Big Outcomes Can Come from Small Audiences

Posted on 27. Nov, 2008 by in Blog

Public relations practitioners’ target audiences are often a cast of thousands, even millions, prompting the use of new and traditional media channels to reach them. Other times, we can count the number on the fingers of one hand. The following case study was one of those “other times.”

In October 2003, a U.S. Army maintenance specialist was killed in Iraq and another lost his arms because the equipment they were using to inflate a helicopter tire could not protect them when the tire over-inflated and exploded. When a manufacturer of aerospace ground support and test equipment learned of the incident, its CEO identified a product gap that, if filled, could protect the safety of those working in armed services as well as commercial aviation.

The company’s research and development of a tire safety cage was ultimately successful. The product was readily available for commercial use, but was stalled for 18 months in the government process of issuing the National Stock Number (NSN) necessary for military personnel to order it through the system. Meanwhile, helicopter tire inflation remained a safety hazard to U.S. soldiers, prompting one maintenance supervisor stationed in Iraq to do an online search to find a safer product. He discovered the company’s tire cage and emailed the CEO.

The problem was clear: This company has a product that can save soldiers’ lives. They need it and want it, and the company can’t sell it to them because it doesn’t have an NSN. Phone calls through regular channels have not improved the situation. What else can we do?

Questions. Thinking about how to solve a problem involves asking questions. Navigating the ins and outs of federal procurement was new terrain. Who could help? Prioritizing options pointed to helping the company build relationships with U.S. senators and congressional representatives from its home state to get the guidance and support necessary to make the product available to the military. To reach a potential customer base numbering in the millions, the target audience consisted of four people.

Research. Getting to know your target audience is critical to the success of any public relations campaign. With a small target audience, a face-to-face strategy was imperative. We researched Connecticut’s congressmen and senators to identify their connections with defense and small business issues to develop a compelling case for each individual. We leveraged that information in initial direct communication to establish a vested interest to get involved in making the tire cage available to the military market.

Credibility. Third-party testimony is more credible than anything we can say ourselves. In our requests for senators and congressmen to visit the company’s facility for a face-to-face meeting, we shared quotes from e-mails sent by soldiers in Iraq asking for help in procuring the company’s tire cage. Their sense of urgency was compelling.

Communication. Personal outreach to U.S. Senators and Congressmen resulted in three face-to-face meetings at the company’s production facility, producing important contacts and information related to NSN assignment and procurement of other government business. Key message handouts were developed for each meeting to help the company’s CEO cover important points and provide political representatives with a written reference on issues discussed.

Results. Republican and Democratic Congressmen who represented the company’s district, united across party lines to jointly send a letter of Congressional Inquiry to the Secretary of the Department of the Army, outlining concerns with the delay in getting the much-needed tire safety cage to U.S. soldiers. They pulled key messaging directly from our meeting handouts, including quotes from soldier emails, to underscore their point. Phone calls from the high-ranking Senator’s office also moved the situation to a positive end.

In little over three months after gaining the attention and support of this PR campaign’s target audience, the tire safety cage was issued an NSN. The U.S. Army immediately ordered tire cages for use in the Middle East and Bosnia. Relationships established with congressmen, senators and their staff continue to produce results for the company in other areas as well.In this case, it was face-to-face relationship building with a small target audience, not a mass media campaign blitz, that was key to solving the problem and achieving our goal. In mapping out a public relations strategy, take time to study the big picture, consider all options and choose the best path for the situation.

This article was written by Alison Karam, Director, PR, Marketing & Research, and Ira Yellen, President & CEO, both of First Experience Communications as it appeared in “PR News”, June 18, 2007

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