Corporate Case Study: Applebee's bolsters PR to hone neighborly image

Applebee's adds an in-house PR team to spread its community-friendly message both internally and externally through strategic company partnerships and media outreach.

Applebee's adds an in-house PR team to spread its community-friendly message both internally and externally through strategic company partnerships and media outreach.

With more than 1,600 restaurants, Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar is the largest player in the casual dining arena. But the company - with its tagline of "America's favorite neighbor"- prides itself on its homegrown feel. That focus is already evident in its restaurants. Local sports team pennants and high school football jackets adorn the walls. In Staten Island, NY, it sponsors the local Little League team. And in Fargo, ND, Applebee's sponsors charity events. But fostering that feeling of community within the chain has been no small communications task. Seventy-five percent of Applebee's restaurants are owned by franchisees, and that can make for a Tower of Babel where the company's message is concerned. At its Overland Park, KS-based headquarters, a five-person PR staff ensures that "the right information gets into the right hands," says Frank Ybarra, manager of communications. "Whenever an issue pops up, [we have to] make sure all our franchisees know our message," adds Laurie Ellison, director of communications. Stepping up comms It might be hard to believe that just two years ago, Applebee's had virtually no in-house PR support. Lou Kaucic, the company's chief people officer, admits that he struggled to find an analogy to describe Applebee's before it hired Ellison, who filled the first PR post within the company. "I think we have been good cake bakers for our existence, but we never thought to put icing on it," he says. "I think the PR department puts the icing on the cake." Even today, Applebee's PR staff and $800,000 budget are relatively lean. Yet Ellison and Ybarra say they have done more with less. Ybarra, for instance, says he believes Applebee's is on "the cutting edge" of internal communication, using a companywide web-based portal to keep franchisees and employees connected to each other. Franchisees can use the portal to make personnel announcements, post pictures, and share special events. They can also create customized web pages for restaurants in each community. It might also be telling to note that the PR team reports to Kaucic and is integrated with HR, rather than marketing. "It helps them enforce our people culture," Kaucic says. But Kaucic insists that the department's place in human resources is ultimately less significant than it might seem because of the weight the company places on external communications. Indeed, the PR team has garnered unprecedented media coverage for Applebee's, which before July 2002 seemed to hover just under the radar. That situation changed last year, when Applebee's became the first casual dining restaurant to confront the obesity crisis. It partnered with 40-year-old diet leader Weight Watchers International and added 10 lower-calorie items to its menu. The company launched the story with an exclusive in USA Today. "It was very confidential till the last minute because we didn't want to tip our hands to our competitors," Ellison says. To coincide with the announcement, Ellison and Ybarra collaborated with Weight Watchers' nutritionists, who served as spokespeople. They also hosted a media event where reporters could sample the new dishes. "With Weight Watchers, there was no doubt that we really raised the profile of the story," Ybarra says. "That was an unprecedented event for the company." One year later, the partnership has continued to spark interest in other Applebee's marketing activities. The Wall Street Journal this month featured an article on the company's "audacious move" of aggressively pursuing entry into rural markets. "The rural-market strategy is part of Applebee's larger effort to be America's restaurant," the article states. "Its strategy is simple: be all things to all people." The article received placement on the front page of the Media & Marketing section. Kaucic notes that the company has always strived to be the country's most admired family restaurant. But only with the addition of the PR team did that recognition begin to coalesce. "We had never been in USA Today before [the Weight Watchers partnership]," Kaucic says. "We had never been in The Wall Street Journal." Before hiring a communications director, Applebee's outsourced most of its PR work to Fleishman-Hillard's Kansas City office. Fleishman SVP Daren Williams estimates that the agency has been working with Applebee's for about a decade. The relationship is still in place today. With the addition of Ellison, however, the agency now has a client that knows the value of PR. "Laurie understands and gets it, and we're more in lock step with strategic goals," Williams says. "They're really positioning themselves as a leader beyond just being the biggest." Having an in-house PR team also has allowed the company to build on the message of community, says Williams. When Applebee's re-opened a lower Manhattan restaurant that was forced to close on 9/11, it highlighted its support for rebuilding local businesses. "They've gotten out and said, 'We're part of the community,'" he says. Fleishman is still called in to help with PR from time to time - such as when a crisis hits - but most of the PR work is now done in-house, Ellison notes. And no small part of that work includes handling the constant media inquiries the staff receives. Ellison recalls that her office was inundated with calls after US officials confirmed the country's first case of mad cow disease last winter. But the company selectively chose when to comment on the issue. "That's something we try to manage very carefully," she says, "because the last thing you want is your name and your brand" linked to mad cow disease. Ellison also fields a steady stream of calls from feature reporters, most often from trade publications, requesting comment on trends on everything from tipping to flatware. "We just don't have the resources to comment on everything," she says. Ellison adds that the PR team enjoys open access to the company's executives, but it's a relationship that works both ways - and she's choosy about when she will request their time for media interviews. When big news does break, "it's mainly a question of triaging," Ellison says. " You must do some prioritizing." On the surface, Ellison manages external communications while Ybarra focuses internally. But it's a loose division, one that depends on where their efforts are most needed. Somewhere between external and internal PR responsibilities, the PR department also oversees government affairs and charitable contributions. It recently hired Jenny Truman, who is in charge of the latter. Good samaritan turns into good PR The fact that the company has committed more resources to PR speaks to its importance. "There are so many great things happening at Applebee's," Ellison says. She offers an analogy of her own: "It was just like a fertile field that needed to be plowed." Looking back, though, it's obvious that the team still remembers its first communications challenge as the sweetest. Shortly after Thanksgiving 2002, Heidi Tomassi, a then-22-year-old Applebee's waitress in Olathe, KS, found an envelope with 33 $100 bills that a customer left behind in a booth. Even though the young mother was facing overwhelming debt from her 4- month-old son's two heart surgeries, Tomassi turned the envelope over to a supervisor without a second thought. "She had just out of pure instinct did the right thing and returned the money," Ellison says. "We pitched the story the next morning in the local media. Within hours - hours - it went from a local story to a regional one." After the story broke, strangers across the country sent the Tomassi family cash and gifts. Three weeks later, Applebee's presented her with a check to make up the difference between the money she had received and the $25,000 that a stranger had promised but never delivered. The company also announced that it had set up a fund to help other employees struggling with similar situations. "Heidi was an incredible ambassador in those days," Ellison says, adding that the story became much more to Applebee's than just publicity. "It not only gave the company great PR, but it really became ingrained in our culture." PR contacts Director of communications Laurie Ellison Manager of communications Frank Ybarra Manager of communications Vikki Watson Communications coordinator Justin Goldsborough Charities coordinator Jenny Truman Agency Fleishman-Hillard

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