For 17 years, Friskies Pet Care Company has been sponsoring cat shows, partnering with the Cat Fanciers’ Association to present more than 20 cat shows a year around the United States. For more than a decade, international public relations agency Manning Selvage & Lee has been working with the pet food company to promote those shows. But the company could not get to last week’s show in Albany, and neither the client nor the agency was sure whether this week’s show, in Syracuse, should go on.
“We didn’t know whether it was appropriate in the wake of the tragedy,” says Lou Capozzi, chief executive officer of MS&L. “On one level, a cat show might sound like something trivial. But what we heard was that at a time of crisis like this, pets can be very helpful, very comforting. Everything we heard was that we should go ahead.”
The account team, based in the firm’s Los Angeles office, was enthusiastic about continuing its work, even though it meant going on the road.   
“We were moved by the fact that this weekend’s show in Syracuse was still going to go on,” says Vickie Fine, a vice president on the Friskies account. “We have been to Syracuse several times and we have a very good relationship with the local cat show managers, so we were prepared to be guided by their judgment. We felt they would know how their community was feeling, and they felt people would want this escape.”
The cats, familiar from ads for products such as Friskies and Fancy Feast, travel with their trainers and a PR team from MS&L to the shows, where they perform various tricks. One cat plays a baby grand piano; another dribbles a basketball. The cats put on about 30 performances at a typical show, while Friskies personnel man a sampling booth. The PR team, meanwhile, sets up interviews on local morning television shows.
“We are not doing any of the usual pre-event media with morning shows,” says Fine. “Normally we would have done about four or five pre-event interviews. But we did get calendar mentions and we do expect some media in attention. There are a lot of feature reporters we have worked with in the past, and they are very familiar with the program.”
If reporters could find an angle to write about cat shows—the soothing quality of pets in time of tragedy—could they also find an angle to write about a new advertising campaign? There were plenty of stories about campaigns being put on hold, about the disappearance from television screens of anything resembling black humor, but could a company persuade the media to pay attention to a new campaign at a time of national crisis?
That was the challenge facing Beverly Holmes, communications director at Land’s End in Dodgeville, Wis.
The company had already been impacted, albeit indirectly, by the terrorist attacks. Land’s End was planning an event in New York this week, in conjunction with Fashion Week, which began September 7. That event was postponed, but the company has several events planned for October, and continues to work with long lead media, while checking with individual reporters to make sure they want the information.
Senior management at Land’s End took a look at the new ads and decided there was nothing in them that might be considered inappropriate or insensitive.
“It wasn’t something I would do a mass release on,” says Beverly Holmes, communications director. “But there are seven or eight select media, local media in Chicago and Wisconsin, Ad Age and Adweek. Under the circumstances, I didn’t want to pitch them, so I decided I would leave it up to them whether they received the information.”
So Holmes got on the phone and asked the reporters—most of whom she knew from previous contacts—for their advice. “I told them I needed their help in letting me know if this was appropriate. I let them know I was not looking for ink or coverage, but that I wanted to be sure they were kept informed and that they had the information on file.”
The “vast majority” told her they were moving on and that they would be interested in receiving the information, but that the amount of coverage she could expect would be less than it might have been before September 11. “They told me, I still cover your business and I still need to know what’s going on,” says Holmes.
One of them, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Doris Hajewski, even wrote a column using Holmes as the lead. Hajewski found it remarkable that the PR pro had called to ask permission before sending the materials. “The call from Holmes to a reporter who has covered her company for six years illustrates the trepidation that consumer product companies are feeling this week about how to conduct themselves.”    
Holmes believes sensitivity is important, but so is getting back to business. The key, she says: “It has to be handled on a one-to-one basis.”