Clorox's stories find a captive audience

Clorox has ditched its one-way comms strategy for one that consumers can really relate to

Clorox has ditched its one-way comms strategy for one that consumers can really relate to

Thanks to Clorox, women were in for some bad news again this year: They are dirtier than men. Literally. At least around the office.

Earlier this year, The Clorox Co., for the fifth consecutive year, kicked off its PR initiative, "It's a Germ Jungle Out There." As part of the effort, Clorox conducts an office survey that measures germs at work. According to the researchers, the bacteria levels in women's offices were nearly three times higher than in men's offices.

Clorox's in-house team, along with its home-care division AOR, Ketchum Communications, handles the campaign. Originally, the initiative was born during the dot-com era and its continuous work cycle, when everyone was talking about working 24/7, says Mary O'Connell, director of PR for Clorox.

"There were people on TV living in their offices. I'm working for a cleaning company, thinking, 'Do they ever clean these offices?'" she says. "I was thinking, 'Wouldn't it be fun to find out just what the office was like?'

"I checked in our research - we're Clorox, and we have research on everything. We know where germs are to the centimeter," O'Connell continues. "So I called our head microbiologist and asked, 'Have we ever done any work on this?' The person next to me was sneezing on me, and I thought, 'We should look in to this.'"

PR has taken on a much larger role for the company in recent years. Traditionally, Clorox's approach to communications was one-way. It sold its products primarily through advertising and didn't do much in the way of having a dialogue with its

When she started, O'Connell says she and her team were creating the direction and function for the department with no road map. "We were defining it as we went along," she says.

She says the team decided to start with finding out how people connect with such brands as Clorox.

"The power of a strong story and connection with the consumer changed the face of how we do marketing," she says. "We have these guiding principals. We do PR very different at Clorox. Ketchum has been very nimble."

When the campaign debuted, the survey and accompanying PR were picked up around the world. It was featured on CNN's Power Lunch local news programs and went out to foreign media, as well.

"It was all over the news," says Suzanne Maloney, who directs the Clorox account at Ketchum's San Francisco office. "We kicked it off with a great story on Good Morning America, and it just sort of flew from there. It's a really fun and quirky way, and a more interesting way, to talk about germs," she says with a laugh.

"It struck a chord so amazingly with the media," O'Connell says. "It was a truth everyone had and could relate to. There is a moment of central recognition, where you see yourself in the story, and it is clear."

The 2002 version of the campaign had Clorox having a good time making fun of America's workaholic culture by issuing its survey press release with these opening lines: "Working late again? You're not alone, according to a new study by University of Arizona germ guru Dr. Charles Gerba. You have plenty of bacteria keeping you company."

"It has been interesting - it has connected," O'Connell says. "We used actual offices, real people in real offices. It's not staged. There has been enormous appeal."

O'Connell says PR at Clorox is assembled in three areas: one-to-one communication, traditional media relations, and public affairs. In the realm of media relations, O'Connell saw that a shift was under way.

"It was pretty clear to me if an audience is changing for a 30-second ad, it is changing for television altogether," O'Connell says. "PR needed to change."

The communications team looked for other ways to build the brand outside of advertising. Some other current PR initiatives under Ketchum's lead include a partnership with the "What to Expect..." series of books about pregnancy and child care and a campaign encouraging children to get flu shots.

No matter what the campaign, Clorox maintains one core belief, O'Connell says. Some time after an initial "Germ" PR campaign in the US, she was sitting at her desk and got a call that the story was suddenly on CNN again. A previous version had been picked up by the BBC, then Agence France-Presse, and made its way back to the US as a brand-new story. She says it showed how well a good campaign can keep moving.

"It's our theme at Clorox PR [that] if you have a good story, never, ever let go," O'Connell says.

At a glance

The Clorox Co.

Chairman and CEO:
Donald Knauss

Oakland, CA

$4.6 billion

Lysol and SC Johnson

Key Titles:
Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Everyday Food, Body & Soul, Health, Parenting, Child, Parents

Marcomms Team:
Mary O'Connell, director of PR
Vicki Friedman, manager of PR
Laura Hanson, associate manager of PR
Suzanne Maloney, Ketchum San Francisco

Marketing Services Agencies:
PR Agency:

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