At first glance it's a symbiotic relationship made in heaven: cash-strapped schools paired with cause-related marketing (CRM) schemes that feed them much-needed equipment, from computers to books, in return for parental customer loyalty.
But this fast-growing breed of school CRM initiative, pioneered by Tesco's Computers for Schools 13 years ago, is under greater scrutiny than ever before from consumer associations concerned about rising childhood obesity levels, teaching bodies disturbed by the 'commercialisation' of their schools, and a highly cynical media.
Scrutinise the guidelines
The first step towards avoiding controversy in this complex and sensitive area is to scrutinise the guidelines. Business in the Community (BITC) has drawn up guidelines for CRM campaigns that apply equally to school schemes, and are a good starting point.
These guidelines encompass a set of 'key principles' - from integrity ('behaving honestly and ethically and adhering to moral principles') to mutual benefit ('equal benefit must be shared between partners'). The six 'key elements' of a CRM partnership are also discussed, from finding a partner to evaluation.
The advertisers' body ISBA and the Consumers' Association, along with several other bodies including the Department for Education and Skills, have drawn up guidelines specific to school CRM programmes. They are designed to help school governors assess the commercial activity by running through a checklist of issues, such as 'Is the activity as free as possible from explicit sales messages?' But they mainly exist to ensure businesses supply material that has an educational value or are working in partnership with teachers.
Although the majority of these schemes have been successful - if success is measured by the number of schools to sign up - interested bodies, such as the National Union of Teachers (NUT) - are watching the sector closely, especially any involvement by the food industry.
At its 2003 annual conference the NUT 'resolved to campaign against commercialisation in schools'. It advised teachers to judge schemes on their educational content, whether they contradicted the promotion of healthy eating, their impact on teacher workload, and whether they pressurised parents to buy particular brands in certain shops.
Before embarking on a CRM programme with schools, it is vital to consult teachers in the research stage of any scheme to ensure that the campaign material has their support.
'Involving teachers and parents is key; get your educational material in front of them either in the form of focus groups or questionnaires,' says food issues consultant Allison Hill. 'If you are a food manufacturer, you must ensure you have clear messages about promoting a healthy lifestyle - emphasising variety, moderation and eating fruit and vegetables.'
Be aware of media cynicism
The next issue that PR departments tinkering with the idea of attempting a school campaign should be acutely aware of is the media's cynicism towards these schemes.
This heat will be turned up to twice the level if the company in question is a food manufacturer, warns BITC director of CRM Sue Adkins, as the sector is already under fierce scrutiny from government bodies and NGOs fearful of rising epidemics of childhood and teenage obesity.
Adkins, who is constantly approached by journalists who are against the whole concept, advises companies thinking of getting involved to 'put yourself in the mind of an investigative journalist who hates you' and attempt to explain the scheme in the simplest way possible.
'Get to the point and be very upfront,' she explains. 'Use the "KISS" acronym ("Keep it Simple Stupid"), and explain the programme to your granny or youngest nephew in a few minutes with no ifs and buts.'
A 2001 Which? magazine report was particularly damning about CRM school schemes, attacking the Walkers/News International Free Books for Schools promotion for encouraging children 'to engage in unhealthy activity' by eating crisps.
It was also critical of the generosity of schemes such as Tesco Computers for Schools, claiming parents would have to amass vouchers from nearly £250,000 of shopping to get a computer that costs £1,000 to buy.
Consumers value CRM schemes
The Which? report was debated on radio, press and TV but, according to Adkins, the transcripts from such programmes showed the public was still largely in favour of the schemes.
'Despite the media hype the public was unanimously in support of these programmes,' says Adkins, who insists that consumers accept there must be a business gain within these schemes for companies. 'Consumers do not expect something for nothing,' she explains. 'If a company is pretending to be philanthropic, consumers can be horribly cynical, and you can get yourself into a vicious media circus.'
This apparent disparity between the media's attitude towards CRM school schemes and the public's is illustrated by the story of Cadbury Get Active (see case study, p25). One typical headline stated: 'Cadbury wants children to eat two million kg of fat to get fit.'
