Public Relations: Packing A Box Full of Creative PR:
Looking for a way to put your company or organization on the map? Try inspiration and not just dollars. Case in point, the N.C. Forestry Association. After spending 15 times as much money on traditional methods of educating the public through the media, the group once struck PR gold through a far cheaper and more innovative approach that worked for months. Here’s why:
What’s in the box?
Years ago as a TV reporter I was taping a story about the “talking trees” of Wilkes County’s Rendezvous Mountain that use recorded messages to teach kids about the forest. As I was about to leave, a ranger pulled out a nifty box to show me. Inside was a hodge-podge of everyday products with one most unlikely thing in common. Every item, in whole or in part, came from trees. Some examples:
Toothpaste. Terpenes from wood provide flavoring.
Sandwich bags. Made from cellophane, sugar components of wood are the base.
STP. Finished fatty acids from wood help make the synthetic engine lubricant that racing legend Richard Petty made famous.
This surprise assortment was such a revelation to me that I made it a prime component of my story.
Fast-forward to the Forestry Association.
I opened a business magazine to read an editor’s column that began, ”North Carolina’s Forestry Association celebrated National Forest Products Week October 19-25, calling attention to the more than 5,000 wood and paper products we use everyday and to the importance of forests to our state and national economies.” The column continued about the importance of forestry for 5 more paragraphs.
Because the association was a client, I wondered how it got such plum press coverage not just in the business magazine, but – as I later learned – on 2 TV stations, 3 radio stations, and 11 newspapers?
Yet another box.
They did it with a box just like the one that fascinated me on Rendezvous Mountain years earlier. This box too presented 15 products derived from trees: the crate itself, toothpaste, soft drinks, facial tissue, lotion, glue, dishwashing liquid, chewing gum, medicine, spices, crayons, diapers, instant hot chocolate, hair spray, and sandwich bags.
Forestry association members and friends hand-delivered 300 such boxes to 110 media outlets across the state. Some of the larger news operations ignored the boxes or viewed them as a gimmick, but some reporters and citizens were intrigued. Association communications director Leslie McCormick told me that most people had assumed that lumber and paper products were the sole output of forests. Crayons, spices, and hair spray were another thing altogether. After sifting through the goods several reporters remarked, in effect,“Wow, I never knew that!” Another wrote Leslie a letter to say the same.
The “Goods From the Woods” boxes was such a hit with educators and scout groups that Leslie said the association distributed an additional 144 of them. Scouts used them in their quest for the forestry merit badge. They became talking tools at civic clubs, schools, and state government. In fact, Leslie said one state agency requested 124 of the show and tell crates.
Whose idea was it?
Leslie McCormick did not get the notion from Rendezvous Mountain, but rather from her counterpart in Arkansas who used a basket of forest products as a door prize at civic group presentations. She liked it so much that she took the idea one step further last year. Leslie’s boxes cost about $10 apiece to assemble and she does not charge for them. She figured the roughly $3000 initial investment was absolutely worth it. The forestry association, according to her, previously spent vastly larger sums on newspaper inserts in major dailies around the state trying to capture media and public attention. Nothing worked liked this.
Why do it?
The cynic in me from my reporting days wanted to know what truly motivated the association to launch the PR campaign. Had there been research showing negative attitudes toward forestry? Was there some ulterior motive lurking underneath? Leslie said that at least one reporter had asked similar questions.
She said no, there was no negative factor driving the “Goods From The Woods” effort. “We just wanted an opportunity to educate the public,” she said. “This project was not driven by whether people are for us or against us. We wanted simply to raise their level of awareness. Trees are a renewable resource. It was a positive message, we weren’t defensive at all.”
As for why people keep asking for the boxes, she said, “I think people are just in awe of products that come from trees. They get excited about it, and want to share it with other people. It’s a good visual. We could have sent the same information on sheets of paper, but it wouldn’t have had near the impact this has had.”
I am told there are several thousand additional wood-based products that could go in the boxes including artificial vanilla, photographic film, and ice cream. If you want to know what they specifically use from wood, I suggest you call the Forestry Association in Raleigh.
The lesson for all of us is obvious. Rather than rely on the traditional ways of public persuasion, perhaps we too should step back and do a bit of creative thinking. What do we have that would fascinate, surprise, and captivate potential customers? Perhaps you too have an artistic gem just around the corner of your mind waiting to be implemented.