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PR pros find room at the top.

PR Pros Find Room at the Top

How five well-managed companies communicate

William Chaney is serving up breakfast. Not the cereal-and-toast type of morning meal, but the kind with a six-figure price tag. The kind of gathering that whets your appetite for the finest in design, craftsmanship and service.

Guests at one of Chaney's gatherings, Breakfast at Tiffany's, might feast their eyes on intricate jewelry designs, exquisite silk scarves, fragrant perfumes, $3,000 handbags, as well as an assortment of catered delicacies. Tiffany hosts one of these elegant events whenever the company opens a new retail store, branches into a new line of upscale products or showcases seasonal merchandise.

"People in the media never grow tired of an invitation from us," says Fernanda Gilligan, Tiffany's vice president of public relations. "Every breakfast is different with sights and sounds and press presentations that really make a statement about Tiffany. Our success relies on our image of quality at any cost."

Breakfast at Tiffany's, with roots dating back to 1970, has become a time-honored tradition of this jewelry and luxury gift store.

These media events have never been more elaborate, and the company has never been more prosperous, with sales of US $361 million last year. Liberating the company from its five-year stint as a subsidiary of Avon Products, Chaney replaced disastrous losses with fat profits. And the resurrected buzzwords around Tiffany nowadays are top quality, lavish service and high prices.

Since taking over as president of Tiffany & Co. in 1984, Chaney not only tripled US retail outlets, but he also multiplied stores across the globe. With five European locations and two stores in the Far East, Tiffany also operates nearly two dozen Japanese boutiques in partnership with that company's oldest and largest retailer, Mitsukoshi.

"We are dealing with a very knowledgeable consumer in the United States, but our global PR efforts must address people who have either no idea of what we are, or who have only a vague sense about Tiffany merchandise," explains Gilligan. "The public relations work we do has escalated both in its quantity and in its importance to the company's success."

Chaney and Gilligan both believe public relations is moving into a golden age, arguably evolving into a central element of society and a keystone in most successful companies. The amount of credit given to communication departments, however, varies almost as much as does each company's definition of the term. Even among corporations chosen by management experts as the best managed in the world, communication and public relations departments are operating at a variety of levels.

Tiffany, selected as one of Business Month magazine's five 1989 best-managed companies, lavishes credit on the firm's PR programs and includes a seat for public relations on the executive board of directors. Gilligan relates the growth of the company with the expansion of the public relations department, which now promotes twice as many events and programs as compared to four years ago. With 19 full-time employees, the department is in daily contact with senior management, distributes clip reports and press previews, as well as PR material for media events.

"Sometimes we're in contact every hour," quips Gilligan. "We work closely with Tiffany executives to create tailor-made PR for each activity and product. Public relations is a critical component to our success."

MCI's PR Strategy

Communication is also a big part of the corporate mix at MCI, another of Business Month's top-performing companies with '89 revenues of US $6.5 billion. MCI chairman Bill McGowan also had targeted breakfast gatherings when he first founded the telecommunications firm in 1968. Executives would meet with McGowan every Monday morning for a plate of scrambled eggs and an informative update on internal departments and technology systems.

As the company has grown, with MCI now available to 99 percent of the world's telephones. Monday morning eggs have gone by the wayside. Today McGowan's weekly breakfast report involves executives in an electronic equivalent. Other internal communication channels at MCI include divisional magazines, quarterly reports, an extensive audio library, the MCI mail system and MCI World, a monthly company publication.

"Public relations plays an integral role because this company has been mindful from the beginning that critical decisions were going to be made in public forums," comments Gene Eidenberg, executive vice president. "We are not the case of a company seeking to do business in a small, niche market. As advocates of competition in communication, we had to be open to public scrutiny from day one."

MCI certainly has captured media attention with tripled revenues since AT&T's divestiture in 1984, with billable calls increasing more than 400 percent during this time. McGowan's own irreverent leadership style also has attracted media observers as he has navigated this telecommunications firm through some regulatory storms and uncharted waters.

The company's list of PR goals has come about more as a function of public awareness than of promoting a corporate image. "MCI doesn't have some cooked-up strategy, but we do recognize the need for explaining and defending our positions in the telecommunication market," explains Eidenberg. "Our real goal is not to let PR drive policy, but to allow business and public policy decisions to lead our public relations work."

For the past decade, MCI has been involved in a sort of communication revolution, threatening the viability of some well-entrenched US companies. While their PR department makes extensive use of communication chains, both internal and external, they remain selective about direct media contacts in the world press.

"We don't pump out boilerplate press releases, but we do utilize our contacts at press conferences and trade shows," says Eidenberg. "The glass fishbowl works as an advantage for MCI because the glare of publicity helps our cause as we become known domestically and across the globe as a major telecommunications carrier."

