The YMCA is just a place to play a little basketball and go for a swim, right? Wrong.
The Valley of the Sun YMCA, a $30 million nonprofit coalition of more than a dozen local YMCA facilities in the Phoenix region, teamed up with the local office of R&R Partners to wage an old-fashioned media relations campaign to let the community know just what the YMCA is all about.
"They had been in the media before," says Lauri Huff, who led the account for R&R, "but nothing was controlled. The messaging wasn't what they wanted to convey."
Mike Snitz, the Valley of the Sun's VP of marketing, concurs that its former agency "didn't get the message out."
The Valley of the Sun organization was so large and diverse that R&R knew a pile of tantalizing news stories lurked within its ranks - it just had to get them out.
With a limited budget, but a rich source of material (each individual branch runs 400 to 500 separate programs), the team decided to draw YMCA personnel and activities into the spotlight as a way to both attract attention to the vast array of programs available at the YMCA and encourage new membership.
"One of the key things we did was target many different media," says Huff. "It wasn't just sports, education, or health writers. It was everybody."
Knowing that the best story angles would come from those closest to the YMCA's activities - the executive directors of each Valley of the Sun branch, who were effectively in charge of everything in their particular locations - R&R worked up a "story information sheet" designed to solicit possible story ideas from all of the executive directors.
In the beginning, that was not an easy task. "After we initially met with the Y, we knew there was a serious communication breakdown," says Huff.
R&R put together a report with all of the media coverage from the first quarter and distributed it to all of the executive directors. Those tangible results helped spark more participation from branches that were not represented, and the stories began to flow faster. They ranged from a human-interest story on a woman who lost 95 pounds at the YMCA, to two brothers seeking to break the Guinness world record for playing ping-pong, to community activities like infant swimming classes.
R&R had an easy time getting pickup because it could target the more general pitches to the five TV stations and two major papers in the market, and the more specific ones to the various community papers in a particular branch's area.
"You cannot convey what the YMCA does in typical advertising tradition," explains Snitz. "Basically, PR has been a godsend."
Over the final 10 months of last year, R&R's campaign garnered more than 300 print stories and 18 TV segments that mentioned or focused on the YMCA. The agency calculated the equivalent value to be nearly $500,000.
More important, new membership increased 5% in 2004, and the member retention rate climbed 2%. YMCA officials attributed the improvement at least partly to the increased visibility and public knowledge of the organization.
"We were at zero miles per hour, and now we're at 60-plus in the type of coverage we're receiving," says Snitz.
The relationship between R&R and Valley of the Sun YMCA is ongoing. The PR effort was so successful that, several months in, the YMCA also signed on for an ad program. A possible upcoming move: a partnership between the YMCA and the Phoenix Suns. Nash-erific!
PR team: R&R Partners and the Valley of the Sun YMCA (both Phoenix)
Campaign: Valley of the Sun YMCA image management
Time frame: March to December 2004
Budget: $2,000, plus retainer