Launching a public relations campaign.
How would you like to turn on the Today show one morning and see your industry showcased in a favorable light? Or read an article in Newsweek or The New York Times that suggests to readers the merits of your members' products or services?
Pipe dreams? Not for an industry that harnesses the power of public opinion with an industrywide campaign. When your members band together with a unified message, they can accomplish at least two things that no member can easily do alone: Gain access to the major media and expand the market for all members.
Instead of promoting a brand name, an industrywide program sells a concept--the concept of eating pasta, buying flowers, using a travel agent, replacing a mattress more frequently. It creates a more receptive marketing environment by educating people and getting them to think about your product, service, or issue. It also softens up the consumer for each member's individual messages, effectively giving the member "more bang for the advertising buck."
Will your members agree to pledge a portion of an already tight marketing budget for a program with benefits that appear to be intangible, long term, and not member specific? For those associations willing to make that leap of faith, the benefits can be significant.
Case in point: In the early 1980s, the Washington, D.C., public relations firm Henry J. Kaufman & Associates helped the International Sleep Products Association (ISPA), Alexandria, Virginia, identify the fact that mattress manufacturers had a real problem: People don't think about their mattresses, and they hold on to mattresses long after they are essentially worn out.
Armed with this information, ISPA's Better Sleep Council kicked off a marketing program to reduce the number of years people keep their mattresses by educating people about the relationship between a good night's rest and quality bedding. While an individual mattress manufacturer works to expand its share of the market, this program was designed to expand the market overall.
The campaign was an incredible success. The mattress-replacement cycle went from 12.2 years at the beginning of the program to 10.8 years in 1990. May, historically a flat month for the industry, has emerged as its fastest-growing sales period. Many manufacturers also credit the program with helping to create the growing market for ultra-premium bedding, a market that had never existed before.
Like the International Sleep Products Association, the National Paint and Coatings Association, Washington, D.C., used a monthlong promotion to focus attention on its products, which had been suffering from flat sales. Using the theme "Picture it painted," NPCA launched an aggressive campaign to encourage consumers to paint more often. The program positioned paint as a product good for decoration as well as maintenance--one that is fashionable, versatile, and economical.
To support National Paint Month, NPCA also worked to heighten association member involvement and participation, and developed a host of promotional items bearing the new theme and logo, including merchandising and point-of-purchase materials for member companies and retailers.
The program took a multimedia approach to reach the largest numbers of consumers with the "decorate with paint" message. Its main components were newspaper features in home-improvement sections, a spokesperson for radio and television talk shows, and a staged press event featuring a Victorian dollhouse--each room with a different paint treatment--that generated major magazine coverage.
During the program's four-year existence, paint sales rose steadily and the manufacturer-driven program helped forge an important and mutually beneficial relationship among NPCA members and their paint retailers.
Industrywide campaigns need not promote products. Individual member associations can also help educate the public about their services or professions. Several years ago, for example, the American Society of Travel Agents, Alexandria, Virginia, launched a campaign with the theme "Travel smart." The American Chiropractic Association, Arlington, Virginia, has an ongoing program aimed at broadening its doctor-members' patient base.
Defining the need
Does your association need an industrywide public relations program? Most industries have some problem or consumer misperception in need of correction. Therefore, research conducted at the outset is crucial--to assess the marketplace, bring to light issues and misperceptions that members may not know exist, and crystallize program objectives.
The best public relations program in the world is worthless if it is aimed at the wrong problem. The National Pasta Association (NPA), Arlington, Virginia, discovered this in the 1980s, when its ongoing public relations program appeared to be having little impact on the listless per-capita consumption of noodles and pasta products.
A series of consumer focus groups and supermarket person-on-the-street interviews showed that the association's primary consumer message--that pasta wasn't fattening--was not a motivating factor in getting people to eat more pasta. There had to be a better way to make people want it.
