Last October, when two major telephone companies - BellSouth and
SBC - first announced they were launching a cell phone business, their
joint venture, Cingular, had some major hurdles to overcome.
Besides the obvious difficulty of launching a new brand, many of
Cingular's staff had come from firms merged into BellSouth or SBC just a
Cingular's PR division made internal comms its top priority.
Heading PR for Cingular is Tim Klein, who was well known in Atlanta as a
BellSouth PR staffer for sixteen years. He was most recently senior
director of strategic communications. He is now Cingular's VP of PR, and
he told a recent PRSA conference about how Cingular executed and paid
for its employee communications plan.
"I know you're all going to cheer when you hear me say this," Klein told
the conference. "From our experience, take whatever you think is a
reasonable budget and add 25%. Now add 35% to get the results you want."
In the end, Cingular allocated $1-$2 million on events
related to the launch, around $2-$3 million on letters and
videos sent to employees' homes, and a further $500,000 on an
executive road show and webcasts.
Overcoming employee skepticism
To respond to fears about job security and benefits, CEO Stephen Carter
wrote an introductory letter to all 12,000 employees, including a brazen
commitment to answer all questions within two to three months of the
Also included was a video showing the press conference at which the name
had been unveiled. Klein says, "We had to prove that they were a part of
the process. That this wasn't being done in an ivory tower."
Employee focus groups and conferences solicited opinions on Cingular's
operating structure and ways the company could live out one of its key
marketing tag lines: that Cingular stands for "self expression." The ad
campaign featured such things as a cowboy singing opera and a large man
dancing around without any particular rhythm.
A second video developed from the "self expression" theme, titled Once
in a Lifetime, was sent directly to employee homes for a production and
distribution cost of around $750,000, according to Klein.
Bringing in outside help
Then there was the road tour. Ketchum PR of Atlanta was brought in as
agency of record to develop an executive road show aimed at addressing
employees who were to start during the first weeks of January, leading
up to the Super Bowl brand launch activities. The road show covered 43
city markets across the nation over 10 days, with seven teams of senior
executives dispatched to meet with employees.
Klein says the idea behind the road show was to give employees direct
access to the most senior executives (including CEO Carter) for live Q&A
sessions. "The idea was that we had to have frequent and interactive
communications," says Klein.
Ketchum was responsible for coordination and production of the road show
and scripting the executives for the presentation. Klein says the
attendees were not shy about asking tough questions and sharing rumors
about downsizing, benefits reductions, and other topics.
Ketchum account supervisor Kerrin Roberts says the agency had a few
short weeks to cull information from the employee focus groups and
interview subject-matter experts in the company to develop the
presentation and scripts for the executives. The biggest challenge was
preparing the executives for the live Q&A sessions.
Roberts explains that Ketchum made use of I-pagers (pocket e-mail
devices) to find the answers to difficult questions that the senior
executives weren't able to answer immediately.
Since the launch, Klein says the company has not lost stride in these
direct employee-communications tactics. Carter participates in a live
web chat with employees in different regions each month.
"This is not your typical leadership," says Klein. "They feel very
strongly that they want (self expression) to be embodied in the company,
and not just in the name."
The daring launch
The most daring attempt to articulate Cingular's mantra happened during
the launch, the week preceding the Super Bowl. Shortly after the road
show wrapped, Cingular linked several regional offices via satellite for
the launch event in Atlanta.
Ketchum conceived an idea called "the world's largest self expression,"
and asked the employees to submit quotes about themselves and
A huge composite image of the contributions was literally wrapped around
Cingular's high-rise head-quarters building.
Saturday Night Live alumnus Dana Carvey was also hired to host the
event, and pitch Cingular via a national SMT. Klein agrees that choosing
Carvey and allowing him to freely make fun of the company's CEO and name
might have earned him a pink slip in the past. "It takes a strong
management group to be willing to take on the "self expression" mantle,
and it does manifest itself in agreeing to have someone like Dana Carvey
(do the pitch)," says Klein.
The choice of Carvey paid off; the story was picked up by the major
networks, CNN, and dozens of regional television news stations. A third
video of the event was also mailed to each employee's home.
To date, employee focus groups are said to have provided extremely
positive feedback, but a fuller study will not be conducted until
In the meantime, Klein and his colleagues have other work to do.
Writer Mike Kanell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Cingular's
home-town daily, and the most widely read publication in the Southeast)
has known Klein for several years, and says he has a lot of respect for
the company's top PR man. Ask him about the company's media relations
skills, however, and he says, "I think they could do a better job of
connecting with me."
Still, Kanell's take on Cingular's overall messaging is positive. "Over
time I've been persuaded that they have picked a pretty good marketing
route." Of the "self expression" brand positioning he says, "I think it
has grown on a lot of people. I'm not sure it's brilliant, but it's
However, new research on branding efforts have concluded that the Super
Bowl ads were confusingly obscure, at least from a customer
A new $75 million ad campaign launched last week focuses on the
basics: showing celebrities actually using phones.
Keeping self expression alive
Whether Cingular can maintain the fervor around the "self expression,"
concept remains to be seen. But one attempt to do so is a public affairs
campaign about wireless phone etiquette called "Be Sensible, Be Safe,"
also managed by Ketchum. The agency helped bring Cingular together with
the American Association of Museums to promote considerate use of cell
phones in public spaces.
Ketchum is also currently working on other alliances with theater
operators, as well as teen driving programs. "The idea of self
expression also should be linked with personal responsibility," says
Klein. "The most important thing you should be doing when operating a
vehicle is driving. We think these are important messages our industry
Chief marketing officer: Virginia Vand
Vice president, PR: Tim Klein (reports to Vand)
Director, media relations: Clay Owen
Manager, media relations (trade media): Peter Nilsson
Senior manager, PR (investor relations, executive speaking): Tony Carter
Manager, media relations (general market media): Monica Mears
Agency: Ketchum, Atlanta
Launch budget: $5 million