executive Visibility programs are rarely effective. Unfortunately, some CEOs are media-averse, and think that if the company is doing well they don't need to talk to the press. Yet if CEOs or other senior executives don't position themselves and their companies in the press, their competitors will do it for them. Being pro-active here is extremely important because in the wake of numerous corporate financial scandals, the media, customers and investors are very skeptical.

At Birnbach Communications, our philosophy is that to get the most out of a company's communications investment, it must leverage all its communication programs by harnessing them around an integrated, consistent plan, with the CEO as focal point supported by a senior management team – increasingly that means making the CFO (who rarely talked with the media) available, too, to address balance-sheet questions that previously only financial analysts raised.

The goal is to offer our clients a framework for a comprehensive, integrated program that goes beyond media relations to leverage investments the company is making beyond traditional PR, such as community relations. For example, one client did a lot of community sponsorship that was "owned" by various divisions that did not coordinate efforts or dollars, diluting the impact its efforts could have had for its community and the company's reputation. We advised them to form a community relations counsel to coordinate efforts and initiatives. In some cases, this coordinated approach can identify issues important to the company, providing it with a cause-related platform, such as school-to-work partnerships, that makes the executive visibility program that much more compelling.

Working with other corporate functions – Investor Relations, Human Resources, etc. – we can compile all relevant activities and then can advise, develop and execute comprehensive, coordinated plans to raise visibility for our clients' CEO and senior management. We can arrange media tours, broadcast interviews, editorial board meetings, identify topics and write bylined articles. And we can identify influential speaking opportunities that will help your CEO and senior management reach important audiences.
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Positioning, Branding and Strategic Messaging
Branding has become an important communications functions for corporations – even those that do not sell to consumers. Want proof? Since 2001, BusinessWeek publishes an annual list of the 100 top global brands because maintaining a strong brand has strong bottom-line implications. Protecting the brand is more vital than ever – and now more challenging than ever due to an increasingly skeptical public.

Companies that take the Henry Ford approach to branding and messaging – "Any color as long as its black" – will find their messages do not register with their audiences, wasting their budget and resources.

Branding starts at the top, and entails consistency across different media (website vs. newsletter vs. approved dealers, for example) even as messages must be customized to meet the different needs of disparate audiences.

However, there are too many companies using the same words to describe themselves. A Google search found more than 123,000 web pages using the words: "world-class provider" in corporate mission statements.

We work with our clients – including Avistar, Color Kinetics (now Philips Color Kinetics), Luxoft, Mantas, ControlPath, InterfaithFamily.com, Hanover Insurance Group, and EnableUs – to develop effective positioning that enables them to describe customer benefits and to differentiate themselves from competitors. This is critical, especially for clients who compete across a confusing number of product categories.

And we can help coordinate efforts across the corporation to communicate those messages as companies seek to launch or reestablish their brand identities. Focusing on media, we conduct a client vs. competitor perception audit, and use that information to help differentiate our clients by developing strategic messages. With our knowledge of the media, we then translate key messages and positioning into compelling story angles.
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Social Media Marketing
We take a hybrid approach for our clients, combining tactics that reach traditional newspapers and magazines with tactics that reach and engage with customers, prospects, investors and employees wherever they might spend time online, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube as well as news and information sharing sites such as Digg, Del.icio.us, Slashdot, Pinterest, Reddit, Wikipedia, StumbleUpon, and Technorati.

While social media started off as a consumer play, even B2B companies must find ways they can be part of the conversation – because their customers are online and discussing topics that interest them, which can include B2B topics. In fact, for B2B clients (as well as nonprofit clients), we also produce multimedia customer case studies that incorporate video, audio, still photography, text and social media.

Social media is an important component of the thought leadership programs we conduct for our clients. We help clients find the right way to connect with key stakeholders while addressing two key challenges:

1) The social media universe is much more complex and fragmented than traditional media.

2) Each client has different needs and strengths; and therefore each client needs a customized plan and outreach strategy.

We help clients find the right way to connect with key stakeholders via social media, whether Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn Groups, forums, blogs, wikis, podcasts, video podcasts and YouTube.

We also write and produce podcasts that serve as a marketing and branding tool, which can be especially effective as part of a thought leadership program. We've been recognized for our social media experience; when American Public Radio's "Marketplace" looked at the impact social media is having on the practice of public relations, they asked Norman Birnbach for insight for its story, "Social media change the way PR firms do business."

Check out our blog article, "Tips on Taking Advantage of The YouTube Juggernaut."

