Meet the Press

CPAs can gain business—and prestige—by sharing reliable information with journalists.
BY STEPHEN GOLDFARB AND LINDA DUNBAR

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
BEING A RELIABLE SOURCE of timely information for busy editors and reporters can give a CPA who is a sole practitioner or in a small practice a significant marketplace advantage. A practitioner can pursue this opportunity by developing a relationship with local media.

TO BECOME A KEY LOCAL SPOKESPERSON, a CPA must identify a target audience, have something to say, establish contact with media people who report for that target audience, reinforce the connection with frequent press releases and follow-up phone calls and be available for interviews on short notice.

IT'S IMPORTANT TO READ the potential reporters’ published articles carefully to get a feel for their style and to judge whether their reporting is balanced and trustworthy. A CPA should make sure his or her audience is appropriate and be comfortable working with it.

A CPA SHOULD PREPARE A KIT for distribution to the media that has problem-solving articles in which he or she is quoted or that are about or by him or her. It’s a good idea to include a biography and information about the firm.

USEFUL PRESS RELEASE TOPICS INCLUDE a roundup of tips; an explanation of financial procedures; case studies, which are especially interesting to readers if clients’ names are cited (after getting their written permission to disclose them); interpretations of important new regulations; and forecasts of future trends.

A CPA WHO WILL GIVE AN INTERVIEW should ask the reporter for information about the questions that will be asked and practice key message points so he or she will be comfortable when it’s time to speak “on the record.” It’s important to use a simple vocabulary and to end the interview on a constructive note.

STEPHEN GOLDFARB is a manager and LINDA DUNBAR is director of public relations for the AICPA. Their views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.

uccessful businesses are built on reputation, and in our media-saturated culture, nothing confers as much prestige as being the go-to person in your field of expertise. Being a reliable source of timely information for busy editors and reporters can give a CPA who is a sole practitioner or in a small practice a significant marketplace advantage. Practitioners can pursue this opportunity by developing a relationship with local media. This article will teach you some tips for building such links with journalists, writing press releases that will get published and attract attention, and giving credible, authoritative interviews.

IT'S WORKED FOR THEM
The process of becoming a spokesperson in the media happens in increments, but the basis of it is making esoteric knowledge accessible. Because the technical financial information of CPA work is alien to much of the rest of the world, translating it into everyday language is a particularly valuable service. Once a CPA’s name is associated with solid, useful information in print—or on the Internet, television or radio—it validates his or her authority and becomes a credential. Reporters are likely to ask the CPA for background or a quote when more input is needed to clarify a point or give a future story heft or color.
Hungry for Facts
Fifty-five percent of all news is generated by public relations.

Source: Credibility Marketing, by Larry Chambers, Dearborn Trade Publishing, Chicago.

Speaking on financial planning topics has benefited Karen Goodfriend, CPA and personal financial specialist (PFS) of Goldstein Enright in Menlo Park, California, who has contributed to stories in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and TheStreet.com. “New client prospects often see me quoted when they do an Internet search of my name, and a media presence gives me peer recognition and generates referrals,” she says.

Laurence Foster, CPA, PFS—an independent consultant at Richard A. Eisner in New York City, who has been a source for Tax Hotline and appeared on CNBC—says: “Your peers look upon you as the expert in the field and tend to leave that specialty to your firm. I get referrals for PFS-related work such as insurance consulting or estate planning from other CPAs. Just as important, I retain those clients who realize that I’m on the cutting edge of expertise.”

Edward Zollars, CPA and Phoenix-based tax and technology specialist of Henricks, Martin, Thomas and Zollars, is unusual in having his first published quote appear in a national rather than local paper. Investors Business Daily found him as a result of work he’d done for an AICPA tax committee. Subsequently, he was a source for a Forbes article, and the magazine has come back to him for information several times. “They quote me only about 40% of the time,” he says, underscoring the fact that sharing what he knows doesn’t come with any guarantees. But he has seen professional benefits: “My clients’ confidence in me has grown as a result of being quoted in the news. They refer more prospects to me, and such referrals are much more likely to become clients than those from all other sources combined.”

