Sometimes the best PR campaigns aren't meant to be PR campaigns at first. Some 40 years ago, staffers at what would eventually become the Bayer Corporation began an initiative to help local children, many of them their own, learn science based on a hands-on, inquiry-based model.
In 1995, the company formalized the effort, calling it Making Science Make Sense (MSMS), in the process setting up a company-wide initiative intended to advance science literacy across the country, from grades K-12.
"Thomas Edison said, 'The genius is sticking to it,'" says Mark Ryan, chief communications officer at Bayer, about the importance of showing students how real science is practiced. "It was never conceived of as a communications program. It was born out of a desire by the company to do something that made a difference in the communities we resided."
CSR has become a PR buzzword in recent years, with companies increasingly having a strong understanding about the correlation between efforts that reflect well on the company and the way the market perceives its brand. Drug companies are particularly interested in the long-term impact of CSR efforts, with public perception of the industry at an all-time low.
To date, MSMS has succeeded on two fronts: bringing well-deserved attention to the manner in which science is taught in US schools and bringing Bayer the benefits that come along with it.
Pittsburgh, the US headquarters for Bayer, was the site of initial MSMS efforts, with Bayer focused on public outreach and education. In 1994, Bayer created ASSET (Achieving Student Success through Excellence in Teaching), an independent nonprofit designed to encourage science education reform in Pittsburgh.
ASSET's growth was based on teacher training, quality curriculum materials, centralized materials support, assessment aligned to standards and curriculum, and community and administrative involvement.
Drawing broad interest
MSMS benefited from a number of PR strategies. To keep interested parties informed, the team formed an MSMS e-newsletter and employed a significant internal communications effort to keep staff updated. Media relations was heavily emphasized as well, with press briefings, SMTs, and RMTs.
Success in Pittsburgh led to expansion: programs were rolled out in Connecticut, West Virginia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Missouri. Bayer AG, the global parent company, also recognized the program's impact and has adopted the model everywhere from Ireland to Japan and South America.
"The only way to become successful is sitting down with people, including the school district and other community-based organizations, so that everyone feels ownership in it," says Rebecca Lucore, who, as executive director of the Bayer Foundation, heads corporate reputation efforts at Bayer. "It was never our intention beyond that to grow, but the one in Pittsburgh had done so well that it got the attention of the right people."
What got the attention of the right people, in part, were the annual surveys conducted with the help of Carway Communications. This year will mark the 13th survey conducted on behalf of the effort, taking the nation's pulse on every aspect of science education.
Those surveys - which have done everything from asking teachers how comfortable they are teaching science to polling HR executives on what skills they look for - have brought added attention to Bayer's programs. The survey's results have, year after year, been picked up by local and national media.
What followed was an expansion of the efforts - a realization from those in the communications department that public outreach and education efforts could effect real change. Bayer formed partnerships with the US Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the National Science Teachers Association, and a number of other organizations.
"We not only had a community relations program that worked, we had a public education campaign that worked and got national media [attention]," Ryan says. "We've gotten to a point where we are experts in the field. We thought why not take an advocacy posture on things we think really matter?"
That advocacy effort has largely concentrated on building a diverse workforce within STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professions. Last fall, the company hosted its first STEM Education Diversity forum in DC, an opportunity for leaders in the field to discuss how to increase minority representation in the STEM fields. Speakers included astronaut Mae Jemison, who has been with the MSMS program from the beginning.
"I think the success of that event showed how companies can and must have a role in this issue," says Bridget McCourt, senior communications representative for Bayer and now the point-person on the MSMS program.
There are plans to continue with the STEM advocacy focus and possibly have another DC forum take place in 2008, says Lecore.
"I think we're in a good spot now," Ryan says. "We have a strong base for moving forward."
He adds that while the aim of the program was never to form such a wide-ranging communications program, his team always hoped its efforts would reflect well on the company and its staff. It is proof, he says, that corporate reputation is moved over the long haul, with real effort affecting real results.
"When employees see this," notes Ryan, "it not only validates the company's effort, but it validates their efforts."
ASSET through the years
1992: Bayer brings together local educators and community and business leaders from Pittsburgh to discuss ways to improve local science education
1994: ASSET becomes 501(c) (3) organization
1995: National Science Foundation awards ASSET $5 million in grants
1996-2000: Program evaluation with teachers' response gives program feedback
2006: Gov. Edward Rendell (D-PA, pictured left) grants ASSET $10 million in education budget
2007: Rendell grants program additional $13 million with the goal of expanding the program statewide