Deborah Weinstein admits she knew almost nothing about mundane stuff like balance sheets and income statements when she and her sister, Judy Lewis, went into business 29 years ago.
After all, how many “refugees from journalism” do?
What she did know was public relations and marketing and what she did have were contacts in the media and in a number of high-profile businesses that were willing to turn their campaigns over to their upstart company.
Since then, Strategic Objectives has become a market leader, with a focus on representing clients that practise “corporate social responsibility (CSR).” With its 40 employees and annual revenues north of $8 million, it’s considered a fairly large player in the field and was recently named to the Top Ten CSR A-List 2012 by PR News. Among its many other honours, it was named PR Agency of the Year 2011 at the IABC/Toronto (International Association of Business Communicators) OVATION Awards. And Profit Magazine has named Strategic Objectives one of Canada’s top 100 women-run businesses.
“Strategic Objectives is committed to using the power of PR to create social good and to help make a positive difference by advancing awareness of important social causes,” said Lewis.
“PR with heart is fundamental to everything we do at Strategic Objectives,” added Weinstein.
Casual consumers of advertising would recognize Strategic Objectives’ clients in a heartbeat. The company’s first “big client” was British clothing retailer Marks & Spencer. Although the company had had a presence in Canada for 11 years when they signed on with the sister act, they hadn’t registered a profit.
Through word-of-mouth, the company turned to the sisters to handle their PR. Weinstein and Lewis had already developed a reputation for leveraging news items and feature stories in the media to promote corporate brands. They worked at virtually all the big Canadian TV networks and, at the end, produced Thrill of a Lifetime, a make-your-dreams-come-true reality series, making it Canada’s top-rated show with a “$0 budget.” They learned the hard way how to make the show news and get publicity.
When they took on the Marks and Spencer account, they were not much more than “two women with one desk and a typewriter,” with Weinstein maxing out her Visa card to make sure they could pay their bills. They conceived of a campaign that would stress the company’s adherence to quality merchandise.
“We got the products out to people who would write about them,” Weinstein said.
“Kismet” and referrals from other journalists led them to their long-standing client, the Body Shop.
Strategic Objectives and Body Shop collaborated on a campaign that stressed the company’s CSR – “doing good in their community,” said Weinstein.
Associating a client with CSR “engages a brand with a cause,” she explained. By consulting with clients, consumers, employees and other stakeholders, a cause is selected “that fits its corporate mentality.”
Consumers appreciate it and that builds trust, relevance and loyalty to the brand. It’s a win-win situation all around: the charity benefits from increased awareness and contributions, while the business enhances its reputation, she said.
The Body Shop has championed such issues as saving the elephants, community trade (avoiding low-wage jurisdictions) and stopping violence against women.
In the 1990s when Strategic Objectives brought the question of CSR to the table, it was something that was largely ignored in marketing campaigns, Weinstein said.
But the anti-violence “campaign we did was hugely successful and women got with the story because it was meaningful and new,” she said.
The United Nations recognized Strategic Objectives’ role in the effort by granting the firm its Grand Award for Outstanding Actions in PR.
Later, the Body Shop adopted Strategic Objectives’ campaign to “Stop S*X Trafficking of Children and Young People.”
Other familiar CSR campaigns spearheaded by Strategic Objectives are its “fashion with compassion” effort, in which Cashmere bathroom tissue raised awareness for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, and the 2011 Koodonation launch for Koodo Mobile, which promotes change through the social web by activating volunteerism.
Pfizer (Paralympics) and M & M Meat Shops (Crohn’s and colitis) are two other established clients.
Asked how one would measure the success of a CSR campaign, Weinstein said you would see how many outlets picked it up, how wide an audience it reached and you’d value that reach by considering how much you’d have to pay to attain the same results through ads.
As far as Weinstein is concerned, CSR is here to stay. “It’s not nice to have – it’s a need to have,” she said.
Surveys show consumers favour companies that practise CSR. Seventy-five per cent said they were likely to purchase products from the company when they agree with its stand and 13 per cent have actually done so, she said.
What’s more, 70 per cent said they would pay a premium for products from brands that practice CSR.
Although they are an industry leader, Strategic Objectives is not content to rest on its laurels. There are lots of new entrants in the area, small shops nipping at their heels.
But Strategic Objectives has over the years generated goodwill that brings it constant referrals. Weinstein expects that to continue.
But looking into the future, she believes “the media environment is becoming fragmented. You have to be everywhere with your brand.”
More focus will have to be given to social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Or, to adapt what she said in another context, doing social good on social media – that’s “PR with heart.”