THE NUTS AND BOLTS
Becoming a key local spokesperson in your field won’t just land in your lap. You must identify your target audience, have something to say, establish relationships with media people who report to your target audience, reinforce the connection with frequent press releases and follow-up phone calls and be available for interviews on short notice (newspeople often have very little time in which to produce stories).

Identify your target audience. Is it individuals who earn more than $500,000 a year? If so, find out what they read, what they do and where they do it. Is it top-level widget manufacturers? If so, become a source to their information sources, such as brokers or insurance people. Foster says: “After many years of contributing to publications, I have narrowed them to just a few that cover my geographic area. I’m in New York, so a local paper out West won’t help build my practice. I look for specific technical content related to what I do to determine whether I can be helpful to a publication or other media.”

Have something to say and be ready to say it. Most of what you have to share springs naturally from knowledge already basic to your practice. Familiarize yourself with the concerns of your audience and address them. For an unsolicited story, write about local trends and how they’re either in line with or different from national trends. Be clear about why the information is important. It’s OK to learn more about a subject to extend your range if you think specialized information will increase your chances. Foster advises CPAs who want to be go-to sources to “become conversant in the area of expertise in which you want to become an authority. Get to know the topic as though you deal with it every day, even if you don’t yet do so.”

It’s helpful to have on hand an information package about you and your business. Put together a publicity kit for distribution to the media (see “ Learn More ”). It should be an attractive folder that includes problem-solving articles that quote you or are about or by you, a bio, and information about your firm. If you include a photo, make sure it’s in color and has a more stylish look than a standard business headshot (an art director can crop out what she doesn’t need).

Learn More
You can get media relations training from many public relations firms. Good training will include interview simulations and videotaping to help you capitalize on your interpersonal strengths. Entering “media relations training” in an Internet search field yields several research leads. Your best bet though is often just to talk to journalists themselves and ask them what they need.

Other sources of useful information are

Credibility Marketing, by Larry Chambers. Dearborn Trade Publishing, Chicago, 2002.

Meeting the Media: A Guide to Working Effectively with Reporters and Public Relations Guide for CPAs. This pamphlet and videotape combination is available through the AICPA (#890-931). 1-888-777-7077.

Public Relations Kit for Dummies, IDG Books Worldwide Inc., 2001.

The Public Relations Society of America, www.prsa.org . Headquartered in New York City, the world’s largest professional organization for public relations practitioners has 117 chapters. Their Web site can lead you to information for getting started.

Get to know the journalists who report for your audience. Home in on publications or programs that focus on important aspects of your business and address the audience you would like to reach. Within that group, identify competent reporters whose beats cover topics that concern you and you are qualified to speak about. Read their published articles carefully to get a feel for their style and to judge whether their reporting is balanced and trustworthy. Make sure their audience is one you want and that you’re comfortable with their integrity and professionalism.

Once you have chosen one or two reporters whose work you consider worthwhile, get to know them. Call them when you have an idea to share. Be cordial and avoid being too self-promoting. Respect their public obligation to present facts fairly. Develop a relationship of trust, so you’ll be the first person they think of to call when they need information. It’s appropriate to take them out to lunch every so often.

Media possibilities cover a large spectrum, from your own Web site to free local shopper publications—which are likely to need content—to publications or programs everyone vies to contribute to (see “ Put It in Print ”). Foster suggests building press credentials by starting small: “Send out the firm’s tips, how-tos and alerts to local reporters as well as to clients. Their coverage of your material may lead to invitations to write for local organizations or to contribute to your state society.”

Put It in Print
Write frequently. You want readers to move from mere awareness of your name through acceptance of your expertise to anticipating your message. Start by finding a local periodical—such as a municipal or county newspaper or newsletter—that will publish your information often. A regular column is ideal. Other possibilities are to contribute to online publications or to add an information column to your Web site. Make sure that your contact information appears prominently.

