The Auto-ID Centre, funded jointly by more than 50 of the world's biggest global companies, including Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and Gillette, is developing standards for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.
The technology aims to allow companies to track individual products or components in a supply chain electronically, from manufacturer to consumer, through a tiny device installed in each item.
The Auto-ID centre, based in the US, was looking for input - and investment - from European companies, and the campaign coincided with the opening of new Auto-ID research laboratories in the UK, the first in Europe.
To find new sponsors for its research, the centre needed to raise the profile of the technology it was developing, improve understanding in the business community of the importance of RFID, and create a standardised system worldwide.
The challenge, however, was to get coverage in the business media from journalists who were sceptical of the 'next big thing' in technology.
To generate corporate sponsorship by gaining exposure for the work of the Auto-ID Centre, RFID technology in general, and the newly opened research laboratories at the University of Cambridge. To educate the media about the benefits of RFID technology, ensure Auto-ID Centre spokespeople were positioned as experts in RFID, and counter negative messages appearing in the UK media about privacy concerns related to the technology.
Strategy and Plan
The PR team at Fleishman-Hillard decided not to target the consumer media, as the topic at that time was much more of a business issue than a consumer concern.
A launch event was therefore held at the University of Cambridge for 20 selected media outlets, including the FT-IT, a key target publication for potential sponsors. Other publications to attend included The Grocer, Computer Weekly, and Computer Wire. It was important that journalists saw how the RFID technology works throughout the supply chain, so tours of the laboratory were arranged.
As the campaign ran for a year, several similar briefings were held for different publications, and, as time went on and the technology became more advanced, journalists who had attended earlier were invited back for updates. Spokespeople for Auto-ID sponsors, such as Sun Microsystems and Tesco, were made available, along with research directors from the University of Cambridge. Quarterly update briefings were held - conducted on the phone, face-to-face or at the university. More than 50 briefings were held during the campaign.
Measurement and Evaluation
All 20 titles attending the initial launch briefing wrote at least one article about RFID technology and the new Auto-ID Centre, taking coverage from a base of zero in Europe before the campaign to 104 articles by the end of it.
Coverage appeared in The Economist, Business Week, Newsweek, the Financial Times including FT-IT, Wall Street Journal Europe, The Business, Electronics Weekly, Retail Technology, Retail Week, The Engineer, Engineering Times, The Manufacturer, Taglines and Frontline Solutions. Many of these titles ran stories that at least mentioned the Auto-ID Centre several times during the year. The story was also picked up by BBC News Online.
Fleishman-Hillard estimates the coverage gave people in the UK more than 30 million opportunities to see the Auto-ID Centre's work.
The campaign led to the Auto-ID Centre securing £200,000 of new sponsorship in Europe, paying for the PR programme four times over.
Simultaneous PR campaigns were being run by Fleishman-Hillard for the Auto-ID Centre in the US and Japan. During that time, one new sponsor was signed every week worldwide.
The UK campaign has since been extended to France, Germany and Switzerland, and is still running there.
Marks & Spencer announced last month that it would be rolling out one of the UK's biggest ever trials of RFID technology in its stores.
The Grocer senior news editor Anne Bruce went on a tour of the Cambridge centre soon after it opened. 'They took me around and showed the robots in action. It was one-on-one, which meant it was good to be able to speak to all the experts,' she said. 'It's a hot topic for us and it was very useful.'
FT-IT editor Andrew Baxter agreed. 'RFID is widely seen as a key enabling technology in the supply chain in the future and our interest in the Auto-ID project is because it is attempting to solve one of the basic problems - which is to standardise the system,' he said.