PR TECHNIQUE: Rolling out new products in a time of war

The war with Iraq caused many PR practitioners to think hard about how - and whether - to launch a new product in such difficult times.

The war with Iraq caused many PR practitioners to think hard about how - and whether - to launch a new product in such difficult times.

Launching a new product is a tricky proposition, even in the best of times. But when there's a war brewing, it becomes even more challenging. Still, a variety of companies were able to launch new-product PR campaigns even as US forces planned and then carried out military action in Iraq. PR people who accomplished the thorny task say that launching a new product in uncertain times requires sensitivity to the needs of the media. They also advise finding ways to go around the flood of war coverage to reach customers directly, either through specialized press, which will continue writing about its area of expertise, or through direct-to-customer events. Sometimes launches can actually be tied into the war news, but doing that requires walking a fine line of good taste to avoid being seen as exploitative. Playing to negative emotions or fear is a definite no-no, as is seeming too frivolous or insensitive. And knowing which products simply have to be put on hold is a must. "If you're introducing a new orange juice or a new candy bar, and it's not linked to something immediate, then I think you'll have to wait," says Julie Schumacher Ciardiello, an SVP and general manager with Vorhaus & Co. in New York. Vorhaus has been working with Montecristo Rum as it rolls into the US market. Vorhaus decided that a new smoking ban in New York City restaurants and bars presented a good time peg for a special event to garner media attention, even as the war was approaching. Working with the Regent Wall Street Hotel in lower Manhattan, the agency scheduled Montecristo Rum's Last Smoke on March 26, which would combine rum tasting with cigar smoking in the hotel ballroom. The agency started contacting the media around mid-March. "We acknowledged that they would be busy, but that if they could break away, this would be a great break," says Ciardiello. Having a time peg for the story - the city smoking ban would go into effect after March 30 - helped draw media attention to the event, Ciardiello says. About 20 journalists showed up, along with camera crews from a local cable outlet and the local Fox and ABC stations. Ciardiello has also been reaching out to long-lead magazines and trade publications. "They still need to carry on," she says of trade publications. Jennifer Casel, an account manager with Citigate Cunningham in Palo Alto, CA, agrees. As she prepared in late March to introduce a new network-attached storage device for client BlueArc, she researched a range of trade publications to see if they had written about similar topics. She positioned her client as a company that is a bright spot on the decimated tech landscape, and was able to schedule 30 meetings with reporters and industry analysts leading up to the April 7 rollout of BlueArc's product. Casel even got BusinessWeek interested by offering it an exclusive for general business publications, and by playing up the positive angle of her client's business success. The lesson she learned? The unusual still gets reporters' attention, even in a war economy. Some new-product launches have tried tying into the war. Sears Portrait Studios invited military families to put family photos on its new Portraits Online internet service, free of charge. Military families are also being offered 20% discounts when they purchase photos from the new service. Many of the 900 studios Sears runs are near military bases, and the company "believed it could give something back to military families," says Robyn Frankel of Frankel Public Relations, which is working on the account. Sears had done something similar after September 11, offering military families free portraits for the Christmas holiday. When Akhia Public Relations began doing PR for client Wild Republic's line of stuffed state birds earlier this year, it didn't tie directly into the war, but did play to state and national pride. Akhia sent individual state birds to every governor, as well as an American eagle to the President. Press releases went out to the media about governors receiving the birds. "It really was about taking pride in your country and state," recounts Jan Gusich, president of the Hudson, OH-based firm. Sensitive to media needs with the war on, the agency called reporters to ask if they wanted press information on the birds, or would prefer to wait until quieter times. "The general consensus was they appreciated our sensitivity," says Gusich. Akhia's experience also shows that some PR plans don't work when the news is filled with war coverage. The agency sent birds to TV weatherpeople in the top 30 markets, hoping they would display them on the air for the first day of spring, March 20. The birds were sent out before the war started, but once it did, "they got shelved," Gusich recalls. The agency is hoping to get them on the air the first day of summer, June 21. Sending packages can be a tricky proposition during the war, however. When Lucy Allen, a VP at Lewis Public Relations in San Diego, needed to handle a European launch of a computer-related product for client Antec, she contacted reporters across the UK, Germany, and Italy to let them know something was being sent. "Any shipment of unsolicited packages at this time is difficult," she says. "You pay even more attention to detail now." In some cases, the item was shipped to local company representatives, who then hand-delivered them to the media. Lewis also extended a media tour of Europe and Australia from eight days to two weeks to allow time for additional airport security checks, flight cancellations, and other possible delays. "We just knew travel times were going to be so much longer and much more difficult," she says. Some products can be pitched to retailers rather than the media. Stephanie Althof, PR director with Hellman Associates in Waterloo, IA, represents several manufacturing clients who have said, "Let's do more in the stores instead of doing more in the media," she says. Some products simply have to wait, however. Althof points to a client that markets remote educational offerings to military personnel. It was planning a major mailing when the war broke out, but eight of the 12 bases it planned to mail to had troops deployed to Iraq. So the company decided to wait. Ultimately, when it comes to determining what is appropriate in a war environment, "you have to let the client draw that line," Althof says. ----- Technique tips Do be sensitive to media needs and time constraints Do check first before sending any packages to newsrooms Do look for ways to go beyond the media to reach the trade and consumers Don't be too silly or frivolous in your pitch Don't try to play on fears or insecurities raised by war Don't pitch evergreen stories that can undoubtedly wait until quieter times

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