The association adopted the theme "Pastahhh" because it wanted to lend emotion to the product and because consumer research found that pasta means different things to different audiences. To budget-conscious families, it's a low-cost food; to sophisticated urbanites, it's a chic dish; to singles, it's one of the few entrees easily portioned into single servings without waste.
The program--which included a series of targeted Pastahhh recipe booklets offered through special-interest magazines--positioned pasta as the ideal food for a fast-paced, health-conscious lifestyle. It's fun to eat, easy to cook, economical, and full of complex carbohydrates. Where in the past food editors had covered macaroni and cheese recipes, pasta gained star status on the front pages of food sections. Typical of the kind of media coverage the program generated was a 16-page "I Love Pasta Cookbook" in Good Housekeeping.
During the program, association activities included a "Pasta Lovers Club," a quarterly newsletter called Pastahhh, the media-grabbing Great American Spaghetti Sauce Search, and the annual Political Pasta Party on Capitol Hill, which features regional pasta recipes from across the country. Pasta manufacturing insiders credit the event with helping to create a better lobbying environment for the industry during a time--dubbed the "pasta wars"--when importers of foreign pasta brands held trade advantages over U.S. pasta manufacturers.
Did all this and the millions of media impressions generated by the program really help NPA's membership? Yes. In less than two years, per-capita consumption in the United States increased by one pound per person per year.
Could things be better for your association? Are sales flat? Is membership low? Perhaps there are markets that your leadership suspects may represent important opportunities, but for which advertising would be too costly. All these things could mean the time is ripe for an industrywide public relations campaign.
Selling the concept
The toughest hurdle associations face in putting together an industrywide program is getting members to buy into it. Before proposing a program, identify the movers and shakers and visionaries within the association. A strategic planning session at an annual meeting may help identify the most vocal and farsighted members. Also, include your biggest stakeholders in these early planning stages. These are the people you want to involve in guiding the program.
At ISPA, seed money for launching the Better Sleep Council came from supplier members, who first recognized the need for a change in consumer attitudes toward bedding. ISPA's suppliers were sufficiently organized within the association to play a key resource role for the staff. Another place to start is with a core of influential chief executive officers.
Once identified, these key leaders can form the backbone of a small public relations subcommittee whose first responsibility is determining the feasibility of the program. Will members be willing to sustain a dues increase or special assessment for at least three to five years if one is needed? Individual membership associations will need the support of the most powerful chapter heads and regional directors of the most populated areas.
Put these chief executive officers and influential members to work for you by making them "ambassadors" for an industrywide campaign. Ask one of them to speak to the membership at the opening general session of your next convention, or invite several to develop a special panel presentation on expanding the marketplace for your product or service. Over cocktails, at lunch, or in an editorial for an influential trade publication, these people can plant the seeds of interest for a "we're all in this together" public relations program.
If a member is outspoken against the program, do put him or her on the committee. It's the only way you can possibly win that member over. The last thing you need at this initial stage is an influential or vocal member voicing criticism or skepticism from outside the fold. Time and time again it is the skeptic who becomes the most avid supporter of these types of programs. What's more, the group dynamics of the committee will generally work for you in managing a difficult member. This committee will work hand in hand with your in-house public relations department and/or external agency to develop and guide the program, from budget approval through annual or semiannual progress reviews.
The staff plays an important role in maintaining balance. You want the leadership to provide or direct the vision for the program, but the staff has to keep this vision on track and provide the practical underpinnings. Many a program has got bogged down when public relations committee members took out their pencils--literally and figuratively--and started designing the letterhead or writing the news release themselves. The program will run much more efficiently if your staff or a single committee liaison is given this authority. By presenting only the most creative and well-written materials and by demonstrating respect for bottom-line objectives and budget efficiency, staff will build confidence on the part of the voluntary leadership.
Another word of caution: Many associations fail to spend enough money to properly show members why a program is needed (and later to show them how well it is working). The investment you make in a dynamic presentation to members will be reflected in their support of the program. Your "sales" presentation should include research, successful case histories, and projections of what the program will accomplish in language members can relate to--dollars and cents.
