PR takes new role as part of the strategy

Julie Davis, brand manager, Becel margarine for Toronto-based Thomas J. Lipton, credits public relations expertise with not only averting possible disaster but helping boost her product to the No. 1 position in its category.Last May, a news story broke saying a...

Julie Davis, brand manager, Becel margarine for Toronto-based Thomas J. Lipton, credits public relations expertise with not only averting possible disaster but helping boost her product to the No. 1 position in its category.

Last May, a news story broke saying a u.s. study linked trans-fatty acids to margarine and heart disease.

Toronto-based public relations agency Burson-Marsteller, which handles Becel’s public relations, got early warning the story was about to break.

The agency discovered the story was not based on the study’s results. The story centred on implications drawn from an editorial comment made by a researcher.

‘When the issue broke, we were able to deal with it that day,’ Davis says.

‘It was turned around into a totally positive result,’ she says.

Davis says this shows how essential it is that public relations professionals understand the product they are promoting, and can take the initiative rather than simply waiting to be told what to write in a press release.

Reporters were directed to experts in the health field, who pointed out the error and gave assurance that many margarines, including Becel, do not contain trans-fatty acids.

Full-page ads were taken out in daily newspapers to support the media relations effort.

By answering public concern in the midst of the crisis, Becel found itself No. 1 in the market. It had been hovering between No. 2 and No. 3.

Overall sales of margarine products had been declining at a rate of about 4% annually in recent years.

Sales took a nose dive of 11% during the height of the trans-fatty acid coverage, except for Becel, which, by maintaining a steady 5% rise, took over the lead.

Davis shudders at the damage that could have happened to the entire margarine market if its public relations strategists had not been ready.

While, in this instance, public relations was used to avert a crisis, Davis emphasizes the ongoing role of pr in the marketing of the Becel product.

The Becel brand, for instance, supports nutrition education in partnership with organizations such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

And, Davis brings her pr consultants into a marketing program from the very first to contribute ideas.

It is an approach that is being adopted by more and more marketers as they realize the benefits of an integrated strategy.

Stan Weiss, general manager of Markham, Ont.-based Novell WordPerfect Canada, calls the old approach to public relations ‘ship and shout.’

Weiss says, in the past, a company had the product ready to ship before calling in its public relations agency to issue press releases.

Not so today.

Having just been through a merger that created Novell WordPerfect, a company which combines Novell operating systems with WordPerfect applications, Weiss is working with Toronto-based Strategic/Ampersand to develop a pr strategy that complements the new firm’s corporate image and direction.

Having worked for marketing-driven companies such as Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola, Weiss says he is convinced pr should be a strategic rather than just a tactical consideration.

He says that maintaining technical superiority in the computer field is more and more difficult.

So, it is of growing importance to focus selling strategy on an entire philosophy, and, this, he says, is where pr excels.

Weiss measures the impact of his company’s public relations efforts in two ways.

The first is a quantitative study in which consumers are asked questions about their attitude to the company and its products.

As well, Strategic/Ampersand monitors media coverage, rating whether stories are incidental or major, positive or negative.

According to Weiss, media coverage has increased sevenfold over the past 18 months and the quality of the coverage is ‘tremendous.’

Doug Morelli, marketing director for Tracker, a Toronto-based service that tracks lost or stolen items by scanning encoded labels affixed to those items, says positive media coverage not only serves to support the marketing of a product or service, but to stimulate the interest of potential investors, as well.

Tracker, which launched Sept. 19 in Toronto with a media event organized by Toronto-based pr agency Media Profile and featuring Olympic biathlete Miriam Bedard, included the resulting coverage in its prospectus.

Major daily newspapers, broadcasters and wire services covered the event.

Morelli says he is sure the ‘flood of calls’ his company got from across North America in the weeks after the event were due to pr efforts, because advertising for the service did not begin until Oct. 6, more than two weeks after the launch.

Linda Thomas, director of corporate communications and distribution systems at Calgary-based Canadian Airlines International, describes the evolution of pr within the corporation from reactive to a new, highly proactive position.

Asked for an example, Thomas says an outside agency’s research showed Canadian had become the country’s No. 1 airline in the number of passengers carried.

Senior management believed the information was only of internal company interest, but Thomas and her staff saw things differently.

‘We asked to tell a story about this,’ she says. ‘They were skeptical.’

The story won extensive national media coverage and even caught the interest of specialist publications that had previously not paid much attention to the airline.