On writing a press release
Organize the message you want to send. It’s the best way to avoid procrastination. Help motivate yourself by crafting a simple outline.

Know your audience: What kinds of jobs and which industries are your target readers in? What information will interest these readers?

Keep it short and simple. Avoid jargon, long words and long sentences. Make it as easy as possible for busy people to read.

Your first draft might be OK, but your second and third drafts will be much better. Also, ask several peers to proofread your work.

A good story
Has a catchy headline; it should be provocative to grab the reader’s attention.

Has a human-interest angle. Focus on how what you say can help the reader.

Includes facts and figures and sources them properly. Do your homework; it adds tremendous credibility. Make sure you include the five Ws when they are necessary: “Who, what, where, when and why.”

Zollars has found online discussion communities a particularly successful point of media entry. He moderates a popular Usenet discussion group, and reporters who monitor such discussions join in to ask him directly for his opinion on tax technology issues, he says. For those considering an Internet presence, Zollars adds this advice: “Don’t submit anything online you don’t want in print. Sometimes reporters will pull ‘chat bites’ without checking first, which is their right. Assume everything’s on the record.”

Participation in professional organizations has enabled him to establish rapport with reporters, too, Zollars adds. “Being involved in my state society and the AICPA led to speaking engagements that got me media attention, enhanced my credibility and developed into my being an ongoing source for articles.”

“Starting with a few good media contacts has led to others,” Goodfriend says. “Reporters have seen me quoted, and that’s prompted them to contact me for TV or print articles.”

Reinforce the connection with frequent press releases. Be sensible about how often to send releases to busy news editors, however. Unless something exceptional is happening, more than once every six weeks is probably overdoing it.

What material should such releases cover? Write about

How to do something efficiently. Offer a roundup of tips. Explain financial procedures.

Case studies, which are especially interesting to readers if clients’ names are cited (get their written permission first).

Interpretations of important new regulations.

Forecasts of future trends and events.

“Don’t step outside your area of expertise, however,” Zollars says. “There’s nothing worse than saying something that’s off the wall. Reporters get hammered by their editors, and you’ll end up on their blacklist.”

Follow up with phone calls. Let reporters know you’re available to clarify professional issues that are in the news—or just schmooze if their time (and yours) permits. Contact them if you know that an issue or event is about to become hot.

Be available for interviews on short notice. To establish yourself as a viable media contact, you need to be more than an expert—you need to be available when reporters call. Respond quickly to their requests for information. If you’re not responsive, efforts to establish yourself as a media contact will be wasted.

Foster cites an extreme instance of being available—as well as a very quick study—when a desperate reporter with a cancellation needed a source to answer questions on a program that would air in 15 minutes. The information to be covered was not in the financial planning area, so Foster initially tried to decline. He relented when the journalist said she had no one else. He asked exactly what she needed to know, located someone at his firm who could fill in a few details and studied a printout in the taxi on the way to the studio. He was knowledgeable enough to do the job—and made a friend of the reporter—but says he’ll never do another favor of that kind. It was both nerve-wracking and might have lost him clients had he made a mistake.

Zollars makes a special effort to be accessible. Even on the road, he stays on top of his e-mails and returns phone calls quickly. He knows that if he’s not available, others will be. “I work very hard to be responsive, even when I get calls from reporters at the most inconvenient times—yearend and tax season!”

Goodfriend says: “I try to return the reporter’s call right away to set up a timely appointment to discuss their story. I ask about the story’s focus, so I can ascertain how detailed to be and prepare some thoughts in advance.”

TIPS FOR AN INTERVIEW
If you are called on to round out a reporter’s story by delivering background information on a topic or giving a comprehensive interview, do a few things to prepare:

Before the interview ask the reporter to tell you more about the questions he or she will ask. You want to be able to address the areas the reporter is interested in and support specific points he or she may want to make.

