CAMPAIGNS: Product PR - Taxing tale pays off for H&R Block

Client: H&R Block, Kansas City, MO

PR Team: Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, MN

Campaign: You Won the Money - Really!"

Time Frame: June 15 to July 10, 2001

Budget: Less than $15,000

What would you think if you found out you'd just won gobs of cash?

Believe it or not, elation might give way to skepticism. And whether or

not the blame lies with Ed McMahon (an easy target, after all),

sweepstakes winners often need some convincing that they have indeed


This past tax season, H&R Block decided to offer a cool $1

million to a randomly selected taxpayer who used the company's

preparation services to file their returns. However, the winner didn't

claim the prize, believing it was all a promotional hoax. With some

trial and error followed by a step back and a deep breath, H&R Block

managed to turn the problem on its head, capitalizing on the coaxing

that the elusive winner would need to come forward.


The fulfillment company hired by H&R Block made repeated attempts to

contact the winners (Glen and Gloria Simms of Sewell, NJ) and have them

sign an affidavit, but "they didn't believe them," says Janine Smiley,

manager of PR for H&R Block. "We used certified mail and overnight

packages, and they still didn't believe they were the winners. They

actually threw it all away. We finally sat back and asked ourselves,

'What can we do?' We came up with the strategy of going to the media to

plead our cause, and say, 'Please help our winners take the next


They also saw an opportunity to fold in promotion of H&R Block's newer

financial planning and home mortgage services with the public plea, and

called-in agency Campbell Mithun (CM) for help (Fleishman-Hillard works

on H&R Block's consumer PR; CM works with the marketing


"We thought it made for an unusual and interesting story," says CM

account supervisor Emily Schroeder Orvik.


After the Simms had ignored the fulfillment company for some time, H&R

Block and CM turned up the heat. Smiley recalls that while making

personal calls and sending her business card loosened up the Simms a

little, she still couldn't get them to sign and return the affidavit.

"The media was really what we considered our big opportunity to put this

in context for the Simms, who didn't really believe that this was all

going on," says Orvik.

Orvik and Smiley generated hundreds of news stories, including coverage

on MSNBC, CNN, and the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. They also

secured an interview with Joe Sevcik, H&R Block's VP of marketing, with

Katie Couric on NBC's Today show. This presented the opportunity to

promote H&R Block's new services along with the plea for the Simms to

step forward.

Unfortunately, the latter proved difficult because the winners couldn't

be mentioned by name on the air (never mind the fact that Gloria Simms

doesn't even watch the Today show.) However, the more coverage the story

received (six AP stories, 189 broadcast hits, and several unscripted

on-air talk show mentions), the more the Simms began to realize that H&R

Block wasn't joking, says Orvik.


Finally convinced that they had indeed won $1 million, the Simms

signed the affidavit. Their accepting of the prize was covered by Today

(and several other outlets), at which point Gloria apologized to Couric

for not watching the show. "Gloria said, 'Hey, I don't even have time to

read the newspaper in the morning,'" recalls Orvik.

H&R Block received over 10 million print media impressions as a result

of the Simms' refusal to claim their prize. "We had a happy ending, and

we were able to talk about the new and expanded services that Block

offers," says Orvik. "The contest was to be an expression of that

expanded portfolio of services, and this played up very advantageously."

Smiley claims that H&R Block's call center received an influx of

inquiries about the company's services.


CM is currently working on H&R Block's ad campaign for the forthcoming

tax season.

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