Friends And Foes

September 16, 2005
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Competition in the business world is a good thing. So, too, is collaboration.

By combining the two, a quartet of local insurance agencies hopes to ease the suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The four — Berends Hendricks Stuit Insurance, The Campbell Group, Lighthouse Group Insurance and Universal Insurance Services — last week accepted an “agency challenge” to raise $12,500 each to be put toward relief efforts.

“Each of us felt compelled to contribute individually to the relief efforts. We then decided that this agency challenge would be a great way to raise funds through some friendly competition,” said Tom Stuit.

In coordination with Spring Lake-based International Aid, the agencies this morning were hoping to fill two semi-tractor trailers with supplies for the areas of devastation.

Individual staff members contributed toward the $50,000 goal, and separate corporate contributions were made by the agencies.

**Someday, the pair of scraggly fenced-in lots adjacent to the Business Journal headquarters will be a pair of bright apartment and condominium towers.

With eyes shut tight, it’s easy to imagine Icon On Bond finally working its way toward the sky. Look, there, on top of the south tower, it’s developer Joe Moch, surveying the city below as if he were the white wizard Saruman perched atop Orthanc Tower in Isengard, scheming the demise of the meddling Hobbits, city planners, whatever.

Take a quick glace at the top of this page. See the date? Exactly one small hole has been dug on one of the sites along

Bond Avenue NW
and
Trowbridge Street
. You’re just as likely to see a band of bloodthirsty Urukai there as the union labor Moch long ago committed to employ in the construction.

Last week, Moch was before the Grand Rapids City Commission requesting the city designate the project as a brownfield development site. If his request is granted, netting some $1.8 million in tax-increment financing, construction could begin within four to six weeks — after approval, which will take at least a month.

So, it’ll be a Christmas groundbreaking?

This week, the Business Journal’s online survey, at www.grbj.com, addresses the Moch question: Will Icon On Bond ever get built?

**At last week’s meeting of West Michigan’s American Marketing Association chapter, Jeff Lambert, managing partner of PR and corporate communications Lambert, Edwards & Associates, was working to convert the marketing crew into PR believers.

Not enough that PR’s relationship-focused marketing agenda charts well in surveys of top management — one report showed Fortune 1000 executives ranking it No. 1 in importance for growing the business — or that it’s only common sense that media coverage builds more credibility than advertising, Lambert brought out the big guns, the business world’s version of healing the kid on crutches: ROI.

Take the four-page spread in Forbes featuring Spectrum Health. PR cost: $8,000-$10,000. Cost of a one-page ad in Forbes: $91,570.

Lambert brought along a real-life PR convert to back him up: Mark Rice, marketing veteran turned head of PR and corporate communications for Zondervan.

“I was a PR skeptic,” Rice confessed.

Five years ago, Rice reluctantly took on the task of shoring up Zondervan’s communications department, which at the time consisted of one lady in a corner who pitched book reviews. Management had bought into the idea of a strong, centralized PR department feeling that, as Rice explained, it was necessary to building an active, strong brand.

He got his first PR lesson right out the gate, when Zondervan was preparing to release a new translation of the New Testament aimed at the 18-to-35-year-old demographic in preparation for a full Bible translation.

“We released it into a firestorm,” Rice said. “There was a small, but very real group that was convinced we were changing God’s word based on a secret feminist agenda. We got killed. They used media; we didn’t.”

Zondervan was on its heels from the get-go, and was unprepared to defend itself. The story was covered extensively in national media, with 90 percent of the coverage unfavorable.

With that lesson, Zondervan began shoring up the department with research and expertise, internally and externally through Lambert’s firm. When Round 2 came two years later, Zondervan was ready.

An advertising campaign aimed at the translation’s target demographic through MTV.com, The Onion, and Rolling Stone would accompany the full release, and USA Today agreed to run a story on the unusual presence of a Bible ad in these venues.

Then, Rolling Stone rejected the ad.

“Part of PR is recognizing opportunity,” Rice said. “We started mobilizing before we even told the (USA Today) reporter.”

The story ran everywhere, turning a $200,000 advertising campaign with PR goals of two national stories and 50 percent favorable coverage into a more than $2 million value with 1,200 print and Web hits and 90 percent favorable coverage.

Displaying the story in USA Today, with a quarter page representation of the ad, Rice noted, “We could never have afforded this.”

Plus, all of the media outlets that had attacked the translation two years before had reversed their opinion with favorable coverage, instead attacking Rolling Stone. As an added bonus, the magazine eventually printed the ad with apologies — a PR crisis of its own.

Through this experience, Rice’s crew was ready when Ashley Smith, the woman held hostage last spring during a nationally televised standoff in Atlanta, revealed that her captor had released her after she read to him a chapter of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” the best-selling Zondervan release by Rick Warren. Following Smith’s story, sales of the two-year-old book jumped by 500,000 units in three weeks.

“Five years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of that,” Rice said. “I’m no longer a skeptic. PR is credible, measurable, and it drives sales.”    

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