Admittedly, dealing with members of the media is not always a lot of fun for investment management firms. Reporters expect help with stories, even if they don't cast the firm in a very good light, and then there are the deadlines. Still, some companies are much better at it than others. In interviews with industry journalists, several firms received high praise for their PR efforts, but none matched that of T. Rowe Price, winner of the MFMN 2002 Best Mutual Fund PR Department award.
The most important thing a PR department can do is respond to inquiries quickly, according to industry reporters.
"The most frustrating thing is if there is a lack of response within a relatively quick timeframe," said one journalist who wished to remain anonymous. "If you say your deadline is the next day, and they don't get back to you, it's really bad."
It doesn't behoove a fund company to ignore requests even if the story is negative because chances are the reporter is going to write the story anyway, only without comment from the firm, the reporter said. Of course, many times reporters will call on deadline with unreasonable timeframes. However, some departments make quick response time a priority, and that's what reporters appreciate more than anything. T. Rowe Price is one firm that is excellent at responding quickly, said Michael Clowes, editorial director of InvestmentNews.
"I sometimes hear that firms don't call back right away," said Steven Norwitz, director of public relations at T. Rowe Price. "I really don't understand how you can do that in this business. We try to get back to people as quickly as possible."
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Another critical ingredient for a top notch PR department is to have knowledgeable spokespeople who are well-versed on the what is happening at their firm as well as in the entire industry. Most PR departments experience rapid employee turnover. Norwitz, however, has been with T. Rowe Price for 25 years, and is extremely knowledgeable about the industry, according to one industry reporter.
"When I started working here, I used to be explaining what mutual funds were," said Norwitz. "I've really seen this industry grow over the past 25 years, and I think that's helpful."
T. Rowe Price's PR department includes Norwitz, two other staff members that joined the firm in 2001 and an administrative assistant. One distinguishing aspect of T. Rowe's PR department is the amount of research and analysis the department conducts on its own. It produces the T. Rowe Price Report, which goes to shareholders and media members, as well as a host of other reports.
Norwitz also conducts quarterly audio taped interviews with T. Rowe's portfolio managers in a series called, Conversations with T. Rowe Price Managers. In the interviews, Norwitz questions managers about particular market segments and investment strategies, and he frequently gets requests for them from both financial advisors and press members, he said.
"They're actually pretty tough interviews," he said. "They're absolutely not promotional and I really think a lot of people find it helpful."
"It's unusual for a PR department to do as much research as we do," said Norwitz. I think we're well regarded because we take the investor perspective, not always the T. Rowe Price perspective. We try to promote T. Rowe Price's products and services, of course, but we really try not to sugarcoat things if we don't think the outlook is good. And I think it's extremely important to keep up to date with what's going on in the industry."
In 2001, Norwitz's department conducted considerable research and analysis on 529 plans and the implications of the tax cuts. And, of course, the firm had to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks, as all firms did. In addition to the firm's research and published reports on how the attacks would affect different market segments, T. Rowe was noted for making executives accessible, another key function for PR departments, according to several reporters.
Another firm that won praise from industry reporters was Vanguard. Its spokespeople are very knowledgeable, said Andrew Rafalaf, a reporter with Mutual Funds magazine. Also, its PR department is good at making Vanguard executives available to reporters, and if a particular person is unavailable, they almost always provide someone who can speak to the issue at hand, he said.
Evergreen Investments, a relatively small investment manager, is another firm that has a PR department that is extremely helpful to reporters by making sure the reporters get to talk to appropriate executives or portfolio managers, Rafalaf added.
PR departments that try to promote their firm's funds by pitching story ideas often frustrate reporters, but the practice is not necessarily ineffective.
"A good media relations department that's good for the firm might not be good for me," said Rafalaf. "A good PR firm would probably drive me crazy calling with story ideas. Do I like that? No. Does it work? Yeah. From time to time I do respond."
Finally, a major criticism of PR departments by financial journalists is that they cater to the larger publications, and don't take the time to answer questions from reporters at other firms. Fidelity Investments was said to be very good at treating reporters from all sized publications equitably.
"I absolutely hate it when they play favorites," said Clowes. "Some will get back to The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times very quickly, but get back to us whenever they want. I think they'd be surprised how many readers don't read the Journal or the Times."