In today’s media environment, the goal with public relations is still to get reporters and publications to stand up and take notice when an organization has news it wants to deliver to the market. Our work with HelloWallet proves that good content and a solid strategy can result in widespread attention, and put a company on the map. Many reporters, and especially those with the trade media, are hungry for company news, product launches, and customer case studies to meet their print, broadcast and online demands. Yet HelloWallet demonstrates that if the four ingredients of a successful story are developed and integrated into the strategy, coverage on a national level can be the reward, even for a brand that is still trying to make its mark.

The Backdrop. HelloWallet is a leading provider of behavioral technology applications that help organizations improve the financial stability of their employees through online tools that lead to better financial planning and preparedness. It was founded by Matt Fellowes, a Brookings Institution scholar who wanted to take what he was seeing in the U.S. workforce and offer a solution to the private sector. As researchers by training, Matt and his team analyze vast troves of government data to find trends that illuminate the population’s true behavior and problems, and lead to possible solutions to those problems.

Because there is a lot of attention being paid to 401(k) retirement programs, Matt wanted to take a look at how employees across the spectrum were using these tax-advantaged accounts. Using consumer data from the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Census, he put together a detailed study showing that more than a quarter of participants in these accounts were cashing out or taking loans prior to retirement—with significant tax penalties. In other words, a large amount of the workforce that was supposed to be helped by 401(k) programs were not using it for that purpose, and instead had immediate financial needs that had to be met. This is a serious problem for organizations which are not seeing the results for their large benefits investments, as well as many employees, who would be far better off with adequate emergency savings than funding retirement savings accounts and then “breaching” them to pay pending bills.

Our challenge was to create a strategy that would bring the maximum attention to these findings, and then to execute on the strategy.

Element #1: The topic has to be of significant interest. HelloWallet’s research hit a nerve for several reasons, and these are all important to keep in mind. First, it had to do with the overall financial health of the U.S. workforce, and given the recession and slow economic recovery, this is top of mind. Second, it had to do with saving for retirement, which is also of interest in light of the inadequate savings that Americans have put away for their future.

Element #2. It should challenge the conventional wisdom. Simply telling readers what they already know is never that interesting. Offering insight to a trend that runs counter to that wisdom will get attention. The HelloWallet research found that 401(k)s—the premiere program being used for retirement savings—was actually not as successful as we all thought, and that in fact more than 25 percent of participants were putting the cart before the horse. They really need to establish financial stability for their current needs before locking away savings in a retirement account.

Element #3. The facts of the story must be convincing and beyond question. HelloWallet put forth an academic-style study, complete with footnotes and review, and based its findings on government data. This type of research cannot be readily challenged by competitors or adversaries, and it hasn’t been. Of course, not all stories have this type of research behind them, yet it is important that the information being released to any news outlet be solid.

Element #4. Set a Strategy and Follow It! With HelloWallet, we began in the fall, approaching a broad range of reporters at target publications to introduce ourselves and provide background information to the larger issue in the fall. We let them know that we would be providing some interesting research after the Holidays, and take note of their interest. Next, we contacted a handful of those whose ears perked up the most to give them a heads up several weeks prior to the study’s release. As part of the strategy we offered it to several major publications ahead of time with an embargo date (this included the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The Washington Post among others), thereby giving them time to drill deep into the research and prepare for a more in-depth article than if they had less time to consider the study. Finally, as soon as the research was released and published by the Post—on its front page, no less—we did a larger outreach to trade media, larger newspapers, radio and the broadcast networks with a reference to the Post coverage, in order to validate the significance of the research.

While we could never be sure in advance of what the coverage would be (after all, a big storm could easily have sent it to the back pages of oblivion), we nevertheless stuck by our strategy throughout the course of this campaign—precisely because we had confidence that it would give us the best chance of success.