Find out who else (what other sources) will be interviewed. This gives an idea of how deep the coverage will be. You may be called on to augment—or disagree with—information from another source.

Know your key message points and write down a list of possible questions. Then answer them and practice what you’re going to say so that you’re comfortable when it’s time to speak “on the record.”

During the interview try to maintain a consistent position on issues. If you change your mind, make sure you say so and explain why your opinion shifted. Respond to questions with short answers and get to the gist; provide detail only when asked to.

People remember the last words spoken more than the first ones, so end the interview on a positive note. Some subjects may be quite serious, but being constructive is always appropriate.

Goodfriend says simplifying complicated ideas helps to educate the reporter’s audience. “During an interview, I make sure to answer the reporter’s specific questions and I also offer the thoughts prepared in advance. Often the remarks are well received and may add a new dimension to the discussion,” she says. “It’s important to use a simple vocabulary—think in terms of using language to convey concepts to a client—even with highly complex subjects such as the tax treatment of stock options.”

Goodfriend offers one more tip: “Be honest when you don’t know or need to research an answer. It gives reporters confidence in you about what you do know.” If you have built a rapport with the reporters you want to work with, you’ll be treated more like a partner than an adversary.

SOME OTHER BENEFITS
Foster says successful public relations are a bonus to the whole profession as well as an asset to him. “You let the community know that a CPA does more than prepare tax returns—and you beef up your bio,” he says.

Zollars says a unique advantage from having an online presence is the ability to have hyperlinks to both your firm’s Web site and your resume/biography information in the tagline to every message you send. “Include your name and contact information everywhere,” he says.

Goodfriend appreciates the extra business media exposure brings her, but she also takes a lot of pride in its public service aspects. “I’ve found it very rewarding to help educate the public—and being a media resource is one of the most efficient ways to share financial planning concepts,” she says.

Finally, in exchange for your time and effort as a reliable source, you increase your visibility, enhance your image and that of the profession and acquire high-potential business leads—always and forever the key to new business.

Proactive PR Can Protect Your Firm’s Reputation
Although recent bad press resulting from the Enron investigation involves the practices of just one Big Five firm and its ongoing auditing of a publicly held company, the situation has raised concerns about the independence, quality and operations of all CPA firms, even those that do no SEC work and those whose work is above reproach. Investigations into what went wrong probably will take some time. In the meantime, be prepared to address clients’ concerns about the profession’s—and your firm’s—reputation. To assuage any anxieties that clients may have, affirm your practice’s commitment to professional standards, independence, quality and ethical behavior.

How to protect your firm. In the time-honored tradition of “the best defense is a good offense,” CPA firm owners should offer information that demonstrates a firm’s efforts to comply with appropriate CPA duties, to train and educate professionals as required and to provide the excellent services clients deserve. What to do:

Make available information from your latest peer review (if applicable). Giving clients a summary of the findings will demonstrate that your firm gets regular “passing grades” from its peers in the profession.

Assemble information on the audit procedures that your firm follows. Describe the structure of the audit team, the procedures you follow, what assistance you expect from the client’s internal accounting staff, estimates on costs and expenses and other key information. Clients who understand the audit process—especially where questions may arise about internal accounting—will be more at ease during the engagement. Also, now is the time to revise your engagement letters to be specific about what your firm will and will not do.

Reassure tax clients, too. The current media focus is on accounting procedures, but individual and corporate tax clients can benefit from a checklist of materials they need to provide, a written explanation of the firm’s preparation and review process and other relevant information.

Get involved in AICPA and state society efforts to reexamine auditing standards. How audits are performed and how determinations of materiality occur are going to be reviewed and perhaps renovated. Getting involved is the most effective way to make sure that you and your firm benefit from the process.

In addition to reassuring your clients, taking the above steps will ensure that your firm is in full compliance with the profession’s ethical and practice standards.

Source: Adapted from the Partner’s Report, IOMA, New York, January 2002. E-mail: ssandler@ioma.com .

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