CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Integration paves the PR road for Harley-Davidson

After years of inconsistent, uncoordinated messaging, Harley-Davidson has created a streamlined comms operation to handle the PR challenges for its 100th anniversary and beyond.

After years of inconsistent, uncoordinated messaging, Harley-Davidson has created a streamlined comms operation to handle the PR challenges for its 100th anniversary and beyond.

Harley-Davidson's communications team is riding high. The Milwaukee-based motorcycle maker has become an American icon, and this year the media is eating up news about its 100th anniversary and the events that go with it. "Harley is the American brand, period. It is the American motorcycle," says Buzz Buzzelli, editor-in-chief of American Rider magazine, and a former Harley PR man. But the communications road wasn't always so smooth. Several years ago, the company had a disjointed communications function, where different messages were reaching various audiences at different, uncoordinated times. With a mandate to change that, Kathleen Lawler took over as Harley's VP of communications in 1996. Focusing on the family friendliness of the company and taking great care when dealing with the enthusiast media, she has since integrated all communications functions, steered Harley execs and PR people to think in more strategic terms, and made communications part of overall corporate planning. Lawler notes that she's tried to position the anniversary as the start of Harley's next century of producing great motorcycles, and PR attention will turn to new models and to expanding Harley's target audience. This will all be put to the test in the near future, company watchers agree, as sales hit a speed bump earlier in the year. Harley blamed bad weather, and started offering no-money-down deals on some models to move metal out of dealer showrooms. However, the anniversary should rev up sales for the rest of the year. But it also may be causing some to move up Harley purchases to this year from next. That could mean a sales slowdown in 2004, says Tom Graves, an equity analyst with Standard & Poor's. Other challenges will surface as well. Post-anniversary PR Generating media attention next year after all the press Harley's getting for its 100th anniversary could prove tricky. "I think they're doing a really nice job with the 100th anniversary, but what do they do after that?" asks Graves. Even Lawler admits that it will be challenging. "I have been thinking a lot of what the antidote is for the 100th- anniversary hangover," she muses. Lawler is a 32-year veteran of Harley, and like about half its employees, a motorcyclist. Before taking her current post, she worked for Harley in Europe, forming a long-range plan for its operations there. She's also overseen the company's European dealer network. She's seen Harley weather its share of ups and downs, even preparing press releases for a threatened bankruptcy that never came in late 1985. The early '80s were tough times for the company. Cheaper, foreign competitors hurt it badly, and owner AMF sold it to management in 1981. It wasn't until 1986 that it became a publicly held entity. "I think we really rediscovered ourselves in the early '80s," Lawler recalls. The company decided to focus on the loyalty of its customers and dealers as a way to rebuild its US market share. In 1983, it created the Harley Owners Group, HOG, as a first step in building a family-oriented image for its products. Import tariffs on large Japanese motorcycles imposed in 1983 gave Harley breathing room to reinvent itself and to correct quality problems with products. By the late '80s, Harley was back - sales have increased for 17 consecutive years. And with growth came communications challenges. Various departments didn't talk to each other. When Lawler returned from Europe, employee communications was being handled by HR; the marketing department was overseeing PR, product communications, and a just-starting electronic communications function. "The right hand often didn't know what the left hand was doing," Lawler recalls. "Internal and external messages were inconsistent at best. It was not how we wanted to be known as a company." Streamlining communications Lawler pulled all those functions together. She's since created a post designed solely to oversee integration of communication messages across departments and audiences, a job Lauren Pagenkopf has held for the past three-and-a-half years. "I think she's really set expectations for us," says Pagenkopf, communications integration manager. Pagenkopf recalls that when she started, "some people were a bit skeptical. At first, it just felt like I was pulling, pulling, pulling." But with Lawler's backing, Pagenkopf kept at it, and as coordinated communications projects started showing results, reluctance began to fade, she says. Lawler also created a company message library that various departments could turn to for key corporate messages. And Harley invested in media training so senior execs could be made available quickly when reporters called. Still trying to erase memories of the rocky '80s, Harley wants to be known as a forthright company that provides open management access, Lawler says. It also wants to emphasize the family nature of its buyers. While Harleys are associated with Hell's Angels and other biker gangs, Lawler says people who she terms "antisocial" are only 1% of Harley's customer base. Harley's target buyer is a baby boomer - average owner age was 45.6 in 2001, the latest figure available from the company. Media skeptical about Harley's "family" claims quickly become believers when they attend owner events, notes Chuck Casto, a Weber Shandwick VP who works on Harley's business. "This is a very family-friendly, family- oriented company," he says. WS handles Harley brand and product PR. The company has no AOR, however, and works with several firms. When it comes to working with the media, especially the motorcycle-enthusiast press, Harley handles that itself, says Lawler. "We manage the relationship with the media very personally. They really appreciate the personal touch. They'd be uncomfortable dealing with an agency," she says. Mitch Boehm, editor-in-chief of Motorcyclist magazine, gives Harley high marks for media relations. "Harley has really ramped up these last four or five years. I'm amazed that a big company has such a focused effort," he says. "They seem to really know their customer." Lawler shudders at the thought of planning for the anniversary without the integration measures she's put in place. Harley communications people meet each Wednesday to coordinate anniversary PR in addition to their usual Monday meetings. This year, such coordination is allowing Harley to change the schedule of when it tells various audiences about new models without a hitch - something that might have been tough to do in the past, Pagenkopf says. Harley's challenge following its 14-month-long anniversary celebration will go beyond maintaining sales momentum, and expand to its customer base. Lawler says Harley is actively trying to get out the key messages that it has lower-priced models available for entry-level buyers, and that it has product ready to sell. In the past, Harley often had waiting lists for its bikes. Reaching out to a broader audience While analysts like Graves wonder if Harley can ramp up appeal outside its core baby-boomer market, Lawler says, "We're looking to expand our customer base generally; age is not a factor. We believe it's in our interests to reach out in all directions," including age, gender, and various ethnic markets. Boehm says Harley has tried to reach younger riders though its purchase of the Buell brand of motorcycles, but so far those bikes aren't measuring up. Still, he doesn't count Harley out when it comes to finding ways to attract new buyers. "Harley is about mystique and Americana," he says. If Lawler and her team can make those messages connect with new buyers, Harley could be in for a good start to its next century. ----- PR contacts VP of comms Kathleen Lawler Product comms director Steve Piehl Manager of comms integration Lauren Pagenkopf Electronic comms and e-commerce manager Ken Ostermann Employee comms manager Katie Moudy Community relations manager Tony Shields Communications staff 34 Outside agencies Weber Shandwick, Laughlin Constable, Ketchum, Bellwether Group, Carmichael Lynch Spong

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