2005 LEADERSHIP ISSUE: Grassroots Issues: The Power of Public Relations

Features - Business Management

Like growing and maintaining your customers' lawns, protecting and promoting your business is a multi-step process.

February 23, 2006

As any lawn care operator or landscape contractor knows, a healthy lawn and landscape doesn’t happen overnight. The same is true about grassroots public relations. Promoting and protecting your business in your community takes time and effort. You won’t accomplish it with a single news release or through one-time contact with a local politician. Here, I offer steps and suggestions lawn and landscape professionals can use to implement grassroots public relations in their businesses.

PR DEFINED. Public relations (PR) has as many definitions as integrated pest management. The textbook definition of public relations is, “Establishing and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends.” As a lawn and landscape professional, you may say that your success or failure depends on your customers. That’s correct, but others can also determine your success or failure, like the media. What if the local newspaper or television news portrays you or your company in a negative way?

What about local government officials? What if the city councilwoman representing your district casts the winning vote to ban products you need to do your job? There are many people or “publics” in your community on whom your success or failure depends. It’s important that you identify who they are and work toward building relationships with them now.

GRASSROOTS PR. Grassroots public relations is defined as, “Anticipating, analyzing and interpreting public opinion, attitudes and issues that impact, for good or bad, the operations and plans of the organization.

In the green industry, “issues” is the operative word. Issues, such as pesticide/fertilizer use, water quality, equipment noise and emissions and the hiring of workers are just a few that can impact, for good or bad, the operations and plans of your company.

PESTICIDE/FERTILIZER MESSAGES

    When discussing the topic of pesticides and fertilizers, it’s important to keep your message clear and concise as well as bring your passion and convictions into the conversation. Here are some key messages to consider when people turn to you as an authority on pesticide and fertilizer use.

  • When used according to label directions, pesticides pose minimal risks to humans, animals and the environment.
  • Healthy turf grass filters groundwater, absorbs gas pollutants, dust and pollen, retards the spread of fire and acts as a cooling agent. Well-maintained turfgrass produces generous amounts of oxygen and acts as an air-conditioner for the atmosphere.
  • Herbicides, insecticides and fungicides help protect turf grass for healthy growth. Studies prove there is very little likelihood that pest control products used on lawns will end up in groundwater.
  • All pesticides undergo rigorous testing. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires up to 120 tests, many to evaluate environmental and health impacts. The testing, evaluation, EPA registration and label approval takes eight to 10 years and costs between $150 and $185 million. Only one in 140,000 potential products make it from the research lab to the market.
  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a sustainable approach to managing pests by combining biological, chemical, cultural and physical tools in a way that minimizes economic, health and environmental risks.
  • Modern lawn fertilizers have been formulated to provide the minimum amounts of phosphorous necessary to maintain healthy turfgrass. University research studies have determined that phosphorus from lawn fertilizer does not significantly contribute to nutrient runoff under natural conditions and normal situations. When the fertilizer is properly applied, the fertilizer will not degrade water quality.

    Source: www.pestfacts.org

In 1989, I wrote a magazine insert for a client titled, “The 1990s: Decade of the Environment.” Issues highlighted in the piece included pesticide usage, regulations, bans, posting and notification – all issues we still face today. The only difference was those issues in the 1990s were being fought on the Federal level; now pesticide opposition groups are taking their fight to the local level – local media, local politicians, local moms, local dads, local children. The good news is it’s often easier and less expensive to get involved on the local level, than on the national or Federal level. But it still takes resources and a concentrated effort.

LOOMING LAW SPURS ACTION. Laurie Broccolo, president and co-owner of Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care in Rochester, N.Y., knows how PR can help when a local issue arises. She hired a PR firm when the Monroe County Legislature was considering an optional state Neighbor Notification Law that would require lawn care companies like hers to provide written notification to neighbors two days before spraying pesticides.

“Pure frustration motivated me. This was a personal attack on my business. I wanted to get the other side of the story out,” Broccolo explains. She called local politicians when the law was being considered for vote, but didn’t have much luck compared to the opposition group Breast Cancer Coalition that lobbied county legislators with their emotional demands. “I asked one legislator, who said he was voting for the notification law, what we could have done to change his mind. He advised me, ‘Put pressure on the local community and the voters through the media,’ so that’s what I did with the help of a professional PR firm,” Broccolo says.

She also did something very newsworthy – a key component to garnering media attention. In June, the law passed and Broccolo began a pilot in one of the communities her company services to calculate the cost to comply with the Neighbor Notification law. It took 70 hours of time to gather addresses, develop a database and send notification letters at a cost that will require the company to raise fees $4 - $10 per visit.

“When customers call to question the increase, I will tell them it’s a result of the notification law and encourage them to contact their county legislators,” Broccolo explains.

Through the pilot, Broccolo was the first to implement the new law which doesn’t go into effect until January 2006. That generated news coverage by local television stations and newspapers.

“Even though the politics didn’t go our way, the receptiveness of the community has been overwhelming,” she says. “I’m amazed by the empathy we’ve received as a small, committed business being attacked for no reason. People see our plight caused by activism at its worst.”

