Talking to journalists is not a substitute for working on a marketing plan.
Over the past many years as a journalist, I've been
asked to write the same two stories over and over again. The first, for
consumer publications, is: "How to find a good financial planner." The
second, for financial advisor magazines: "What's the best way for
financial planners to market themselves?"
It's frustrating to see all these folks running around trying to find each other and feeling powerless to write a story that might help them do so. I count myself a failure on the consumer side, partly because there is no sure-fire recipe for finding an advisor but also because consumers can be fickle. They're looking for the magic bullet. First they ask: How can I find the advisor who will make me the most money? After a market crash, they ask: How can I find the advisor who will protect my money in a downturn? But I'm not giving up on the marketing side because it's more promising.
It's easy to poke fun at investors who don't understand that what they need is someone to help them set goals and accomplish them, someone to build a relationship with, rather than someone to earn a 10% return. But advisors can be misguided, too, particularly by the advice that the best way to market themselves is to get good press or to "manipulate the press," as people sometimes say when they ask me to give a speech about it.
Certainly there is evidence that the press can be manipulated. But journalists still like to believe they are above corruption, above manipulation, that they are objective. Reporters are supposed to gather the facts, distill them and summarize them in a way to inform or even enlighten readers. Most journalists would balk at the notion of being manipulated. They might not even talk with you if they suspect you of it. Dealing with people trying to manipulate them is a tiresome job, just like dealing with clients who read Money magazine and then wonder why they are not invested in this week's "hot fund."
I like to hear stories of the problems financial planners have with pesky clients. So let me tell you about how it looks to a journalist who is being manipulated. When I was asked to write a weekly personal finance column for the Sunday New York Times some years ago, my biggest hesitation was the fear that I wouldn't have time to deal with all the people who wanted to get their name in the New York Times. Sure enough, every Monday morning my phone started ringing:
"Hello, Mary. If you'd like to revisit the topic you wrote about yesterday, I could make a big contribution."
"I loved your column yesterday. The only thing that would have made it better is if it would have been about me. Let's get together for lunch and we can discuss it."
I got calls from people I hadn't seen in years. "Do you remember when I invented that clever derivative?" or "How about the night we got so drunk we couldn't find the subway?" When the New York Times calls, people drop everything to get their name in the paper. People returned calls from private planes, from Africa and Israel and Katmandu.
Some people work out tricks in advance, like college applicants who wrap their essays around a bouquet of flowers to get attention. One year, when I did a book signing at the Charles Schwab conference in San Francisco, a guy whom I figured to be in his late thirties waited until he saw a clear path between the milling people and then hopped like Tigger the Tiger up to the table where I sat, dropped down to my eye level, sat back on his haunches and said: "You need to know me! I have what you need to know! We need to talk!" Then he was at a loss about where to go next, so he said: "You remind me of my grandmother," adding, "In a good way."
Every once in a while, someone wins the media lottery and the myth continues that getting good press is your best marketing strategy. For example, I once wrote a column for the Times recommending a book that I found helpful. The author got 2,000 orders for the book the next day. Or so he said. He became my closest friend. He called to thank me. He sent me stuff like a ten-pound chocolate bar at holiday time. And he called to tell me every time he developed a new product. He believed I was his champion. I tried to be objective. When I thought his book was a good solution for something I was writing about in Family Circle magazine or Ladies' Home Journal, I mentioned it and then he would send me a minute-by-minute update of how many books he sold as a result of the article. I explained that I didn't care how much money he made and that reporters are actually offended when you treat them like your personal public relations person. But he never got it. When he was ready to sell his small publishing company, he contacted me thinking I might be able to find a buyer for him. He thought I'd be honored to know how much I helped him in his business. (I'm not mentioning his name because I don't want to hear from him again.)
This kind of marketing is not good for your business and not good for you and not good for me. What you want to do instead is to build a relationship with reporters just like you do with clients. When reporters are up against the wall, they need to find someone quickly who will tell them the truth rather than promoting himself. And they like "rules of thumb." They'd love to be able to advise readers that they could always trust a planner with Group X. For example Jonathan Clements, who writes the "Getting Going" column for The Wall Street Journal, recommends only those planners who are part of Sheryl Garrett's planning network. He believes that that's the only "rule of thumb" he can count on because he says that 80% of planners are bad and only 20% are good. Of course, the same could be said about journalists. But Clements believes that suggesting that a reader find a financial planner is like sending sheep to the slaughter. Is there anything that can be done to blunt this idea, which is held by many journalists?
As I was working on this column, I was reminded of a financial advisor that I contacted last summer when I was writing a cover story for Reader's Digest on "Your Money: 10 Ways to Keep More." I wanted to recommend "seeing a financial planner" as one of the ten ways to keep more money. I sent an e-mail to Michael Donahoe in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, a planner in Garrett's network. He gave me a great example of a couple whom he helped by reviewing employee benefits, setting up a savings plan to help them accumulate money to buy a house, which he estimated they would be able to do in two years, six years less than if they hadn't consulted him. He charged them $370.
I enjoyed working with Donahoe because he got back to me quickly, didn't nag at me about when the article would appear or ask to see it first (this is a total turn-off with reporters and a sign that you've never worked with one before.) Donahoe didn't go crazy when he saw his name in print, or at least he didn't tell me about it, and I didn't think about it again until today. I sent him an e-mail to find out what, if anything, had happened as a result of the article, which appeared in the October issue of Reader's Digest. He got two inquiries. But the Garrett Planning Network got several calls from people who wanted a financial plan for $300 that would get their lives in order and save them thousands of dollars. Consumers can be fickle.
I don't recommend courting the press to market your business. What should you do? You should be the tortoise, not the hare. Keep plodding along, offering good service and good advice, playing down the importance of "portfolio return" numbers and getting the client to focus instead on cash flow and budgeting and risk management and retirement and estate planning. Listen to a client when he is troubled or worried about money. Help him to live a more productive, balanced and less wasteful life.
Don't forget about yourself either. Use the time you might have spent manipulating the press to pursue interests outside of planning, to become a more interesting person, to relax and develop a self. Join groups that interest you. Work on professional growth, on becoming a full person. And if a reporter contacts you, take it cool. Don't be over eager. Don't ask to approve the copy in advance. Be honest. Give your best answers. Be an interesting person. Financial advisors and reporters should learn from each other rather than using one another.
If you have a marketing story or a troublesome client story-or troublesome journalist story-send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Rowland has been a business and
personal finance journalist for 30 years, a half dozen of them as a
weekly columnist for the Sunday New York Times.