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As I noted in a blog about The Kelsey Group’s Local Online Media event in London last week, analysts, speakers and the audience were positively upbeat about the Yellow Pages business. The feeling by all was that the stock market has overreacted to some negative information about Yellow Pages. This has been exacerbated by bloggers and journalists, most of whom spend all day at their computers or on their Blackberries and wouldn’t want to admit doing something as old school as looking up a business in the printed Yellow Pages.

The Yellow Pages Association published its new 2007 usage data yesterday that says print directory usage was stable in 2007 and online directory references climbed 15 percent, so that overall there was a 3 percent increase in U.S. directory lookups. My guess is that the numbers are similar in other countries, only the online component most likely grew even faster than it did in the United States. As my colleague Charles Laughlin commented in his blog on the YPA numbers, “the fact that online is growing gives publishers a good story to tell, assuming advertisers, investors, the media and other audiences are receptive to the multi-channel argument.”

Cornel Riklin, CEO of European Directories, asked at our London conference what the industry can do to improve its perception among both advertisers and consumers. The Kelsey Group believes in the increasing importance of public relations, in particular press releases. SES London keynote speaker Fred Marckini, chief global search officer for Isobar, made the case that press releases will play an increasingly important role in the search world as video, social networking and the growth of universal search can make a story reach a huge number of people and have a long shelf life.

The worldwide Yellow Pages industry has a compelling value story to tell. But publishers won’t get that message across piecemeal — company by company, even country by country — in an increasingly global world. And they don’t have the money to do it in an advertising or promotional campaign. In my view, the solution is through an organized public relations effort that uses the growing power of universal search. The industry needs to revisit the concept of working together to put up a united front about the benefit to consumers and advertisers of print and Internet Yellow Pages.

This is not a complicated message. It can be done with leadership. The industry needs to counter the messages of journalists, bloggers and commentators who are too quick to dismiss Yellow Pages as a dinosaur based on little evidence beyond their own habits for finding information on local businesses.

As Charles Laughlin wrote, “Publishers can affect the outcome by investing in their products, maximizing their visibility and content and improving distribution.” In their own territories, Yellow Pages publishers should fight for every advertiser, encourage usage, and compete wherever and however necessary.

But the worldwide industry needs to use an old tool (public relations) in a new vehicle (next generation Web search) to reach a broad market. Otherwise, the false perception that revenue migration is moving from print to Internet overnight could become reality.

This is a serious and urgent issue. A unified offense is a better course than a disorganized (or nonexistent) defense. It is time for the global Yellow Pages industry to fight back.

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