Broccolo says for less money than she imagined, her company received “thousands of dollars of return in positive articles and publicity.”

Whether you hire a PR professional or manage your own publicity campaign, there are many important points to ponder regarding grassroots public relations.

BE YOUR COMPANY’S HIGH PROFILE LEADER. There’s no better example of a high profile leader than Dave Thomas from the fast-food restaurant Wendy’s. He was the face of Wendy’s, appearing in more than 700 ads since 1989. He holds the Guinness record for the longest TV campaign by a company founder.

Sadly, Dave died in 2002 from liver cancer, leaving Wendy’s without one of its most potent PR forces. I believe the recent incident in which a woman wrongly accused the fast-food chain of serving a severed finger in a bowl of chili would have been handled quickly and effectively if Dave were still alive. If he did the television talk show circuit right after the incident to set the record straight, little damage would have been done.

You may not be Dave Thomas, but you can be a high profile leader in your community for your company. The public believes in people. Whether a company has good news or bad news to share, a company’s CEO or president delivering that message can be reassuring to the public. Through key message development and training, you can confidently be the voice of your company. If that’s something that you don’t think you’ll ever feel comfortable doing, assign someone from your company to be the spokesperson.

ANALYZE THE LOCAL SITUATION. I’ve always been told that the first step toward a healthy lawn and landscape is to conduct a soil test. It helps you analyze the nutrients in your lawn – what’s there and what’s needed. For PR, you need to analyze the local situation or do a so-called “community soil test.” An easy way to do this is to read the local newspaper or visit the online version. Do a search on the newspaper Web site by putting in the word “lawn care” or “pesticides” and see what kind of articles have been written and which reporters are covering those topics.

Also analyze what opposition groups are active in your state, county and city. Monitor their activity. What is their message? Who or what are they targeting?

What issues are your local government officials considering? If it’s anything to do with your livelihood as a business owner, make sure to attend the meetings or share you opinion through a personal letter or e-mail message. Also, alert others who can help. You’re not alone in this fight. Associations like Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment and the Professional Landcare Network, have resources to assist you on the local level.

BE PREPARED; HAVE A PLAN. Local issues that can affect your business may already be on Main Street or in your own backyard. However, it’s never too late to develop a simple plan and take action. After analyzing the local situation, here are a few steps to consider taking:

  1. Create a list or database of key influencers – those who you need to know, such as people in your community, government officials, cooperative extension agents, newspaper reporters and editors, talk radio hosts, television news reporters, regulators and competitors with whom you will need to join forces to fight the really big issues.
  2. Develop key messages and talking points about your business practices and the tools you use to do your job (see Pesticide/Fertilizer Messages sidebar, right, for examples of key messages to use).
  3. Conduct key message training among your managers and other employees who you may need to turn to when issues arise. Develop a policy of who will talk to who should an issue or company crisis occur. This kind of training not only helps prepare a company, but improves communication with customers as well.
  4. How will you inform and involve your employees? Keep an open line of communication among employees about the company’s involvement with the issues. Don’t let them learn it by reading the newspaper or seeing a segment on the television news. Also consider how you can engage employees and get them involved with the issue. They may be your strongest allies and your link to the community, depending on their contacts and local involvement.

BECOME THE LAWN CARE EXPERT. In your business you need to sell your services to attract customers. In PR, you need to sell yourself. You need to be the lawn care or landscape expert in your community – the turn-to guy or gal for all things green. You do this by getting involved in your local, state and national lawn and landscape organizations. You get involved in local issues related to green spaces. And you give back to the community through green causes, like renovating athletic fields, mowing lawns for non-profits or offering your company’s services for charity fundraising events.

Contact the media and let them know if they ever need a source for an article they are doing on lawn care, landscapes or issues around these topics, that you’d be happy to provide them information. My local newspaper recently wrote a front-page article titled “Drought brings yard doubts,” featuring two local lawn care companies in a positive, informative way.

Provide the media with your contact information, including an after-hours home or cell phone number and your e-mail address. Send them story ideas. Write letters to the editor about lawn care issues. Even if your letter isn’t published, reporters will often contact letter writers about particular issues for articles they are writing.

Is there a city or county government committee or activity you can join, like local beautification efforts or park renovations? Can your knowledge and expertise be put to work to help solve a local problem? How can you become a trusted resource that government officials can turn to for information? Be proactive and become involved now to get to know the key influencers in your community before an issue arises. As the lawn care or landscape expert in your community, you have a valuable service and expertise to offer local leaders.

CARE & FEEDING OF LOCAL TURF. If a local issue hasn’t already beckoned you to consider grassroots public relations tactics, one will unfortunately find its way to your community sooner or later. Just as a vibrant lawn and landscape needs attentive care and feeding, so does the way you protect and promote your business.

Acting now to prepare yourself and your company will give you peace of mind and the courage to face any issue that may invade your local turf.

Angela Bendorf Jamison is the owner of Communicopia, Wake Forest, N.C. She’s worked in the green industry for 18 years, and can be reached at angela@communicopiapr.com.