Once the program is off and running, you'll have wonderful things to share with your membership--color slides of magazines and newspapers where favorable articles appeared, audiotapes of radio interviews, pictures of press events, and video clips from a spokesperson tour. Be creative with your before-program presentation--showing charts with projected sales increases, covers of the magazines you'll be targeting, or mock-ups of the materials you plan to produce. Use computer-generated graphics to make dramatic slides of the program's key messages, and share the results of research you've already done.
Incidentally, one of the hardest things for many association members to understand is that an industrywide program is, in fact, not a cost but an investment--the net result of which could mean an expanded market worth millions of dollars. At ISPA, a vision paper projecting what financial impact an expanded marketplace could have on industry sales helped convince members that the program was well worth the relatively small financial risk.
Laying the groundwork
Once you've got the program approved, it's time to lay the groundwork that will ensure its success. Public relations is a four-step process, and the critical first step is research. In addition to helping justify the need for a public relations program, research can help you define the problem by getting an understanding of how your industry or service fits into the marketplace and how it is perceived by others. It also will serve as a benchmark for measuring changes in consumers' attitudes and proving to members that the program is working.
Research can be simple--gathering all the printed material, articles, and studies on a subject already available or listening to a group of members discuss an issue--or more elaborate, involving studies using focus groups or large-scale nationally projectable audience polls.
Public relations input is critically important to any research undertaken to guide a public relations program. Remember: Research is not a replacement for judgment; nor is it best used as the sole basis for making decisions. Instead, use it to help you make more intelligent decisions and to help get a different perspective (ideally your target audiences' perspectives) on your members' industry, product, service, or issue.
The American Society of Internal Medicine (ASIM), Washington, D.C., for example, found through preliminary research that many people confused the term internist with intern. The public apparently believed that physicians who were actually board-certified in internal medicine were still in training. The association used that knowledge to launch a campaign that offered tips on how to be a good patient while educating the public about internists.
Showing your members edited highlights of focus groups and presenting the results of initial research about their business can go a long way in helping them understand the need for a public relations program.
Planning the campaign
The second step of the public relations process--planning the campaign--requires the help of public relations professionals. If you decide to use an outside agency, identify one or two people on your staff to supervise the account team.
It may seem obvious, but it's essential that your staff and the account team get along and work well together. When an adversarial relationship develops between the association staff and the agency, the program is on shaky ground.
While research helps determine what's happening now, planning determines what the association should do. Develop a written public relations plan that includes a statement of the problem, situation analysis, program goals and objectives, target audiences, messages to be communicated, specific program elements, and a work plan and timetable.
Essential to every plan is a section that discusses how the program will be evaluated or measured in terms of the campaign's stated objectives. Finally, develop a realistic budget that accounts for staff time and/or agency fees and direct expenses.
In developing your plan, select no more than four or five messages you want to convey to the public. Barring dramatic environmental changes, stay the course. Public relations is a long-term investment; it takes years to educate consumers and build exposure that will expand your marketing environment. One of the reasons ISPA's Better Sleep Council program, launched in 1983, has been so successful is that its key messages remain relatively unchanged.
Determining what these messages are can be tricky. Using preliminary research and the expertise of someone skilled in public relations, work with your subcommittee to find some common denominators that can satisfy the entire membership. It is critical that your messages are credible and based on fact.
Decide exactly what you want to get consumers to do, and make sure your objective is measurable. An objective is "to increase membership." A measurable objective is "to increase membership by 15 percent in one year." A professional who has worked on previous programs can help you set a feasible objective.
When the International Apple Institute (IAI), McLean, Virginia, planned its public relations program, members asked, "Do we want consumers to cook more with apples? Drink more apple juice? Or buy more fresh fruit?" Since fresh apples brought a substantially higher price per pound than applesauce or apple juice, it was in the members' best interest to promote the fresh-fruit angle.
