CAMPAIGNS: Bombardier takes a proactive stance to combat rumors

PR Team: Bombardier Recreational Products (Sturtevant, WI) Campaign: The Real Deal Newsletter Time Frame: April 2003 - ongoing Budget: Under $50,000

PR Team: Bombardier Recreational Products (Sturtevant, WI) Campaign: The Real Deal Newsletter Time Frame: April 2003 - ongoing Budget: Under $50,000

When in early April news broke that Canada-based Bombardier wanted to sell its recreational-products division, rumors flooded the marketplace about the future of Bombardier boat-engine brands Johnson and Evinrude. Those brands are made by the Sturtevant, WI-based recreational-products division. More importantly, from independent engine dealers' perspectives, the brands had been involved in a 2000 bankruptcy that had hurt some dealers financially. Bombardier purchased the brands in March 2001, and spent two years rebuilding dealer trust and loyalty. "We had to win each dealer back one at a time," recalls Dave Thompson, director of global communications for boats and outboard engines at Bombardier's recreational-products division. By February of this year, Bombardier felt it had rebuilt dealer trust. But the April sale announcement prompted a new stream of dealer concerns. The uncertainty gave competitors fuel to rekindle dealer memories of the bad old days for the brands. "Within 36 hours, competitors were saying this is bankruptcy disguised as a sale," recalls Thompson. "The word came in from the field, 'Guys, you've got to do something.'" Strategy Thompson had to take action quickly. Spring is a key time for dealers to place orders for the busy summer selling season. Classic PR training had taught Thompson not to respond to every market rumor. Doing so just gave credence to hearsay, he thought. But as he considered possible courses of action, Thompson felt he had to track down where rumors were starting, and then respond quickly. Not doing so would only cause rumors to fester and grow, costing Bombardier sales - and possibly dealers - in the process. Tactics Thompson decided to gather the two brands' 200 sales, service, and support personnel who regularly call on dealers for an April 10 meeting at headquarters. He asked them to become his rapid-response team in the field, relaying rumors to an 800 number he established. The number would play a daily message on where rumors were surfacing around the country. Next, he created a newsletter, The Real Deal, which would be faxed to dealers weekly to answer rumors as they surfaced. "We were going to call out the rumors and challenge them to tell us what they were hearing," says Thompson. Each issue included a letter from Roch Lambert, VP and general manager, answering rumors, plus other material to bolster his comments. One of the first issues, for example, addressed a rumor that the company wouldn't honor warranties on its engines with a response from the outside company that provided those warranties. The hotline gave Thompson a good feel for what dealers were hearing so he could respond quickly. Dealers came to watch for the weekly fax newsletter, 2,500 copies of which were sent out each Thursday. Thompson resisted entreaties from other departments to include materials with the letter that didn't relate to the efforts to find a buyer for the division. He knew dealers were already sensitive to receiving more faxes from headquarters than they had time to look at. When the division's sale to the Bombardier family and two investment groups for $874.1 million was announced in August, Thompson put out a special edition of the newsletter for dealers and the media, discussing the deal. Results "We have certainly earned the respect of our dealers," says Thompson of The Real Deal. The hotline and newsletter combination succeeded in squelching rumors and refuting false claims about the brands' future, he claims. The newsletter also received media coverage from a Milwaukee business weekly and local daily in Racine, WI. Future The letter has switched to publishing biweekly. It will expand content to include news on sales promotions, product comparisons, and further information about what the spun-off division will be called once it becomes an independent company.

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