On Sept. 18, a week to the day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, staff at Financial Research Corporation, sent out a press release touting four new studies conducted by the firm. "Dear friends," it read. "It has been a week since the devastation occurred in our country and we are just beginning to consider the long-term implications for the industry.
"Although it is difficult to move forward in the wake of these tragic events, we know we must." The release went on to express FRC's concern for colleagues in New York and Washington, D.C., and to offer help to any who needed it.
But the tone of the release rapidly switched from that of a sensitive sympathy note to an aggressive pitch. "For the first time, FRC is offering special package pricing on our four timely studies," the release said. It went on to describe the products and their prices.
The release was emailed to hundreds across the industry. Five wrote back, saying it was insensitive to people still reeling from the attacks of Sept. 11. None of the writers were from New York or Washington, D.C.
In response, FRC president Neil Bathon issued a mea culpa: "While we felt awkward about kicking off this promotional effort given the terrorist attacks of last week, I felt that it was time for us to start back towards business as usual.' Unfortunately, by attempting to both acknowledge the tragedy and notify you of our research in the same message, we have created a tighter link between the two that was clearly not my intent."
Nearly a month after the attacks public relations executives in the fund industry still face a tough question: When -- and how -- to get back to the usual business of pitching products and services?
As the FRC press release illustrates, promoters are feeling their way to find the appropriate tone for their sales pitches, trying desperately not to offend an emotionally bruised financial services industry. In addition, these companies, put simply, have businesses to run and can't afford to avoid developing and promoting new revenue streams, executives say.
Scott Tanner, a V.P. at the Alexandria, Va. PR firm Sunstar, said much of the public relations work coming from the fund industry in the next three months will relate to the events of Sept. 11.
"Come mid- to late-December, that's the earliest we're going to see the money-manager-in-spotlight kind of PR," he said.
But at some firms, the attacks haven't changed the agenda for communicating with the marketplace. That's because markets were already troubled before the attacks and the current troubles only compound the need to discuss asset-retention strategies.
"Even prior to Sept. 11, given the market environment, we had made a tactical shift," said Stephen Barrett, who heads marketing at Ivy Funds. "We had not been pushing product, product, product. We've really been talking with people about how to build their businesses."