‘When that happened, they were absolutely flabbergasted,’ says Thomas, who recalls seeing the skeptics walking around with copies of the stories in hand.

Thomas, who has a background of 15 years in advertising, predicts increased use of public relations as a means of furthering marketing objectives, sometimes at the expense of advertising.

‘In corporate North America, they are looking at their advertising budget versus their public relations budget,’ she says.

‘They get a lot more value for the public relations expenditure. We can generate coverage at a much, much lower cost than advertising can.’

But, Thomas says measuring results is hard.

‘We face the same measurement challenge that the advertising group does,’ says Thomas, who relies on the volume and tone of media coverage to assess effectiveness.

Employee communications are also an important part of Canadian’s pr efforts.

A daily electronic newsletter is transmitted to all 15,000 Canadian employees, across Canada and to the 19 countries the airline serves.

It equips them to talk knowledgeably with passengers and has a distinctly businesslike tone, with details of operations and financial results.

‘We view it as a report to shareholders,’ Thomas says. ‘As soon as employees became owners, they really got interested.

‘The recent crisis we’ve just come through has actually driven a lot of this,’ she says. ‘If communication had fallen down on the job, it would have had a severe impact on the company.’

Of the more integrated role pr is enjoying at Canadian, Thomas says:

‘We are not alone. There is a real shift among companies in general for more appreciation of public relations.’

Marsha Connor, national marketing manager at Toronto-based Lotus Development Canada, agrees.

The company includes its public relations consultants, Toronto-based Cohn & Wolfe, in planning any project from the start.

‘We meet with them weekly; review with them monthly,’ Connor says.

When planning gets intense, Lotus updates the agency daily through E-mail.

Connor says the March 1993 product announcement of Lotus Notes 3.0 was one of the most important in the firm’s history.

The pr mandate was to talk about what the product could do for an organization, rather than about the product itself.

Designed as an educational process, the launch began with one-on-one briefings with the Toronto press, followed by a media junket to New York, then another briefing back in Toronto. Some reporters were lent the program.

Connor agrees that pr has become a profession with its own special skills, and the fact that Cohn & Wolfe has two other clients in the computer field complementary to Lotus – Compac and Intel – helps the agency better understand her industry.

‘They are learning about it from three clients,’ she says. ‘And, it shows.’

Freda Colbourne, director of corporate communications at Toronto-based Molson Breweries, believes Molson is an industry leader in its approach to public relations.

‘We have been using public relations now for at least three years as an integral part of the whole marketing approach,’ Colbourne says.

Careful attention was paid to public opinion when introducing Molson’s Exel, a dealcoholized beer sold in grocery stores and supermarkets.

Dealcoholized beer had been on the market for many years, but this was the first launch by a major brewery.

There was public concern that young people would drink it and progress to the brewer’s alcohol-containing products.

Press kits were used to communicate that the product was developed to appeal to adults concerned with health and lifestyle who wanted beer taste without the alcohol and that teenagers would not like it because it was not sweet.

Molson’s competitors soon came into the market with non-alcoholic beers, and the resulting promotion rapidly increased consumer demand.

Sheila Murray, business manager for Toronto-based confectionery maker Ferrero Canada, uses public relations to enhance the image of the company’s Tic Tac brand.

For every packet of Tic Tacs sold during September and October, 1 1/2 cents was donated to the charity Big Brothers and Sisters of Canada.

Donations are expected to total about $25,000.

Entitled ‘A Little Gives A Lot,’ the project is designed to increase market share of Tic Tac, which already holds 50% of Canada’s $14-million mini-mint market, and to raise visibility of the product and the charity.

Toronto-based ad agency Lowe SMS created a Canada-wide outdoor campaign in which six-foot, 3-D extruded plastic Tic Tac packages were placed in bus shelters.

Each poster had built-in slots for on-the-spot donations.

Meanwhile, Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Florence Giuly Communications designed a pr campaign to reach target audiences through the media, distributors and retailers.

Jim Dunbar, marketing manager at Echo Springs bottled water, uses special events as the major means of publicizing his company’s product.

Dunbar says doling out his company’s drinking water to participants at walkathons is a natural way to maintain an image and raise awareness of his product.

The company has supplied water to Terry Fox runs and has sponsored Walks for Life.

wafwot President Alan Schwarz credits Echo Spring’s public relations efforts with increasing its number of trade accounts, and installing the company in third position in the competitive bottled water market.