NEW YORK - A leading public relations professional has suggested that a new mutual fund can become successful in a very crowded and competitive market through a focused public relations strategy.

Ann Becker, founder and president of Thompson Becker International, a Foxborough, Mass.-based public relations firm, made the comments at a conference on mutual fund supermarkets sponsored by International Business Communications recently in New York. Becker's clients include the Calvert Funds, Sentinel Funds, and Icon Funds.

A major problem with mutual funds is that their messages are not focused enough, Becker said. New funds need to distinguish themselves from the 10,000 others out there, she said. But, it is difficult, she said.

"Public relations has to be a part of a fund's overall business plan," Becker said. "If not, you run the risk of diffusing your message and you'll never be remembered." Branding has to be an integral part of a public relations effort, she said.

"Brand" is something that the public uses to identify a product and it takes about six months to develop one that is ready to market to the public, she said.

Just because one firm is identified in a certain manner does not mean another can not follow suit. She gave the example of Volvo, which stresses the safety features of its cars in order to do well with its target market - baby boomers, many of whom are parents. However, Ford also aggressively promotes safety with its Windstar vehicle, and has done well with that strategy, she said.

Branding should be part of an overall "reputation building" effort. She cited a PR Week magazine study that stated that 92 percent of those surveyed rated reputation as key to successful business. Eighty-two percent said strong management was the number one factor.

She described a step-by-step process by which funds can best communicate using public relations. The first step is for a company to define its target market. To understand a firm's current place in the market, it should survey customers, analyze competition and study trends, she said.

The next step is to work on product packaging. She said she once dealt with a firm that "tried to be all things to all people." After she worked with the company, it finally narrowed its focus to a single message, she said.

A major part of this step is carefully crafting the fund's name, its logo, its tag line, its look, and its key messages.

The third step is the "drip method" of getting media coverage. This involves sending out press releases regularly and tying the news in them to industry trends. This is most apt to get the attention of journalists, she said.

The fourth step, which she called "platform p.r.," should be taken when a firm has established itself. At this point, a fund can identify and promote awareness of a particular industry issue and gain stature as a good corporate citizen. The Calvert Funds, for example, last year, conducted a "Know what you own," campaign and provided information through its websites and through the mail to its shareholders to help them determine what stocks and bonds their portfolios contained, Becker said.

Funds must also make portfolio managers available to the press so they can be asked questions about investments and other matters, and maybe even become media figures themselves.

"Wouldn't it be all great if we all had a Peter Lynch?" Becker asked.

Figures like Lynch are "creations" that were the result of years of work and other people can and will eventually become the Lynches of the industry, she said. This can be fostered by training portfolio mangers to deal with the media. Most managers are much more adept at handling investments than dealing with the press, but they can be taught, she said.

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