In public relations, we often take calculated risks aimed at generating conversations about our clients – what we call disrupting today. Thirty-two years ago, I went out on a limb and it’s a story that’s both entertaining and instructive even though tactics and media are so very different now than they were then.
In 1986, I met the owner of a Chicago company that made condoms who was looking for PR help. He had an innovative idea that had publicity potential, too. He was packaging his products to appeal to women in the hope that drug stores and other retailers would position them in the feminine hygiene sections rather than the family planning sections. His rationale was sound. His research showed that women purchased condoms more than men.
It was a good story, one I knew most all popular women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue would like. Retail trade publications were also targets. Newspapers and television, however, were another story. I knew editors of family newspapers wouldn’t even publish the word condom let alone present a story about my client’s product. The same applied to TV news producers.
Nevertheless, we assembled an attractive and informative press kit with press releases and photography. The client asked me to serve as company spokesman, which I agreed to. We purchased a comprehensive media list of magazines, of course, but I went ahead and included health editors at all major and secondary market newspapers and wire services. You never know, I thought.
We mailed about 500 kits on a Friday, as I recall, and on the following Thursday, I flew to Los Angeles arriving at my hotel in the afternoon. Waiting for me was a fistful of messages, all from media (remember, this is before cell phones, e-mail and voicemail).
I called Associated Press in New York first. Had I heard? Heard what? The Surgeon General of the United States, C. Everett Koop, had publicly declared that morning after abstinence, condoms were the best method to avoid AIDS. “Your press kit landed about the same time, so I’d like your reaction.”
It was the same with the nine or ten other messages, from UPI, the New York Times, and other major print media.
At the time, the AIDS epidemic was a major news story (and still is) and because the surgeon general had said the word condom, it was no longer taboo in newspapers or on TV. By virtue of being in the right place at the right moment, my client became the face and voice of the condom industry in the days and weeks that followed.
We were flooded with calls from not only the print media, but television and radio too. I remember taking a call at home from the Chicago Tribune’s great columnist Bob Greene, whose syndicated column lauded my client for getting out in front of this important story. As I suspected, most all of the long lead women’s books and trades ran stories about the client’s product while hundreds of newspapers across the country went with wire service stories.
My client played it close to the vest when I asked him what the effect of all the publicity was on his sales, but I suspect they skyrocketed because he happily paid my invoices as soon as he received them! It was a heady time for a PR guy just starting out on his own. But it also demonstrates how a good client story can profit when you trust your instincts and take a few chances.