'The headlines were a distraction to the overall programme,' admits Cadbury PR manager Tony Bilsborough.
'There was a fundamental misunderstanding within the media of how the scheme worked. We never targeted kids; the people collecting vouchers were families and members of the wider community.
'The campaign was borne from a genuine desire to help; if we had wanted to boost chocolate sales we'd have used something sexier like a text-and-win promotion.'
He warns that companies should be aware that everything you do can be taken out of context, 'particularly by interest groups that have a fundamental dislike of business in general'. Nevertheless Bilsborough says that while taking part in radio phone-ins during the media furore, 85 per cent of callers voiced their support for Get Active.
Hill is not convinced that in the current 'hostile climate' it's even worth considering such a scheme: 'If I was in the food industry I would think twice before entering into a campaign with schools. The whole sector is up for criticism.'
But get the CRM schools initiative right and you can forge a long-lasting relationship with local communities. 'We know 98 per cent of the population are aware of a CRM programme, and 83 per cent have participated in one.
This rises to 96 per cent in families with children,' says Adkins. 'Schools get books or computers but it must be done with integrity and transparency.' L
For access to the BITC, ISBA, Consumers' Association and Department of Education and Skills guidelines, access this feature online through www.prweek.com
CADBURY GET ACTIVE
The Get Active scheme comprised a number of elements revolving around increasing activity levels in children - ranging from training teachers in PE to a free activity day at the Birmingham NEC attended by 14,000 people, including runner Paula Radcliffe.
The main component was the collection of vouchers printed on 160 million chocolate bars that could be redeemed for sports equipment. Triangle Communications approached schools while Consolidated Communications handled consumer PR, which turned into a PR firefighting job as the scheme was vilified by the media for encouraging kids to buy chocolate.
In response, Cadbury is phasing out the wrapper-collection part of the initiative but will continue with other elements of the scheme. In total 6,000 schools signed up. It is estimated that £9m of sports equipment will be given away.
TESCO COMPUTERS FOR SCHOOLS
The 'mother' of all CRM school schemes, Tesco Computers for Schools, was launched in 1992 and has raised more than £82m-worth of computer equipment.
Nearly 30,000 schools are now registered with the programme - more than 86 per cent of UK schools.
The scheme is promoted in stores through leaflets. Schools register and a pack is sent to them containing a catalogue, order form and letter to send to parents.
PR is largely handled in-house, with assistance from agencies including Good Relations and Launch PR, and Tesco appears to have avoided most of the negative coverage suffered by food companies such as Cadbury and Walkers.
'While funding is an issue for schools, and while the scheme is popular with customers, we'll continue to run it,' says Tesco community investment manager Catherine Stewart.
The three year-old Schools Plus programme revolves around the sale of an A5 magazine that combines editorial with thousands of pounds-worth of discounts from firms such as WHSmith and Burger King. Schools register to receive a stack of magazines for which they are charged £1 each. They then sell them to parents for £10 but keep £5 for the school. PR agency Mission 21 secured coverage in the regional and educational press, liaised with teaching unions, and continues to work with Schools Plus's in-house team to recruit the brands that support the scheme. Additional schemes - Scouts Plus, Football Plus and Rugby Plus - run alongside Schools Plus.
PERSIL GET CREATIVE
Lever Faberge launched Get Creative around its Persil brand in autumn 2002 to fund the supply of arts and craft materials in primary schools and nurseries, after conducting a survey that found the average infant pupil receives £1.18 arts and crafts funding a year. Persil was also keen to be the brand that cleaned up children's paint-stained clothes.
Consumers collect on-pack tokens that their children hand into school to redeem brushes or face-painting kits. The PR campaign was handled by The RED Consultancy and kicked off with 'The Big Mummy' in which kids' pictures were used to create a single picture of a giant mum.
'So far, 40,000 schools have registered and the scheme has helped Persil reach its highest market share in two years,' says Persil corporate relations manager Ash Tailor.