IAI identified other goals: to become recognized as a resource for the media; to increase publicity about apples, not only in October but also year-round; and to create news features on the apple's various attributes (e.g., healthy to eat, easy to pack, comes in its own "wrapper") in an effort to broaden media exposure beyond newspaper food sections.
The theme "An apple a day ..." accomplished the association's primary goal of getting consumers to eat more fresh fruit. It also implied the health benefit of eating apples, which the program supported in news features and other materials. The campaign effectively positioned IAI as a media resource, and gave health and lifestyle editors a reason to write about apples.
Ultimately, IAI's program accomplished another important goal for the association that hadn't previously been achieved: It convinced members that growers of different apple varieties were all players in the association's goals. For example, its "An Apple A Day" theme graphically depicted three red apples, two green apples, and one yellow apple, which effectively represented the association's diverse membership.
When selecting messages, be sure to provide the media with something substantive to offer readers and listeners. (This may require compromise among members.) Also, make sure your messages are blessed by the industry; there should be no surprises for members when their messages appear.
The meat-and-potatoes part of any plan is generally the program elements section. This is where you describe what you are going to do. While every public relations plan is unique, the basic tools for reaching audiences are generally the same--things like special events, media kits, news releases, photographs, press events, video news releases, satellite feeds, camera-ready columns, radio interviews, newsletters, editor tours, educational literature, and spokesperson media tours. For each program element, ask yourself, "Why are we doing this?" and, "Does it help us communicate our messages?"
It is the creativity, ongoing strategy development, and execution--the third step of the process--of these and other public relations activities in concert that make the difference between a good and a great public relations program.
Once the program begins, don't forget to review the plan every month or so to remind yourself of the original objectives and to be sure that your messages are coming across in everything you do.
The fourth and final step in the public relations process is evaluation. Did the program work? Reach agreement from the beginning on how the program will be evaluated in terms of its objectives.
Independent services can evaluate not only the quantity of media coverage but quality and value as well. Statistics on industry sales, membership figures, market trend reports, election results, attendance records, and comparisons to previous years are a few of the ways a program can be measured.
Association-funded research is often instrumental in evaluating the success of an industrywide public relations program. Granted, some industries are easier to measure than others. Every two to three years, ISPA conducts small focus groups, telephone surveys of 1,000 consumers, and surveys of editors, asking the same questions that directed the campaign's messages. How long should a new, good-quality mattress last? What size bedding are you likely to buy? Would you buy high-quality bedding for your children? As an editor, what do you think of our materials? What other things would you like to see?
ISPA's research and statistics on industry sales demonstrate to members that consumers' attitudes about bedding are improving along with the sales figures.
How much should you spend on research? "There is no magic answer," says Maria Ivancin, director of the Market Research Bureau, Washington, D.C. "You use market research to help guide the program, to obtain a better understanding of what your target audiences are thinking about your product or issue, and as a benchmark for measuring the program in later years. With associations, it also can be invaluable in validating the program to your membership. It's not unusual for an association to spend 10 percent of its budget on research."
Don't underestimate the value of using market research as a publicity tool. You may want to add a "newsworthy" element to your research studies and then release that information to the press.
Sharing the results
Once your program is off to a successful start, don't forget to regularly share your progress with the public relations committee and membership--they're the ones who will decide whether to fund it for another year.
If an agency is managing your program, expect the account team to supply you with weekly activity reports and monthly updates of media placements. (A clipping service and video monitoring service will pick up a good percentage of them.) Keep your public relations committee updated by sending regular informational packets containing materials you've produced and reprints of news clippings.
How often do you need to meet with the committee? Usually once or twice a year, preferably not during the annual convention, when committee members have other pressing agenda items.
The annual meeting is a good time to present your program to the general membership, however. Attendance, particularly that of key members, is usually good, and you have a captive audience with whom to share results.
Whatever your budget is, don't forget to allocate a portion of it for that year-end slide show and presentation. Include reprints of the year's best newspaper and magazine articles, a videotape of your spokesperson on a major television talk show, and results of any market research that indicate the program's success. Make the presentation an impressive, exciting part of the convention--an opportunity for members to really see what they're getting for their money.
