CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Post-merger General Mills serving up PR in big portions

General Mills has long believed in product PR, while Pillsbury has traditionally been more quiet. But now that the two have merged, an even bigger emphasis on PR is being cooked up. John Frank reports.

General Mills has long believed in product PR, while Pillsbury has traditionally been more quiet. But now that the two have merged, an even bigger emphasis on PR is being cooked up. John Frank reports.

Tucked away on General Mills' bucolic Minneapolis headquarters is a store where employees can buy the company's products at a discount. These days, a larger store is being built on the campus to accommodate not only General Mills' products, but also the new offerings the company sells as a result of its takeover of Minneapolis neighbor Pillsbury late last year. The company store isn't the only department that's been growing at General Mills. Since joining the company 18 months ago as director of brand PR, Kim Olson has doubled her in-house team to 14. The merger brought her experienced PR talent, such as 25-year Pillsbury PR veteran Marlene Johnson, now a General Mills senior PR manager. She's also been hiring from agencies and elsewhere. "We were understaffed when I started," Olson says. Indeed, her position had been vacant almost two years while the company searched for the right person. Olson's group is responsible strictly for PR to support brands such as Cheerios, Yoplait, and Hamburger Helper. Today, "I think we're really back on the upswing," says Olson, who had been SVP of global client services at Weber Shandwick Worldwide. "We really feel like we've got the right model." The General Mills PR model integrates PR with other marketing disciplines to support individual brands. Internal resources are supplemented by hiring agencies for brand and project work, particularly those with specialties; it uses Cone Communications because of its experience in cause-related marketing, and Alan Taylor Communications for its sports-marketing expertise, Olson says. Doug Spong, managing partner with Carmichael Lynch Spong, who has worked with General Mills since 1993, describes the company's approach to PR as comprising three phases: first creating excitement and awareness for a new product, next driving consumer demand for the product, and then maintaining brand identity. "They're known throughout the industry for their creativity," says Paul Maccabee, president of The Maccabee Group, another Minneapolis agency. "Given General Mills' size, it's remarkable how open they are to creativity. They don't just want little blurbs in the food column. They want Leno." Since her arrival, Olson has been pushing for involving PR earlier in the product-marketing process. "We're trying to move from a nice-to-have luxury to a must have," she says of product PR. "We now get in quite early 85% of the time. I'd like to be in the planning process 100% of the time." Bringing Pillsbury into the PR mix Analysts, journalists, and Twin-Cities PR pros that follow the company are all expecting General Mills to put major PR efforts into the purchased Pillsbury lines. Formerly owned by British beverage behemoth Diageo, Pillsbury hasn't been known for aggressive product PR in recent years. "Pillsbury was not as sophisticated a spender or marketer when it came to the use of PR," notes Spong. Dave Mona, chairman of WSW Minneapolis, agrees. "General Mills historically was much more aggressive than Pillsbury with its product PR." Olson and Johnson deny that Pillsbury was PR-poor in the past, but both acknowledge that the merger is bringing more PR muscle to the Pillsbury lineup. "There shouldn't be a misconception that they didn't do product PR at Pillsbury," Olson says. Johnson explains, "General Mills is more willing to be stand-up and be recognized for its successes. I think Pillsbury was just more quiet about it." Pillsbury has had a narrower PR focus in the past because many of its products appealed to a narrower audience - namely people who cook - than do many of General Mills' ready-to-eat offerings. "That's who we are: You cook us. You want your dollars to talk directly to those people, and those aren't the flashy PR programs," Johnson says. Outsiders are anxious to see how much flash General Mills will bring to Pillsbury. They're also waiting to see if General Mills, preoccupied with merger issues in the past year, will now bring more new products to its existing brands and put PR muscle behind them. CEO Steve Sanger has promised a flurry of new products this fiscal year, which extends to June 2003. "Steve Sanger's a believer in PR, and that's clear in the size of the department," Olson contends. "He recognizes points of opportunity, and I think right now General Mills is seeing PR as a point of opportunity." That means more work for Olson's department. While it oversaw 150 PR projects last year, Olson is projecting at least 200 in this fiscal year. Grabbing attention even in slow times Olson points out that in its last year, which outsiders were calling a slow one because of the merger, General Mills' product PR garnered more than 3 billion consumer impressions - well above its goal of 2.2 million. Major efforts last year included using Olympic Gold Medalist Bonnie Blair in a campaign for General Mills' meals division, which includes Hamburger Helper. The company also used Olympic star Sara Hughes on a Wheaties box, grabbing more than 350 million consumer impressions for a media event involving Hughes. The campaign fit perfectly with the brand image that breakfast cereal has crafted over the years. "It's ingrained in us," says Greg Zimprich, senior PR manager for the Big G Cereals and NASCAR group within Olson's department. "It's knowing the brand and knowing the value of it." Zimprich, a 10-year veteran, is typical of General Mills' PR personnel, according to outside PR pros who have worked with the company. "They have an internal staff that's very senior and seasoned," says Tom Jollie, SVP in the consumer practice at Padilla Speer Beardsley. "They know what the tried and true is when it comes to PR, and they are looking for something more." Spong takes it a step further, noting that the longevity of many PR staffers at General Mills has allowed them to become so immersed in the business aspects of their brands that "they think as much like an MBA as like a PR person." That means they can go toe-to-toe with MBAs running various brands when it comes to planning campaigns, Spong says. "They are consumers of great ideas, and are fun to work with because they are great advocates of their brands." Allegra Sinclair, senior PR manager for snack foods and a relative newcomer with four years at General Mills, says she's been impressed by the openness to new ideas. "It's not just okay that you challenge what's going on, but it's expected," she says. "Here we share business information along with PR information. We educate ourselves in a number of different areas that I have not seen in other places I've worked." That knowledge should come in handy as the company moves forward with PR for its Pillsbury brands, and for new products in existing lines. One veteran reporter who has covered the company notes that it became uncharacteristically quiet during the post-merger days, at least on the corporate side. She's hoping that will change as the company moves forward. And stock analyst David Kathman at Chicago-based Morningstar, an investment research firm, says that he's expecting more new-product rollouts. "To launch a new product successfully, you've got to have a well-oiled machine of PR," he says. Olson thinks she has that well-oiled machine largely in place - and she's anxious to prove it. ------------- General Mills Director, brand public relations Kim Olson Senior PR manager (Yoplait, Baking, Meals and Betty Crocker Equity) Pam Becker Senior PR manager (Big G cereals and NASCAR) Greg Zimprich Senior PR manager (Pillsbury Division and Bake-off) Marlene Johnson Senior PR manager (snacks, food service, BTFE and corporate-wide programs) Allegra Sinclair External PR agencies Alan Taylor Communications, Carmichael Lynch Spong, Cone Communications, Padilla Speer Beardsley, Weber Shandwick Worldwide

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