Though The Salvation Army has run some successful branding drives, it's looking to expand its messaging to raise public awareness for all of its other charitable endeavors globally.
It's not often that a charitable organization as well known as The Salvation Army finds itself with a perception problem. But that was the case after tsunamis ravaged Southeast Asia late last year.
"We have been in India since about 1870, but when the tsunami hit, one media spokesperson told the nation they should not donate to The Salvation Army because they do not have international experience," says Maj. George Hood, The Salvation Army's national community relations secretary, as well its main spokesman. "I was on the phone trying to get the producer even while they were still on the air. The truth of the matter is that, when the tsunami struck, we didn't have to go send people there to respond. We were already there with highly skilled medical teams and trained disaster personnel."
There's hardly anyone in the US who doesn't recognize the distinctive red-and-white shield that symbolizes The Salvation Army. But in some ways it has become a victim of its two most successful branding efforts: the bell-ringing volunteers standing in front of red kettles, soliciting donations during the holidays, and the organization's branded thrift stores in communities across the US. These efforts often overshadow the hundreds of other charitable efforts run in 109 countries around the world.
"America loves The Salvation Army, and we are honored to be as respected as we are," explains Commissioner W. Todd Bassett, the current national commander of the organization. But he worries that the public isn't fully aware of the services that The Salvation Army provides.
Building a consistent message
Getting the public to understand the full scope of what The Salvation Army is and what it does is the biggest challenge facing the organization.
Hood currently shoulders most of that responsibility. He directly oversees a communications staff of 12 at the national headquarters in Alexandria, VA, and also works with more than 160 PR, marketing, and development professionals in communities across the country.
While the strategies begin at the national headquarters, the implementation takes place in communities coast-to-coast, with a mobilized infrastructure of seasoned communications pros, Hood explains. "My staff is divided up into work teams focusing upon public relations, marketing, and internet networks, and our role is to put the tools into the hands of the 160 [team members] so that they can carry a consistent message and branding promise to the public from nearly 9,000 different centers of operation."
Much of his time is spent making sure that the more than 60,000 Salvation Army employees are all on the same page when it comes to communications. "I have been on a five-year crusade internally, teaching our people that 'one nation - one message' creates a win-win for all of us," he says. The Salvation Army has spent about nine years training spokespeople in each of the 40 divisional geographies that make up national coverage. The challenge is turnover and inactivity for many of those people, with the exception of the Christmas season, adds Hood.
The communications staff does have some autonomy in executing this strategy, and it regularly meets with the organization's top brass. "My style with communications is that I'm a little bit more hands on," explains Bassett. "It's an area that I'm very much interested in, so I probably meet with George Hood between three and five times a week if I'm in the office."
It is a great help to the organization that Hood brings experience from both the nonprofit and corporate worlds to his current role. After beginning as a Salvation Army officer, specializing in directing youth camps throughout the Northeast, Hood spent 15 years in the corporate world, focusing on direct marketing for companies including TRW (now Experian), Equifax, and RL Polk & Co.
Hood's experience outside the world of nonprofits make collaborating on campaigns much easier, says David Fuscus, president and CEO of Xenophon Strategies, which has been The Salvation Army's AOR since January. "Sometimes you work with clients who don't have a background in communications, marketing, or public relations, so you have to spend time explaining why you're doing things," Fuscus says. "But you don't have to do that with Maj. Hood."
"They really do a terrific job, and if there's a major storm going on or a major relief effort going on, Maj. Hood is always available," adds Paul Clolery, editor-in-chief of The NonProfit Times. "Sometimes I joke that I think he's been cloned because, no matter where or when or how, he always answers his cell phone."
Of course it doesn't hurt that The Salvation Army has built up more than a century of goodwill in the US. Though only a handful of news outlets have dedicated philanthropic reporters, Fuscus says, most outlets will find a way to cover the organization's efforts. "People love The Salvation Army, and when you pitch a reporter on a story, just the name alone gets them on the phone," he says. "It's an environment in which a lot of good things can be done."
Like a lot of charitable organizations, The Salvation Army looks for good ideas wherever it can find them. This year it took a page from the business world and introduced its first major branding campaign, "Doing the Most Good," that educates both the media and the public about all that the organization has to offer.
Sheila Tate, vice chairwoman of Washington, DC-based PR firm Powell Tate/Weber Shandwick and a member of The Salvation Army's national advisory board, was one of those who signed off on the new campaign, but insists that Hood deserves much of the credit.
"Todd Bassett asked for a major infusion of creativity and new focus for the advertising/public relations program," she says. "We retained Stan Richards [of The Richards Group] for advertising and Xenophon for communications. Both are performing beyond expectations, and I believe this campaign will have a major impact on awareness of and support for The Salvation Army."
While branding campaigns aren't necessarily a new development in the nonprofit sector, "Doing the Most Good" establishes a national platform from which any of The Salvation Army's community organizations can then adapt locally. "The thing that excites me about it personally is that this is not just another motto," explains Bassett. "We internally want our officers and employees to grasp and to embody this because we're making our promise to the public that if you entrust your resources to us, we'll use them the very best way we possibly can."
Unlike a traditional business, The Salvation Army doesn't measure PR success by counting media clips or tracking sales. So it's tough to get sound ROI measurements, explains Hood. "Our focus is to serve suffering humanity, and the cost of sustained measurable research is far too rich for us. However, we do track giving amounts on an annual basis by geographies and specific locales, and in the end we always want to know what percentage of our donated funds are spent on raising a dollar. We have consistently kept that number about 15% to 17% for fundraising and management."
Whether it's a hurricane in Florida, flooding in Chile, or the terror attacks in London, The Salvation Army is not only there providing relief, but also working with the media to educate the general public on how they can help. For Hood and his staff, that means PR is a never-ending task that often runs seven days a week.
"It takes about 10 minutes of being in the presence of these wonderful people to recognize their commitment, their loving hearts, and their sheer desire to serve," says Tate. "They do not ask for recognition; in fact, they tend to shy away from it.
"It's a lot of fun and very gratifying to work for the good guys, and The Salvation Army are the good guys," adds Fuscus.
National community relations secretary Maj. George Hood
PR specialist Melissa Temme
Community relations and development secretary/Southern territory Maj. John Jones
PR agency Xenophon Strategies