Members of the American Floral Marketing Council, Alexandria, Virginia, for example, were greeted one year by billboards featuring their new public relations program as they arrived at the airport in the convention city. Stickers bearing the program's slogan, "A flower is worth a thousand words," were placed on the morning newspaper outside their hotel rooms. At the convention, members received promotional buttons and viewed a 15-minute film about the program.
Providing your committee has already approved next year's plan, your annual meeting is also an ideal time to preview the coming year. You might suggest ways individual members could tie in to the national program at the local level.
The key is to build enthusiasm among members. Remember, this program could become the biggest item in their yearly budget--as it has for the International Sleep Products Association.
"We have watched our program evolve from the early days, when we had to work to justify its funding, to the present, where we sit around a table trying to find even more ways to support it," says Russell L. Abolt, ISPA executive vice president. "Today, the Better Sleep Council is one of our most important programs. It's a key reason many of our members are involved and a major selling point in getting new members."
If you want to be a visionary and help your members take the future into their own hands, an industrywide public relations program may be the answer. With sound research, smart planning, media savvy, and conscientious implementation, your association can play an important role in developing the market for its members.
Questions to Anticipate
Here are some of the questions you can expect members to ask about launching an industrywide public relations campaign
How do we best raise the money for the program? The most common ways are through membership dues or special assessments. Good sources for seed money to help launch the program include suppliers and members who are sold on the program.
Will it be equitable? Generally, the most successful programs have payments based on sales, with the percentage low enough that it really doesn't hurt anybody. The difficult part is setting up a monitoring mechanism so that members pay their fair share without necessarily revealing their sales volume. The honor system, with periodic verification, usually works.
Invariably, large manufacturers will complain that they have to pay the most and that the program tends to help their smaller competitors. This is generally unfounded, because the large companies will derive by far the most benefit from the program. Their larger staffs and budgets will allow them to take proportionately greater advantage of the market expansion it ultimately creates.
How much does it cost to launch a meaningful program? A budget of $150,000-$300,000 is sufficient to launch a respectable national public relations campaign. A larger budget--$500,000-$750,000--makes you a serious player. By contrast, you need at least $7 million-$8 million to launch a national advertising campaign of comparable impact. Few industries are willing to commit that much money at the outset.
Don't start out overly ambitious; public relations programs have to walk before they run. Associations' unique decision-making mechanisms may mean that they have to begin at a lower level of funding than is ideal. Once a program is under way, however, you can work at building it up.
Is the program too generic to work? The fact that you're selling concepts, not brands, is precisely what makes the program work. An industrywide program can generate national media coverage better than any single member, because it isn't perceived as commercial or self-interested but in the public interest. Savvy members can then take advantage of the heightened consumer interest in their product by "putting their bucket out when it's raining" and advertising more during the national promotion period--in the case of members of the International Sleep Products Association, Alexandria, Virginia, for example, during Better Sleep Month.
Is an external public relations agency needed? Outside professionals can bring many advantages to your program, including objectivity, prior experience, and specific skills. An account team can become an extension of your staff, fielding media calls and performing other tasks that you may not have the personnel to handle.
Many associations have discovered their members are more receptive to external public relations counsel; occasionally, however, members may resist outside advice. Cost can also be a consideration in hiring an agency.
If you decide to hire an agency, don't overlook the need for having the right chemistry between the association staff and the agency, because they will be working closely together. Involve staff and committee members in the hiring decision.
It also helps to have an agency that has worked with associations. Unlike corporate clients, an association's budget is usually cast in stone--an agency must be able to live within it. A fixed monthly or quarterly time-of-staff fee often works better than hourly billings for associations, since it eliminates unwelcome surprises and helps accommodate cash flow.
Helen Sullivan, a senior vice president with Kaufman Public Relations, Washington, D.C., is accredited in public relations.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 1993|
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