ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: PR breeds knowledge of the American Kennel Club

The American Kennel Club didn't have a PR problem - it just didn't have PR. Now that it does, pet owners and member clubs alike are learning about the AKC, and even a little more about their dogs.

The American Kennel Club didn't have a PR problem - it just didn't have PR. Now that it does, pet owners and member clubs alike are learning about the AKC, and even a little more about their dogs.

The average person's knowledge of the American Kennel Club (AKC) is limited to, well, dogs. The slightly more knowledgeable can identify the organization with its "dog fancy" focus - that of showing and breeding purebreds. And though the latter is accurate, and will always be an AKC staple, it fails to capture the nonprofit's vast scope. The AKC's Canine Health Foundation painstakingly researches all dog ailments. Its recovery department deals with various technologies - particularly microchipping - to aid in the recovery of lost canines. The group constantly runs seminars on helping owners train their dogs. Beyond that, the AKC works tirelessly on preserving and pushing for legislation to protect dog owners' rights. And, of course, there are pragmatic matters pertaining to registering dogs, and maintaining and building the organization's member base. But membership has declined since the mid-'90s, and nearly all of the AKC's non-fancy endeavors have gone unnoticed. There have been forays into marketing efforts, but those have been inconsistent at best. So early last year, the AKC's 13-member board decided - for the first time in its history - to devote resources to a full-time in-house communications staff. Starting from scratch "To move forward, the AKC had to target pet owners, not just fanciers," explains Daisy Okas, who has been the AKC's AVP of communications since last March. "We had to establish the American Kennel Club with the American public," she says, to not only raise awareness of the organization and all it offers and advocates, but better explain its role with existing members, and maybe even pick up some new ones in the process. "I had the board's immediate support," recalls Okas, "but I didn't have a media list." Media relations, or the lack thereof, epitomized the AKC's plight. Case in point, "I didn't have a bad relationship with the AKC," notes Steve Dale, syndicated pet columnist. "I had little relationship with them." A few accusatory stories blaming the AKC for everything from canine overpopulation to puppy mills forced the group into a media cocoon, opines Dale. Once in that vacuum, the organization remained mostly silent. "It got to a point," he adds, "where you'd sooner look at a book than call the AKC for information." As such, Okas' first task was to create the media contact list that would be essential to any future PR efforts. "Even I was surprised to learn that every large US daily paper has a reporter devoted to pets," says Okas, "and the AKC wasn't taking advantage of that. Before anything else, we had to establish relationships with journalists." The results of those efforts have already borne fruit. Clips are way above past figures, but it's the perception of the communications department that's truly changed. "They're real pros," stresses Dale. "They're proactive, and they're reaching out. Not just to the media, but to shelters, veterinarians, and all dog owners - people who can truly benefit from all AKC efforts, but until now weren't aware of them." Existing AKC members are equally enthused. "Local-club representatives are always telling me, 'I saw that PSA, I saw that article, and it's great that our money is finally going to marketing the AKC,'" says Okas. Empowering each local club in terms of PR and media relations has been another by-product of the in-house team. "We're able to share our marketing savvy to help each club promote themselves within their regions," explains Lainie Cantrell, PR director at the AKC. "In turn, we benefit from the regional media relationships the local groups have formed." Team effort In the AKC's simultaneous quest to reach both its core constituents and the general public, a well-rounded team was assembled. Both Okas and Cantrell have agency and consumer-marketing backgrounds. David Frei, media relations director, and Gina Lash, club communications director, are both longtime dog fanciers. Frei, in particular, is a respected dog expert, having provided commentary at the Westminster Dog Show for over a decade. He also contributed to a 20-minute dog-show segment on ABC's PrimeTime Live on February 13. Balance and teamwork permeate every facet of the AKC's communications push. "The main goal of all communications efforts is to raise awareness, not sell products," stresses Okas. "As such, our ads complement our PR endeavors, and vice versa." While the AKC's PR-ad relationship is somewhat atypical, the PR staff does face the common challenge of showing its value and effect. "From the registration office to the legal group, every department's function is clearly defined, and the results are easily quantified," explains Okas. "With PR, it's never that simple. However, there was an existing tool that could serve as both communications facilitator and benefactor - the website." After building up the media list, the AKC began creating PSAs and ads. It used the annual excitement surrounding the recently held Westminster to secure spots on a host of popular TV shows, from Good Morning America to The Caroline Rhea Show. And the one common thread was consistent promotion of AKC.org. "All of our efforts feature the website," says Cantrell. "It's a one-stop shop where everyone can not only learn about the AKC, but can discover general information about caring for dogs. The site is vital in our quest to become a top source on all things canine." The website's PR prominence also made it the staff's first tangible measurement barometer - and success. In January 2002, roughly 9.5 million people visited AKC.org. In January 2003, that figure rose to more than 14 million. In fact, the site has already been redesigned three times since the in-house team's inception. But it's more than promoting the site; it's a matter of constantly improving it. "One of our initial PSA programs centered on training," recalls Cantrell. "So few knew of our efforts in this area, and the interest we gained was amazing. However, people had trouble finding local clinics and seminars. In response, the website now has a page devoted specifically to this." Reaching new members The AKC has also aggressively targeted non-members to drive home the organization's value to the everyday dog enthusiast. "What many don't realize," says Okas, "is that their rights are compromised by irresponsible dog owners. Apartment owners ban canines because of this. Restricting legislation is passed because of it. The AKC works tirelessly to this end, and it's my job to make sure that's known." Among the myriad programs the AKC is promoting is Canine Good Citizen (CGC), which is available to all dogs, including mutts. The 10-year-old CGC is a series of thorough tests that gauge a dog's behavior in various circumstances. It's earned such respect that 15 other countries now emulate it. In addition, many apartments that frown on canines have permitted dogs that have a CGC certificate, and many pet-insurance providers offer discounts for CGC dogs. In addition, the in-house staff had a key role in the creation of AKC Family Dog, its just-launched second magazine. Its first title, the AKC Gazette, has been published since 1889. While the Gazette focuses on the sport of purebred dogs, and is only available to AKC members, Family Dog covers topics pertaining to everyday dog ownership, and is available to all through the website. The culmination of this leg of the AKC's PR push will take place on September 17 (the anniversary of the day the organization was founded in 1884), when the nonprofit presents its first annual AKC Responsible Dog Ownership Day. The event will include a variety of clinics, demos, and tests, and is open to all dogs. While plans are still being finalized, the launch is set for Central Park, with all 550 local member clubs planning to holding area events. Through its various efforts, the PR staff has accomplished much in its 12 months. "The board took a leap of faith with us," says Okas of her team. "We really wanted to mark our territory." ----- PR contacts AVP of communications Daisy Okas Director of club communications Gina Lash Director of PR Lainie Cantrell Director of media relations David Frei PR coordinator Kara Grobert Administrative assistant Lauren Sebastiani Annual PR budget $1.1 million Outside agencies Limited project basis

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