ANALYSIS <b>Corporate Case Study</b>: Boys & Girls Clubs' PR puts focus on brand growth

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America looks to PR to upgrade its public image from that of a group focused on athletics to that of one striving to help kids achieve in school and later in life.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America looks to PR to upgrade its public image from that of a group focused on athletics to that of one striving to help kids achieve in school and later in life.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) is the fastest-growing youth group in the country, with more than 3,400 individual centers, including outposts on military bases from Europe to Asia. In 1990, the nonprofit organization changed its name from Boys Clubs of America to include young women, as well, and now serves more than 4 million children. "It's really an academic goal-setting program, with the ultimate goal being to help kids understand the importance of [high school] graduation," explains Jan Still-Lindeman, senior director of PR. "We address their interests - computers, sports - whatever it takes to get kids in the front door. And then once we have them, we start working on their needs. We know kids aren't looking for another school experience. What we try to do is provide kids with opportunities that can enhance those skills that will help them succeed inside the classroom and outside the classroom." Despite its size and admirable intent, the 144-year-old Atlanta-based group is still striving to change its image from a "gym and swim" club to a place where young people can gain important life and employment skills, explains communications director Amy Ruttkamp. PR plays a large role in helping to highlight the BGCA's broader focus to all constituents, from kids to corporate partners. The five-person department does all of its work in-house and covers a wide scope of responsibilities, from national PR to helping individual clubs with programs. "Our clubs vary when it comes to their level of sophistication," says Still-Lindeman of communications efforts on local fronts. With individual clubs, PR aid can range from helping plan fundraising to giving them tools to produce basic press releases. So Still-Lindeman and her team have created "a lot of what we call Swiss cheese materials." These are boilerplate products, such as templates for brochures and releases, that can be accessed online, via intranet, or on CD. "A lot of our clubs are very hungry for communications materials and PR because they realize the competitive marketplace [for] nonprofits," says Still-Lindeman. "They have to find a way to stand out. They are always pushing us for thoughts on how to create better media relationships, how to create better special events." For an example of more hands-on help, Ruttkamp says the department is currently working with the Dallas club to publicize a program in which kids are designing web pages for local businesses. That includes pitching the story to The Dallas Morning News. "We're trying to make sure we're showing these clubs off," she says. Developing the brand No matter what the project, the team has long been working to create a cohesive brand image for Boys & Girls Clubs so that every effort has the same look and feel. "Brand matters," says Still-Lindeman. "It really is an effort to control the brand just like any other commercial entity, and protect the equity of the brand and the consistency." Ruttkamp adds that the brand focus started about 10 years ago. "We did a 'people on the street' survey and found out our recognition was pretty low," she explains, pointing out that only 30% of those polled knew about the organization. Today, that number is 60%. "However, we still have a lot of problems because people might recognize us, but they are not sure what we do," she adds. On the national front, one of the BGCA's biggest PR efforts is an annual "Youth of the Year" program in which individual clubs each nominate one child to compete for the title. The kids are chosen based on their participation in club activities, community service, and personal achievements, and compete for a scholarship. Five finalists meet in Washington, DC, where they attend a congressional breakfast and meet the President. A panel of judges, which always includes members of the press, chooses the winner. "We have recruited members of the media to sit on the judging panel because we believe if we can connect the kids to the media, we have done our jobs," says Still-Lindeman. The organization also boasts a roster of celebrity spokespeople, most notably actor Denzel Washington, who was himself a member as a child. Others include Jennifer Lopez and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The PR team is committed to increasing diversity among spokespeople to mirror the BGCA's goal of reaching out to more diverse communities. "America has always been a melting pot, and there is still room to improve relationships and understanding of other cultures," says Still-Lindeman. Another large focus for the PR department is working with corporate partners. The BGCA has more than 30 corporate sponsorships with such companies as JCPenney, Best Buy, Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Microsoft. With Coca-Cola and Kraft, it is working on fitness and nutrition programs "to explain to kids that it's all about choice and all about moderation," says Ruttkamp. JCPenney sponsors an after-school foundation that focuses on education programs, including a "power-hour homework help" initiative, says Still-Lindeman, while Best Buy offers the clubs discounts and grants on products. Microsoft is its largest donor. The software giant entered into a partnership agreement with Boys and Girls Clubs in 2000 and has pledged to give it $100 million in cash and software. The BGCA's PR team was instrumental in planning the PR that launched that partnership. It included events with high-profile business and political leaders, including Bill Gates and Sens. John Kerry, John McCain, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. "We worked in coordination for the launch and ongoing [efforts] for the last four years to identify opportunities and to inform people about the role Boys & Girls Clubs now plays in the community," explains Cathy MacCaul, communications manager for Microsoft community affairs. When it comes to supporting partners like Microsoft, "we almost work as an agency," explains Ruttkamp. Still-Lindeman adds, "We'll just say to the strategic partners, 'If you want, we can go in and work in conjunction with our counterparts in those markets and produce extra arms and legs to maximize a particular program.'" PR team's goals MacCaul says one of the strengths of the BGCA's PR team members is that "they are really flexible in terms of thinking about new ideas. Given that they have more than 3,000 clubs across the US, they have a lot of responsibility in terms of being accountable to those individual clubs, yet they're still able to be flexible. They are always very approachable and also very accountable when we are working together, and they are great about reporting back on the program and press releases and campaigns. They are great about being accommodating." Despite that praise, MacCaul says that the BGCA's PR team isn't a pushover. While it strives to work to the best advantage with partners, it also places a high priority on staying true to the values and goals of the organization. "We have had very honest and frank discussions where they have said, 'This idea is not necessarily in alignment with our vision and mission.' They are very much engaged in a dialogue and discussion with us, and in a very respectful way. I appreciate that, and I think that brings a lot of integrity," MacCaul adds. With so many different areas to manage, Still-Lindeman says the toughest part of the job is time management. "It's just a challenge to find enough hours in the day and be able to get everything done," she says. "Sometimes you find yourself more in a reactive position than a proactive position." But Ruttkamp adds that working for the nonprofit group has been her most rewarding career move, and that each project brings the benefit of feeling that she is helping kids. "You wake up every morning saying this could be a good day," says Ruttkamp. "You take a great deal of pride in being associated with this." PR contacts
Senior director of PR Jan Still-Lindeman Director of PR Amy Ruttkamp Assistant director Lindsey Edmondson PR coordinator - Microsoft project Charisma Cannon PR assistant Leslie Chadwick

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