Oh what a feeling ultimate PR strategy

March 21, 2011
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Toyota USA’s Midwest Public Relations Manager Curt McAllister stopped by the West Michigan Public Relations Society of America gathering last week to dish about the Japanese car company’s communications strategy during the “unintended acceleration” and recall crisis of 2009 and 2010.

A graduate of Ferris State University, McAllister said Toyota’s communications staff took a page from history: the Audi USA experience of the mid-1980s. At that time, an Audi executive complained that Americans just couldn’t handle driving the German cars. That went over like a lead balloon with consumers, and Audi sales in the U.S. plummeted, he said.

“We made sure that through our messaging, we never blamed … we never said pooh on you. We wanted to make sure we talked about the cars, talked about the safety features of the cars. We never blamed anyone because, as you’ll see, Audi paid for it — and paid for it dearly,” McAllister said.

He also described a strategy in which Toyota came out swinging against news reports the company thought were unfair.

“There were a lot of people reporting poorly because they didn’t know the industry or lexicon of recalls,” he contended. The company used its website to refute stories with which it disagreed, he said. “We did a lot of circling back to kind of set things straight. Our website became a very important tool for us, as did Twitter and social media,” particularly YouTube.

Toyota also launched a weekly e-mail newsletter called Fast Facts that was distributed to employees and dealers to keep them apprised of developments and to reinforce the messaging the company aimed to distribute to the media. McAllister said he conducted via phone ad hoc mini media-training sessions for Midwest dealers who were approached by local media for comment.

The Toyota experience illustrates the convergence of marketing, advertising and public relations, he concluded.

“One of our PR executives sits at the table with marketing,” McAllister said. “I think these days, marketing and PR really have to go hand in hand. There was an old saying that public relations was the bastard child of advertising and marketing. It’s not the case anymore. Now all three entities have got to work together. And we do that in Toyota.”

Back on the table

West Michigan Sports Commission Executive Director Mike Guswiler announced the USA Table Tennis U.S. Open will return to DeVos Place in 2012 and 2014, after a highly successful tournament that drew 702 players here in 2010.

“On behalf of the West Michigan Sports Commission, our partners and the local organizing committee, we are very pleased that USUSATT showed confidence in Grand Rapids and West Michigan to host both 2012 and 2014 (tourneys) based on our success of the 2010 U.S. Open,” said Guswiler, who added that it was OK to call it “ping pong.”

A numbers game

Key data regarding the historic renovation projects done in Grand Rapids from 1999-2010 arrived too late for the March 14 Business Journal story, “Flat Iron to be the last GR renovation?” According to information supplied by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, 87 homes and commercial buildings in the city were rehabilitated over that period. Those projects created 6,644 new jobs and were worth an estimated total investment of $267.5 million.

If state lawmakers agree with Gov. Rick Snyder and eliminate the historic tax credits, which provided equity for those projects, those numbers may very well be among the final numbers.

ArtPrize gets boost

Speaking of numbers, the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority agreed to give ArtPrize a raise of sorts. Last year, the board supported the second arts competition with $25,000. This fall, the widely hailed event will get $30,000 in financial assistance from the DDA. Jay Fowler, DDA executive director, expressed surprise when recalling that ArtPrize has only been held for two years in relation to the positive impact it has had on downtown.

“It seems like it’s been going on for a long time,” he said, smiling.

A big attraction

The Grand Rapids Art Museum’s “Diana — A Celebration” exhibition brought more than $3.6 million to Grand Rapids. Nearly 100,000 visitors attended the exhibition during its three-month run. Of those visitors, more than 55,000 came from beyond Kent County. More than 60 full- and part-time local people were hired to work with GRAM during the exhibition.

During that same time, GRAM’s memberships increased by 60 percent and museum store sales increased by 138 percent. The “Diana — A Celebration” gift shop sales exceeded $400,000, with a portion of the proceeds going to charities supported by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.

According to the final numbers, the exhibition drew 95,770 visitors from 49 states and Canada; of those, 80,877 came from outside of Grand Rapids. The attendance numbers also included 650 out-of-town visitors who booked hotel rooms and 282 group tours with nearly 6,000 visitors.

According to Experience Grand Rapids statistics, leisure visitors who visited for the day generated more than $3.4 million in spending at downtown Grand Rapids restaurants and businesses. Combined with the revenue that the overnight visitors generated, the total financial impact of the exhibition during its three-month stay was more than $3.6 million.

Tax cut consequences

Brenda Brame is worried about the children.

“Michigan is one of the 10 states with the highest amount of children in poverty,” said Brame, program manager for the Kent County Tax Credit Coalition. “That being said, it’s one of the few that offer the state Earned Income Credit. It makes a big difference in the lives of the children and their parents.”

Now up and running for the current tax season, the program has 22 locations staffed by 300 volunteers who help people prepare and e-file their income tax forms. Some 25 percent of eligible returns fail to be filed for the federal credit, which was introduced by the late President Gerald R. Ford. The state EIC, set at 20 percent of the federal qualifying amount, has been available since 2008, Brame said.

Last year the coalition helped more than 7,500 individuals and families obtain $10.9 million in tax refunds, and more than $2 million was through the EIC.

“When you consider a (federal) Earned Income Tax Credit could be $3,000, the state would be $600 — that’s someone’s rent for another month,” Brame said. “Someone who could be homeless next month will not be homeless. That’s huge. They shouldn’t cut the EIC or cut taxes on the backs of the working poor.”

Some $4.7 million in state EIC goes unclaimed each year in Kent County, she said. While each situation is different, the credit is available for some families earning as much as $49,000, Brame said.

The credits can mean a mortgage payment or filling up the tank to get to work at a time when gasoline prices are skyrocketing.

“It’s not like these people are taking their kids and flying off to Disneyland,” Brame said. “They are putting all of those dollars right back into the local economy. Some politicians I don’t think get that.”

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