Media Moves

Credibility just as important for PR with biz reporters

October 15, 2014

Posted by Liz Hester

Financial public relations spans many types of assets and clients, and that’s something Justin Perras has explored throughout his career.

This summer, he joined the asset management division of a global bank. Before that he worked in-house for a large investment bank as well as for a New York agency specializing in financial clients. He moved to New York in 2000 after beginning his career in Washington, DC. He earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1997.

He spoke with Talking Biz News about his diverse career and building relationships. What follows is an edited transcript.

How did you select financial services for a career?

Between college and taking a job at a small financial PR firm, I’d spent about eight years at various PR agencies doing every kind of PR except financial services: non-profit, tech, health care, education, consumer and all of that. In fact, I’d actually gotten to a point where I was pretty tired of PR altogether and was considering something completely different. What I’d found is that once you get the nuts and bolts of PR down — how to write a release, how to pitch reporters, how to draft a PR plan — you need to rely on the subject matter to challenge you. It’s easy for the other stuff to become rote.

In late-2004 I stumbled into a job posting on Craigslist for a financial PR job at a startup firm where I’d be employee No. 2. Several of my good friends worked in financial services, and I found what they did fascinating though I didn’t understand it. I basically knew a stock from a bond and a mutual fund from a checking account, but not much more than that.

Suddenly I was working with hedge funds and investment firms that did things like risk arbitrage, credit derivatives, high yield and distressed bond trading, mortgage trading. It was really hard. I still have the notebook from my first few months in which I created a hand-written glossary of terms like “yield,” “duration,” “volatility” and the like.

But I realized that being surrounded by smart people is really exciting. I loved it. I took that job almost 10 years ago and never looked back.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

There are two things: First, I’ve always liked that my job has a tangible outcome. I worked a summer job once where I literally took files from a physical inbox, did some stuff with them, and put them into a physical outbox where they were picked up and taken somewhere. It was just a cycle of paperwork with no discernible beginning or end. But with this job, there’s almost always a real result: an article that came because I pitched it, or a quote in The Wall Street Journal or Financial Times that’s only there because I helped get it there. I can hold it or email it or show it to my mom so she can pretend she’s proud of me.

Equally as important, though, is that my job is social. I probably spend 80 percent of an average day discussing strategy with internal clients or other communications staff or speaking with reporters. I do like having some downtime, which I get when I’m crashing on a project or putting together talking points, a strategy plan, etc., but I’ve never been someone who can put on headphones for 10 hours a day then go home.

What can be the most challenging aspect?

Working inside a large financial institution means that you absolutely cannot be lazy or unmotivated. You have to be on top of things every single day. That’s hard to do because we’re humans; we have days where we are unmotivated or not feeling great or in a bad mood. But the day that you blow off a reporter call and figure you’ll just get back to them the next day is the day that they run a story saying “Justin Perras didn’t return a call for comment.” And then you’re in trouble.

What naturally follows from that is that my name is publicly tied to the business I represent. If I say something dumb or misread a situation and end up not commenting when I should have, or vice versa, my name is out there. That’s a lot of pressure.

PR executives and journalists typically have long-term relationships. Can you talk about rebuilding trust or confidence after a disagreement?

That’s a great question, and there’s no real right or wrong answer. It all comes down to each side having credibility with the other. All I’ve got is my credibility, which takes years to establish and about one minute to lose. So I’ve always felt that as long as I was honest with reporters and as transparent as I am able to be, they’ll respect that and we can get past any disagreements we might have.

There have been times where I hated the story that was being written and I told the reporter that. But because I couldn’t argue the facts, my job switched from fighting the story to positioning it internally and discussing how we will react with clients once it appears.

The same goes for reporters. If I feel like they misrepresented the angle of the story, or if they cherry-picked information to fit a preconceived story and nothing I could tell them would change that, then they lose credibility with me. That’s hard for them to recover. It doesn’t mean that we won’t work together in the future—we probably will have to—but it’s going to be hard for me to go out of my way to be more helpful than absolutely necessary.

I know there can be this “us vs. them” mentality between PR and press, and I’ve never bought into that. Because the best possible result for all parties is a story that fairly and honestly represents the facts. As long as that’s the outcome, we can and have gotten past any issues that have arisen.

What are some of the differences in managing PR for a business and for an individual?

The biggest difference I have seen is that, for a business, everything should tie back to the overarching goal of the company. Look at the Bill Gross/PIMCO situation: Gross was such a big name that whatever he said overshadowed what PIMCO was doing. That’s a real challenge for their communications staff. What you’ve already seen come out of that is a new focus on PIMCO’s management team and products as opposed to any individual. I would guess that you’ll continue to see a lot more messaging around PIMCO’s stability and institutional understanding of the markets, and less about the performance of any single fund manager.

It’s not easy though. People in this world are largely type-A, assertive individuals. So the challenge for a PR pro is how to push back on someone like that in the service of the company itself. Some people make that easy, some don’t, but it’s something that takes a lot of work to get right.

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