PR firms walking tightrope over war

Balance: PR firms emphasize clients that have a helping role in the Iraq war and avoid any appearance of profiteering.

April 09, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

As bombs and missiles explode half a world away, and fears mount over terrorism and the deadly respiratory virus SARS, companies with related goods and services face a quagmire: how to get the word out about their products without looking like profiteers.

It's a fine line.

And it's an issue that Jean L. Miskimon, senior vice president at Eisner Petrou and Associates Inc., a Washington public relations firm with an office in Baltimore, is facing right now with a client.

"We very much worry that we're going to be perceived as trying to take advantage of the war," Miskimon said. "It's a tightrope that you walk. You don't want to blow an opportunity for publicity, but you have to be sensitive to all the issues all the time. If there's a very overt effort, that could absolutely backfire. When you're trying to build credibility, you could end up with this very negative reaction."

For instance, this is the perfect time to promote Eisner Petrou client MEDEX Insurance Services Inc., a Towson company that provides benefits for travelers outside the country, including medical and evacuation coverage.

But company President Linda M. McGee is well aware of the risks.

"Yes, MEDEX is probably going to benefit from what's happened," McGee said of the company, which was founded in 1999. "But our message has not capitalized on the fears. And when we talk to a potential customer, they're more than ready to bring to the table their fears and the fears of their employees."

Already, sales are up about 15 percent over the same time last year at the parent company, MEDEX Global Group, a 65-employee company in Towson that operates in 211 countries, she said.

The Global Group also oversees MEDEX Assistance Corp., which since 1977 has provided medical, travel and security assistance to travelers and counts among its clients the Associated Press, The New York Times and Fox News, McGee said.

"War is not an opportunity," said David M. Petrou, president and chief operating officer of Eisner Petrou. "It's a tragedy. But I have a client now that can allay those fears, address those concerns. We have to get the word out."

Through telephone calls and e-mail messages to travel writers at trade magazines and newspapers, the PR firm matches MEDEX experts with journalists writing articles about the challenges of international travel.

"We try to keep our key messages global and long-term," Miskimon said. "We try to stay away from the sensational aspects. Without making the war a selling point, the fact is MEDEX sells the same services as it did yesterday. The world is on heightened alert, and MEDEX has a product that is always ready to deal with a crisis."

International chains are struggling with the same issue.

When Home Depot recently launched a home repair plan for families of its more than 1,700 employees called to active duty by the Iraq war, and then expanded the idea into a $1 million national program, executives thought hard about how the initiative would be viewed.

"Those sensitivities do come up almost immediately," said Goldie M. Taylor, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Home Depot, who served in the Marines during the first Persian Gulf war. "We have to check and recheck our motivations."

The central question asked by executives at Home Depot, which ranks 13th on the Fortune 500 list with $58.2 billion in annual sales, was whether their efforts would make the military's job's easier?

In addition to $1 million, the initiative, called Project Homefront, also includes 1 million hours donated by Home Depot volunteers for community service and to make general household repairs for the families of military personnel deployed during the Iraq war.

"It's not improbable for someone to deride us for seemingly trying to take advantage of a war environment," Taylor said. "But I don't think the criticism would stick. We're unwavering in our support for our troops - whatever criticism may or may not come."

The program kicked off Friday with print ads in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other major newspapers, she said.

Word has spread with the help of PR firms like Imre Communications of Towson, which handles public relations for Home Depot in the mid-Atlantic region. Calls from the media and military families have flooded in, Taylor said.

Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms in New York, a national trade organization, agreed that sensitivity is vital when trying to promote products and services during war time.

"Maybe the need is to promote a new movie or to promote a new restaurant," she said. "Maybe there's a need to bring a little lightness to people's lives. It depends on the timing. I think the standard will be the opportunity to promote things that allow people to carry on."

Because many journalists continue to cover their traditional beats, there is still space for non-war-related messages of the vast majority of clients, said David Warschawski, founder and president of Baltimore's Warschawski Public Relations.

"I think the key watchwords are: appropriateness, timing and relevance," he said. "Can you make your message or your client more relevant within the context of the war without appearing to be an opportunist? It has to appear in the normal course of business - not that you've jumped through hoops to connect yourself or make yourself relevant within the context of the war."

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