PR Gives Dow a Facelift

Dow Chemical is another fish swimming comfortably in the glass bowl of public scrutiny, but this ability has not come without a focused communication effort. Dow sales have doubled to US $17.5 billion since Frank Popoff took the helm in 1987 as CEO, but the company continues to struggle with public perception and acceptance. Many consumers have an uneasy feeling about the safety and production of drugs, plastics, hydrocarbons and chemicals. "Dow's reputation with various publics and the media has become significantly more positive in recent years," says Popoff, who is in daily contact with the firm's public communication department. "It is important that we continue this trend."

Popoff has lightened Dow's debt load, has rejuvenated sales on all international fronts, and has expanded the company through acquisitions and profitable joint ventures. He also has relied heavily on his communication staff to schedule all press interviews and photo sessions, to write speeches and position papers, and has included PR as an integral player on his management team.

"Public relations has had a major part in achieving Dow's business objectives by developing and implementing programs to enhance the company's credibility," explains Tom Henderson, manager of public communication. "We have to be responsible as a good corporate citizen because the public's perception is much lower than the reality of what chemicals are all about."

Dow's first public relations priority has been to give its corporate image a facelift, fighting serious blemishes in the company's reputation stemming from chemical destruction during the Vietnam War. Working now with an 18-month training program for all PR employees, Dow is at the forefront of chemical companies in its significant emphasis on corporate communication.

"We've realized how important it is to use PR as an integral part of business," adds Henderson. "This is a conscious change on our part from previous Dow practices, and we are extremely pleased with our success. PR is now a part of this company, not just a nice thing to have around."

PR in a Can

The level of communication activity within a company depends not only on executive decisions, but also on industry trends, production and competition. John S. Barry, president of the WD-40 Company, has focused his firm's minimal PR efforts on product publicity since competition is virtually non-existent against his all-purpose lubricant.

In fact, aside from one long-time employee who handles advertising and marketing, Barry works as his company's own communicator. He conducts his own interviews with the media, handles press contacts and even answers his own telephone. With tight control on management and payroll, Barry's company sold US $83.9 million worth of the petro-chemical distillate with less than 150 employees at the San Diego, Calif. headquarters.

"We define public relations strictly in terms of publicizing our product," explains Barry. "We don't spend any time on pushing a positive corporate image. We sell WD-40. That's all we do, and I'd say we do it quite well. A positive public image will follow if we're successful at what we do best."

Seventy-five percent of Americans have a blue, yellow and white aerosol can of WD-40 in their homes and use the petroleum-based solvent to prevent rust, loosen rusted locks, remove grease from fabrics, lubricate door hinges and a hundred other odd jobs. Barry says some folks have even written to him about using WD-40 to relieve arthritis and heal crippled animals.

"We're always looking for new ways to use the product because that's just another way we can publicize WD-40," adds Barry. "We've found that our best salesman is a free sample of the product. Guess you could say that's PR in a can instead of at some press conference."

PR Helps Keep Russell Humming

Executives at the Russell Corporation had relied on outside PR agencies until six years ago when the costs and the publicity stunts became too much to swallow. Since then, media queries have been channeled to three separate departments, each located in different buildings at the company's sprawling facility in Alexander City, Ala. Business and financial questions are referred to one area, while another employee deals with all state and local media contacts, and still another handles PR for the apparel company's product lines.

"We constantly run into overlap and sometimes toes get stepped on," says Nancy Klopman, public relations director for Russell. "Certainly we've not capitalized on our focus areas by dividing up the responsibility. It's just been tough convincing some of our more conservative executives that PR is a viable and necessary part of the business."

Russell is a home-grown company that was founded just after the turn of the century with six knitting and 12 sewing machines. The company now employs almost half the residents of Alexander City and ranks third behind Nike and Reebok in the US domestic sportswear industry. With President Dwight Carlisle emphasizing efficiency and productivity, the company posted 1989 revenues of US $672 million.

Internal communication is supported with employee recognition--worker teams are awarded for joint improvements in safety, production and quality. But external PR is weakened by disjointed efforts and a lack of management support.

"We're not only trying to convince company leaders that PR is necessary, but we're also educating them about public relations and marketing," explains Klopman. "We're trying to explain what PR can mean to company decision-makers who've had very little exposure to the advantages and benefits of a strong, unified public relations effort."

Klopman admits that PR budget items and costs are often veiled under the guise of advertising expenses simply because it's easier to gain approval from executives if they feel direct sales will result.

"Public relations picks up where advertising leaves off," Klopman adds. "But when you're dealing with a group of hard-core manufacturers in a small community, public relations comes across as a lightweight. We're trying to show them differently."

Anne Marie Taylor heads her own firm, Taylor'd Inc., specializing in writing, research and editing, San Francisco, Calif.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
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Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Taylor, Anne Marie
Publication:Communication World
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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