Just in Time for the Holidays
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Just in Time for the Holidays

When Access began working with Toysrus.com in February of 2000, the only place to go was up. For months, Access focused on rebuilding relationships with the media and regaining their trust.

Paul Holmes

Toysrus.com was the poster child for all that went wrong with e-commerce during the holiday season of 1999.  From late deliveries and a litany of other order fulfillment problems, it seemed the Company could do no right, especially in the eyes of the ever-watchful media.  As a result of the intense media scrutiny, Toysrus.com stonewalled all media and refused to disclose any information.  When Access Communications began working with Toysrus.com in February of 2000, the only place to go was up.  For months, Access focused on rebuilding relationships with the media and regaining their trust. 
 
Then, in August 2000 in an unanticipated turn of events, Toysrus.com announced an extensive alliance with Amazon.com.  The announcement was made at a press conference by Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com’s CEO and John Eyler, Toys “R” Us’ CEO.  With no involvement from Toysrus.com executives or Access, key media contacts that Access had spent months cultivating were left scrambling to get the story.  Much of the initial resulting coverage was inaccurate. Media speculated that the deal was brokered without Toysrus.com’s involvement and that Toysrus.com’s management team was now out of a job.  Few understood exactly what the alliance entailed. 
 
OBJECTIVES
 
Access’ objective was to promote the idea that the deal was beneficial for Toysrus.com, not just Toys “R” Us.  This was an important goal, as Toysrus.com was considering an initial public offering and needed to communicate to “The Street” that it had a direct path to profitability.  The second objective was to communicate that the new co-branded site would be in tip-top shape in time for the holiday season and offer consumers the best online toy shopping experience.  Finally, Access wanted to convey the fact that Toysrus.com’s management team was as committed as ever.
 
STRATEGY
 
Access’ strategy was to leverage the untold story behind the alliance to generate an exclusive feature story in a top-tier business publication, and to position the alliance as a revolutionary deal with the potential to become the model for the e-tailing industry.
 
RESEARCH
 
Access analyzed the top-tier business publications that comprised our target audience to determine which publications and specifically which reporters would be most receptive to our pitch.  By reading past stories and analyzing early coverage of the alliance, Access compiled and prioritized a list of top five editors to target.
 
AUDIENCE
 
The primary audience that Access directed its efforts towards was the platinum business media.  The media were a vehicle to reach financial analysts, industry influencers and consumers that read and were influenced by these publications.
 
EXECUTION
 
In September of 2000, a month after the alliance was announced, Access began executing its feature pitch campaign.  The Agency booked a series of phone interviews with the charismatic CEO of Toysrus.com, John Barbour, with the target list of top-tier business publications.  The phoners were designed to offer media the Toysrus.com specifics of the alliance and detail the benefits to the business and Toysrus.com customers. Access prepared extensive briefing documents for each interview and spent hours rehearsing the key messages with Barbour prior to the interviews.  The day of the “Phone-A’-Thon,” an Access team member sat next to Barbour and staffed every interview. 
 
Following the interviews, the Agency pitched the top target, Heather Green, e-commerce reporter at BusinessWeek, on writing an exclusive feature that would give readers a behind-the-scenes look at how the Toysrus.com / Amazon.com alliance came to be.  At that point, the story was no longer news, so to interest Green, Access promised her exclusive access to all of the top executives involved and give her an unprecedented level of detail, such as specific information about closed door meetings with key players in the deal. 
 
Green was intrigued by Access’ pitch and agreed to move ahead on the story.  For the next two months, Access worked with Green on a daily basis to coordinate thirteen interviews with seven different executives from Toysrus.com, Toys “R” Us, Amazon.com, Gerard Klauer Mattison (an investment banker to offer a 3rd party perspective) and Softbank, Toysrus.com’s venture capital firm and board member.  The Agency also coordinated two last minute, long-distance photo shoots.  The photo shoot of John Barbour was so last minute that Access had to call a local Banana Republic store in Seattle where the shoot was taking place to order Barbour an outfit to wear.
 
While the logistics of scheduling all of these interviews was itself almost a full-time task, the most crucial part of the process was ensuring that all of the spokespeople were highlighting the same key messages and telling the same story.  To accomplish this task, Access extensively briefed each spokesperson prior to their interview, monitored all of the interviews and then incorporated the feedback from the interview into briefing notes for the next spokesperson.  Access also monitored the interviews to gain insight into the direction that Green was taking and to use the information to follow-up to discuss potential caveats.
 
OBSTACLES & EVALUATION
 
More than halfway into the process, Access faced a roadblock that almost derailed the entire story.  A reporter from the Wall Street Journal, who had also been briefed during the September interviews with Barbour decided to move forward with a similar story that was published two weeks before the BusinessWeek piece was slated to run.  John Barbour, Toysrus.com’s CEO, had conducted a follow-up interview to the September interview without Access’ knowledge.  With limited media experience, the CEO didn’t understand the repercussions of his actions and the detrimental affect it could have on the Business Week story.  To minimize the damage, Access convinced a second, hostile Wall Street Journal reporter to email Access the questions for his story in order to get a better feel for the focus.
 
Once Access knew that the Wall Street Journal story would run, Access took a sample poll of media to determine if and when to break the news to Green.  Reporters indicated that they would feel best if the Agency was honest with them and gave them a heads up.  So, Access spent hours assuring Green that it had not violated the exclusive nature of the arrangement and worked with her to determine how to salvage her story.  Access and Green decided that she could differentiate her story by including a much more granular level of detail than the Journal story offered, so Access arranged additional interviews to supply Green with the necessary information.
 
MEASUREMENT OF SUCCESS
 
The maxim “a picture is worth a thousand words” was never truer than in the case of the BusinessWeek Toysrus.com feature story.  The first two pages of the four page e.biz feature story were a picture of John Barbour and the general manager of Amazon.com’s toy business, Harrison Miller, with arms intertwined holding lovable stuffed animals.  The picture nicely illustrated what the accompanying story laid out in great detail -- that Toysrus.com and Amazon.com would work well together for the benefits of both business’ and the customers next holiday season and beyond.  The Toysrus.com CEO was prominently featured in the picture, while the CFO was featured in the article, laying to rest any doubts that the management team was obsolete with the formation of the alliance.  The story reached BusinessWeek’s almost two million readers who nicely matched Access’ target indirect audience.
 
The key messages, that the alliance was revolutionary, fiscally good for Toysrus.com and would create a great site for consumers, were all played back in Green’s story: “The joint Amazon-Toys ‘R’ Us online toy store may become the name of the game in alliances. Here’s how the deal was done,
“Now both expect to become profitable much sooner than they could individually.”
 
 
The story ran at the beginning of Q4 and kicked off a holiday season filled with positive news coverage that culminated in an unprecedented number of Toysrus.com shoppers and holiday sales three times that of last year’s.
 
Executives from Toysrus.com, Amazon.com, including Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com’s CEO, John Eyler, the CEO of Toys “R” Us and Softbank were pleased with the story.  As a result of the story, Toys “R” Us began a dialogue with BusinessWeek that resulted in a Toys “R” Us cover story later in Q4. 
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