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IPO Communications
An IPO is an important corporate milestone, but does not mark the finish line. Now comes the challenge of running a public company. We have handled communications for companies as they have gone through the filing process. And working closely with legal counsel, CFO and investment bankers, we know how to navigate the challenges of the quiet period while helping clients make the most of their IPO. We can also help the senior management team shift to communicating as a public company. (We have found that not all managers are prepared for the changes. The week prior to announcing its first quarter earnings as a public company, one CFO shouted in the hallways that the company had made a profit.) We understand requirements of the SEC's Reg FD (Fair Disclosure), which stipulates how companies communicate information broadly rather than selectively, and makes certain exceptions for the media.
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M&A Communications
Planning M&A communications may be a PR team's most confidential assignment – much more so than quarterly earnings – whether the company is the acquirer or the target (especially if the other is hostile). We understand our positions as insiders, and have kept confidential information about acquisitions – and CEO resignations and layoffs, for that matter – while developing strategic plans to communicate the news.

M&A communications are complex because the PR team must create and finalize the plan and documentation within a short timeframe, without a lot of information because details change during each negotiation session. Deliverables include a key message and positioning document; press releases; timeline for alerting employees and customers of both companies, the media, the analysts; and an internal question-and-answer document with information about price of the deal, product and/or services integration, new corporate positioning, and potential layoffs or executive changes.

Even if the deal goes smoothly, strategies, tactics and messages must be coordinated with the other company's corporate communications function, including posting information quickly to corporate Web site - the first place were employees and customers are likely to check to confirm take-over rumors. (When IBM announced its takeover bid for Lotus, the IBM Web site was the first place Lotus employees checked out.) Challenges we successfully managed include dealing with potential politics, culture clashes and a dispirited PR team.

From a communications perspective, an M&A deal is a great opportunity to reposition the company, and can help generate compelling story angles – bridging two corporate cultures, case studies of better customer service – as the target is integrated into the larger corporate entity.

From a media relations perspective, it is important to understand in advance the interest level in a deal. Reporters' first question is always about the size of the deal. If the target company is private and the deal is under $10 million, you need to come up with additional angles to make the story more compelling for the business press; The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times generally don't cover deals worth less than $100 million and $250 million, respectively. And we've seen non-client acquisitions worth $2 billion get only brief mention. Exceptions to that rule include companies that operate within the media's radar (Microsoft, Cisco, Amazon, etc.) or in a hot market (i.e., Linux). On the other hand, the trade press is likely to be more interested in smaller, private deals.

Experienced with both acquirers and targets, we have successfully developed and executed communications strategies for numerous M&A deals across a range of sectors, including:

  • Telecommunications
  • Security
  • Software
  • Managed Services
  • Food

And because M&A transactions can change an industry's landscape, we also advise clients about the strategic implications of competitors' deals

For more, check out our article from IABC's CW Bulletin: "Three Stages of Merger Communication.".
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Venture Capital Communications
In 1999 or even 2000, companies routinely announced investments in the tens of millions. A reporter at The New York Times once told us, "I like your company, but if I write about your $30 million investment, I'll get 50 calls tomorrow from other companies complaining that I didn't cover their announcement – and their deals were larger."

The VC environment has shifted dramatically; a PricewaterhouseCoopers/VentureOne survey estimated that from Jan.-Sept., 2001, the amount of venture capital invested in start-ups had dropped by 70% from the same period the prior year.

Currently, reporters are interested in investments at levels they previously would have shrugged off. And, for start-ups, the need to communicate the details of the deal is more important than ever, especially at the early stage, when a VC announcement is often the first announcement a start-up makes – or at a late round stage, when the company might be looking at options such as going public or getting acquired. Even with "down-rounds," VC investments and the reputation and business and strategic expertise of the VCs themselves become important proof points that validate a company's technology, services and business model. We have announced strategic investments for corporate venture funds.

Based on a typical checklist that VC's use before investing, our VC Announcement Scorecard™ service leverages the same variables – i.e., the product or service, the business model and market potential, the entrepreneur's track record, and milestone-oriented operating plan – by translating them into elements besides the dollar figure that will interest reporters. The VC Announcement Scorecard also enables us to quickly and efficiently develop a strategic plan that maximizes the impact of your announcement, validates your company and positions it for the future, whether that's raising a follow-on round, going public, acquiring other companies, etc.

For start-ups, we have announced VC rounds, generating coverage that communicates key messages about the company, its technology or services, partners and prospects for future growth. Our strategy for announcing a broadband start-up's Series C round, successfully generated coverage in The Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, and The Daily Deal.

