In 1999, Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., one of the world's largest tomato growers, introduced the UglyRipe tomato, a flavorful heirloom variety tomato bred to be hardy enough to be shipped across the country.
In the winter, the only state warm enough to grow the UglyRipe is Florida. The odd-shaped tomato didn't meet standards set by the Florida Tomato Committee (FTC) for shipping tomatoes out of state, but the committee granted it an exemption. After three years of exceptional growth, Procacci Bros. planted its largest crop of UglyRipes in 2003, only to have the FTC decide to deny it an exemption.
Procacci Bros. hired law firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda to try to get the US Department of Agriculture to reverse the decision and enlisted SciWords to conduct a public affairs campaign.
"Our objective was to secure a permanent exemption... by creating public pressure through news media coverage," says David Sheon, president of SciWords' life sciences and agriculture divisions.
Adds David Durkin, partner at Olsson, Frank and Weeda, "There needed to be some real life public out there interested in this who would write the USDA, or who would write Congress to say, 'This is a good thing; keep after them until they change it.'"
The plan was to start with small media placements to lend credibility to the story and leverage those to attract larger outlets.
At Fresh Festival, an annual Capitol Hill event for produce growers, Procacci Bros. CEO Joe Procacci distributed UglyRipe samples and flyers that explained the tomato's situation.
Capitol Hill daily Roll Call ran a story, and the team used that coverage to pitch Florida outlets. It then leveraged those stories to draw national media interest.
When the FTC failed to grant an exemption, the team turned its focus to Congress in March 2005 to support legislation that would exempt the tomato from the restrictions. SciWords worked with the Congress members' offices for another cycle of stories.
Eventually, "A senior USDA official... saw a TV story showing USDA had the authority to take care of this, and he was embarrassed," says Sheon. "He drove the process to open up a review."
In June 2006, the USDA proposed a rule change that would exempt the UglyRipe from the standards under a new program. The change was subject to a 60-day comment period, so the team again targeted the media and worked at the grassroots level to get consumers to comment.
An overwhelming majority of the comments supported the rule change, and on January 17, the USDA's proposed rule became final, exempting the UglyRipe from the FTC's standards.
The effort generated more than 172 million impressions, including CNN, AP, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, and most of the Florida papers. Coverage included not only news, but also editorials.
"We got so much publicity when USDA issued its ruling in January that they don't have enough tomatoes to keep in stock right now," notes Sheon.
"We're increasing production of these tomatoes because of the increased demand," Procacci explains.
SciWords continues to work with Procacci Bros. and is now helping with product marketing.
Procacci Bros. Sales Corp.
PR team: Procacci Bros. Sales Corp. (Philadelphia) and SciWords (Washington)
Campaign: Convincing Tomato Lovers to Get Ugly
Duration: August 2004 to January 17, 2007
Olsson, Frank and Weeda had the tools to pressure members of Congress, but it realized that political support first had to be backed by the public and encouraged Procacci to hire SciWords.
The team knew it had a good story with a lot of appeal. Its patience and persistence in building momentum were key and helped make the plight of the UglyRipe a light national issue - creating sympathy for this poor, ugly tomato that couldn't escape to the consumers who just wanted a flavorful tomato in winter.
SciWords was able to turn public interest into public support and pressure, which turned into political support and, ultimately, action.