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During my 19 years on the agency side, including 12 years in my own international public relations con sultancy, I often tried to divine the difference between a winning and losing new-business pitch.

Now I'm on "this" side of the client's conference table-a buyer, not a seller. In the three years I've headed worldwide public relations for my company, I have hired PR consultancies in the U.S., Mexico and Europe. In guarding and enhancing the image of a company with a sterling reputation globally, I don't retain an agency just to "do a job." I look long and hard for the perfect fit.

I've listened to presentations from more than 50 public relations and advertising agencies. I've screened, studied and sized up large, multi-office operations with layers and legions of staff that dazzle, then delegate, and small, streamlined firms where senior executives sell, then service. I've endured "dog and pony" shows and reviewed one-page pitches.

Ironically, though, I've found that the real secret to success in selling the account is in the pre-pitch, not necessarily the conference room "close." It is the first impressions where the prospective client begins tallying the points.

Some tips on tipping the scale in your favor:

Don't flood a prospect will telephone calls. One agency assigns a whiny-voiced new-business prospector to call me every six months. "Are you happy with your public relations set-up?" the inquiry goes. It's such a turn-off I wouldn't even consider this firm for fear that person would be assigned to our account.

Never "cold call" and expect a warm response. Plan your pitch eight to 12 months before you actually place your first call. Send a short letter, always with a press reprint about your agency or publicity generated for a client. Dispatch these communiques quarterly. Good work speaks for itself.

Don't send videos. How many people do you know who will take the time to find a VCR, set it up, slip in the tape and screen it-just to be pitched?

The single best introduction: a recommendation from a respected journalist or a referral from a chief executive officer. They cut through the clutter.

Know the structure of the corporate communications department before you pitch. For example, there are 29 public relations directors on property at our hotels worldwide plus three managers of trade and consumer relations in the U.S. reporting to me. Given our comprehensive network, it's foolish to pitch for our corporate account. Instead, it's wiser to target us for projects.

Pitch new business with a purpose. Know the idiosyncrasies of the industry you are pitching-trends, challenges, economic state, even some of the gossip.

After the presentation, don't inundate the corporate office with follow-up calls: "Do you have any more questions?" "Do you need more information?" Believe me, if I did need more, I'd ask.M

Karon Cullen is corporate director of public relations for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., Atlanta.

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