We work with leading VCs and corporate investors across a range of announcements, from early round investments to board membership news, later rounds and taking companies public. Our work across a VC's portfolio can provide significant economies to the fund and bring the VC's perspective to the range of portfolio companies seamlessly.
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Issues Management
In the age of social media, where anyone can post their perspectives and where speed is often valued over accuracy, an Issues Management program can help organizations address critical issues, including public policy, reputation, and shareholder or customer activism.

While Thought Leadership program promotes an organization's perspective and vision and Crisis Communications initiatives help plan and respond to negative news and online comments, an Issue Management initiative can:

  • Create a benchmark of attitudes among key constituencies.
  • Monitor traditional and social media for issues-related coverage.
  • Anticipate regulatory climate and develop responses before regulations or legislation gets enacted.
  • Enhance corporate positioning and reputation by serving as an early-warning signal.
  • Address potential backlash by correcting misinformation.
  • Identify and enlist potential partners and form alliances to address common problems.
  • Communicate important company messages.

We have previously developed crisis plans for clients in health care and pharmaceuticals, education, food and agriculture, nonprofit, industry associations, and small business sectors. We have helped clients

  • Establish and implement the foundation for issues management programs.
  • Identify key influencers, including reporters, bloggers, etc.
  • Research and compile reports on industry and media attitudes.
  • Identify approaches and positions clients used to address key issues.
  • Prepare to deal with new regulatory efforts.
  • Write and place op-ed articles on key issues.
  • Produce television programs on key issues.
  • Better understand the perspectives communicated by key competitors.
  • Improve the likelihood of acceptance for clients' products and services.
  • Monitor and respond to emergency issues.
  • Monitor and recommend strategies to respond to negative chatter on chat rooms, forums, etc.
  • Establish and leverage third-party experts.
  • Correct misinformation about key issues like nutrition and safety.
  • Balance media coverage.
  • Support physicians' efforts to counsel patients.
  • Raise awareness among key audiences of health care issues and public policy concerns.
  • Measure and evaluate the effectiveness of overall programs.

Our experience includes planning and executing issue-oriented programs for industry medical and dental associations as well as raising awareness of medical conditions and issues, including asthma, its causes and treatment for inner-city populations; and Radon gas, an odorless cancer-causing gas.

For Joslin Diabetes Center, an internationally recognized diabetes treatment, research and education institution affiliated with Harvard Medical School, we worked on several successful projects to raise awareness of diabetes, its causes and treatment for at-risk populations such as Native Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans.

We also have written and placed op-eds, bylined articles and letters to the editors about health care issues, including in the Boston Globe, Advance for Managers of Respiratory Care, and Advance for Health Information Professionals.
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Crisis Communications
Crisis planning may seem like a "doublethink" phrase coined by George Orwell – or at least mocked by comedian George Carlin, in the tradition of "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence."

But if you have ever experienced a crisis – a compliance or regulatory issue, including a fine or a warning letter from a government agency; a lawsuit; a sudden, drastic stock drop; union problems; a protest by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); or negative comments spreading over social media – you probably understand the need to plan and anticipate crises that could hit your company.

You don't have much time to develop a careful strategy when the media start calling. Even after unexpected economic failures and fraud, many companies put crisis planning on the back burner. They'll get to it when they've got some downtime.

Yet, in today's environment, there isn't any downtime. What's more, most crises – with the exceptions of stolen customer information (such as social security numbers), industrial accidents, or product tampering – start as small problems whose warning signs (including cyberattacks by hackers or competing companies; nasty comments on investor forums, or on social media, etc.) are ignored until the situation burns out of control.

We have developed crisis plans for clients across a range of sectors, including health care, education and food and agriculture. Based on a strong knowledge of the clients and potential vulnerabilities, these plans form a playbook in case a crisis does actually occur. The playbooks feature scenarios we hope our clients would never face, along with a structured plan for assessing the situation, monitoring the media and social media, determining the chain of command, developing messages, identifying appropriate spokespeople and communicating with employees, partners, customers and investors.

A key component that often gets overlooked is developing an employee communications plan, one that includes training employees to handle crises. Crisis plans can include ways to communicate important information to employees at home, updated their Web site, and keep operations – maintained in other locations – in working order.

It is not enough to write a crisis plan once, however. Potential crises change over time, as current problems or issues get resolved, others develop. Companies need to evaluate their crisis plans annually, and especially after a significant event – an acquisition, for example.

Having a good, updated crisis plan – or at least a rapid response process to monitor breaking news like a sudden stock drop – can help companies minimize potential damage and help salvage your company's reputation, and help you communicate with your board, clients, business partners, shareholders and employees.

Here are some of our thoughts and articles about crises:

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