Brown & Williamson Open Communication Strategy
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Holmes Report

Brown & Williamson Open Communication Strategy

The strategy was designed to promote Brown & Williamson as an open and responsible company, willing to nurture and promote a dialogue over a wide range of difficult and controversial issues.

Paul Holmes

Spanning the year 2000, Weber Shandwick Kentucky created and executed a communications strategy for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation. The strategy was designed to promote Brown & Williamson as an open and responsible company, willing to nurture and promote a dialogue over a wide range of difficult and controversial issues. Weber Shandwick Kentucky built the communication plan on an Internet-based platform. The platform ensured the widest possible access and delivery, emphasizing the company’s openness. The strategy also positioned Brown & Williamson as a forward-thinking company actively searching for affective ways to use new media. Weber Shandwick Kentucky led Brown & Williamson through a series of three Internet chats hosted by company CEO, Nicholas Brookes, VP, Claudia “Corky” Newton and VP, Sharon Boyse. Additionally, Mr. Brookes was presented to the National Press Club in Washington D.C. to address the subject of “being a responsible company in a controversial industry.” The program culminated with Weber Shandwick Kentucky producing a web cast re-launching a legendary Brown & Williamson product, including a web cast video presentation of the history of Pall Mall.
The greatest challenge to the strategy of open communication was overcoming Brown & Williamson’s history of maintaining a closed corporate fortress. Faced with an increasingly anti-tobacco culture, the company’s natural instinct was to retreat within its own walls, as opposed to nurturing a position of openness. Other challenges came in the form of preparing the client to face the most difficult and confrontational questions while maintaining a positive demeanor, and in using a relatively new technology as a form of live communication. Finally, in producing the web cast to re-launch a legendary product, Weber Shandwick had to make the event easily accessible to the media while restricting the general public in consideration of laws and attitudes toward exposing the public, especially minors, to marketing information about tobacco products.
Weber Shandwick Kentucky set out to meet two objectives for the client.
  • Favorably impact public policy on key issues affecting Brown & Williamson’s business
  • Communicate Brown & Williamson’s position as a responsible company in a controversial industry
To achieve these objectives it was necessary to create a strategic corporate philosophy and actively communicate that philosophy. In planning this campaign several factors were taken into account. Choosing subject matter for the open dialogue was important. It was imperative to chose topics and issues that would enhance Brown & Williamson’s corporate image, but at the same time not run counter to the message of open dialogue on controversial issues. It was equally important to find the right communicators within Brown & Williamson. Once again, the message of an open company meant direct public and media access to the highest levels of Brown & Williamson, which in turn meant Weber Shandwick Kentucky had to prepare these top corporate executives to deal with a wide manner of inquiries, not only from the media and public but also corporate and industry enemies. Filtering any access to an “open forum” would run counter to our strategic message.
Finally, because the message was about “open communication” it was imperative that the message and the conduit for that message were a demonstration of this philosophy. The decision to use the Internet as a conduit came from a belief that access levels to the Internet demonstrate a corporate philosophy of openness. Additionally, the personal and public access to this form of communication would allow Brown & Williamson to deliver their message unfiltered and unedited directly to the public when appropriate, while at the same time allowing the media the same direct and inexpensive access.
The campaign was executed over about a one-year period, further demonstrating it as a long-term corporate philosophy. During that time, Weber Shandwick produced three separate Internet chats, which were open to the public. The chats covered topics from prevention of youth smoking to scientific issues dealing with nicotine addiction and cigarette manufacturing. These Internet chats were followed by a presentation and question and answer session by Brown & Williamson CEO Nicholas Brookes to the National Press Club. This open communication policy was maintained when it came time for Brown & Williamson’s re-launch of a legendary product. A worldwide web cast was produced to introduce New Filtered Pall Mall. This web cast also served as a media debut for the Brown & Williamson’s new CEO, Susan Ivey.  This web cast allowed worldwide dissemination of this new marketing initiative without requiring the media to travel. More importantly, it allowed the same media real-time access to Ms. Ivey, demonstrating a continuation of our original corporate philosophy of open communication.
Over the past year, well over 1,000 members of the media and the public have directly interacted with Brown & Williamson executives. The three Internet chats produced a total of more than 600 viewers, as well as local and national articles and television stories promoting the events. The National Press Club presentation attracted nearly 250 on-site attendees and hundreds more via the Internet. The most recent project in the campaign garnered perhaps the most tangible results, including the following:
    Approximately 50 journalists from around the world participated in the web cast.
  • Within three hours of the event, 10 stories appeared on major Internet news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters and Associated Press.
  • Four separate stories appeared on CNBC network news.
  • Five stories on local television reached an estimated 108,000 viewers.
  • Articles were published in several major newspapers, including the New York Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Charlotte Observer.
  • There were several written comments from reporters who appreciated the easily accessible format.
In addition to all of the results listed above, it is the achievement of the overall campaign that is most important. Today, unlike years past, Brown & Williamson is quoted as often for positive stories they generate themselves as they are quoted in negative stories generated by others. This is a direct result of a new corporate culture developed and nurtured through a campaign of effective and innovative reputation management.
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