Front page exposure for the cost of an unsellable vehicle … genius?

Let’s face it, plenty of interactions happen between the media and organizations of all types with no involvement from media relations pros. When these situations develop in a less than favorable manner for the organization, it’s easy to say they should’ve had some guidance from someone that understands the media and interviewing process, but what about the alternative? What about when an organization, for profit or otherwise, has a somewhat random interaction with the media and comes out smelling like roses? I suppose the actions fueling these interactions can range from total uninformed dumb luck and altruistic intentions to almost perfect strategic planning, but I ran across a story yesterday that’s worth a closer look.

In Chicago, we’ve still got two major dailies: the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. On May 14, the Sun-Times ran a story titled “He took my world away,” a troubling story of a stolen van and wheelchair. Both belonged to a Chicagoan who had her right leg amputated six months earlier. The story was one that makes you wonder if there’s any humanity left out there in the big bad world. The Chicagoan was almost certainly the driving force behind this story being written, but her goal was a simple and understandable one – she needed that van and hoped getting the word out would generate some leads that might help locate it from some good samaritans that might have some relevant info.

Although, it doesn’t appear that the article led to any useful tips, it certainly led to an outpouring from good samaritans. A follow up article appeared in yesterday’s Sun-Times: “Readers Give Disabled Woman Her Life Back.” Readers certainly did respond to this heartwarming story. The Chicagoan’s rent was thought of by her local alderman and some colleagues, who collected several hundred dollars for her; many others, according to the article, offered to help her get to her doctors appointments, but an owner of several local car dealerships really stood out in the story.

A man named Mike Berman, owner of Star Nissan and several other Chicago dealerships, jumped at the opportunity to help. One of his dealerships donated a shiny used SUV. Inside her SUV, the Chicagoan found a money order intended to cover her rent, wheelchair and crutches. Employees of the dealership reportedly assembled $1000, which they put toward a gas card for her.

What struck me from a media relations perspective was the huge positive exposure the dealership netted from the effort. Whether they had this in mind when they got started or it was a completely altruistic effort, in the end, their brand got a huge boost. And how often can you say that a used car dealer comes out of anything smelling like roses in their local market, particularly in a market the size of Chicago? The May 22 article appeared on the front page, included several large photos and quoted Berman extensively. The local news networks didn’t miss out on it either. Plus, it just struck me as the type of article that likely attracted a lot of eyeballs from readers.

I don’t mean to belittle Berman’s contribution in any way. This woman certainly needed the help and appreciated the support she received. It was a very kind way to help out an apparently deserving recipient, but to be fair – who knows what, if anything, the dealership would’ve gotten for the SUV with today’s soaring gas prices and high demand for petrol sipping vehicles.

But, whether or not there was any marketing agenda at work behind the scenes, there are at least a few lessons for media relations pros to consider:

  • While the biggest charitable donations can lead to zero coverage and brand building impact, sometimes smaller ones can deliver big time when done right
  • When dealing with executives that make charitable donations on behalf of their companies, encourage them to think about subtle adjustments that can be made to charitable procedures to offer some type of benefit for the brand; they should be open to suggestions on the best way to give back
  • Excess inventory can be converted into donations that deliver for people in need and a local brand; so be strategic, determine what you can part with, and look for the right opportunities to do so
  • We can partner with the media without officially partnering with the media: follow your local media, track their stories and seek out opportunities to get involved that are already swirling through the news cycle
  • Set appropriate expectations: these types of donations will often deliver no PR value; the idea is to improve the odds of netting some PR value in everything you do, trusting it will pay off at some point

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