BIRMINGHAM, AL: Philip Morris Companies' (PM) most formidable
obstacle in its effort to rebrand itself as Altria Group may not be
shareholder approval, but a small Southern healthcare company.
Altria Healthcare was surprised by last month's announcement that PM,
owner of the eponymous tobacco brand as well as Kraft Foods and Miller
Brewing, is trying to change its name to Altria Group. The company,
which specializes in healthcare accounting management and practice
operations, got a call from CNN for comment shortly after the news broke
on November 15.
Altria has no corporate communications department to handle the
unexpected media attention. But ironically, just this past summer it
hired Stacy Smith, an independent PR contractor, to aggressively promote
its name in the b-to-b space it occupies.
Smith was suddenly thrust into crisis communications mode. "I've never
been told I was a blessing before," she said.
A statement by Altria CEO Warren Smedley was released on November 21:
"It is obviously of great concern to a healthcare business to have a big
tobacco and alcohol company wish to adopt an identical name."
The statement said that the company has contacted PM, and hopes the
multinational will "do the right thing." Altria is collecting feedback
from customers about the potential impact of a name conflict.
Smedley has been interviewed by the likes of The New York Times' Stuart
Elliott, while Smith has personally fielded most of the media calls. "He
has tried to make himself available," Smith said. "He's working hard to
run the business."
PM, which retains Burson-Marsteller and Morgan & Myers for PR projects,
presumably has no problem covering the phones, and stands by its claim
to the name.
"We conducted all the relevant searches and analyses related to our
ability to use the name Altria Group, and are pretty confident that our
intended use is appropriate and will not conflict with other companies'
businesses or create confusion with consumers," Peggy Roberts, director
of corporate communications for PM, told PRWeek.