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How Public Relations Firms Can Benefit from the Economic Downturn

I spent last Saturday in Philadelphia catching up with a friend. In a scary sign of the times, I came to the conclusion that it was cheaper to take the train than to drive. A longtime conductor on Amtrak’s Keystone line agreed. He told me that he couldn’t remember the trains ever being so crowded, a sign that people were leaving the car at home and hitting the rails. With the current economic downturn, some companies are reaping rewards from the misery of others. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it can be a public relations opportunity.

To its credit, Amtrak is doing a good job of getting the word out that the train is a convenient and cost-effective alternative to automobile and air travel. Based on anecdotal evidence, the government-owned company, which is often treated callously by lawmakers and as the black sheep of the travel industry, has stepped up its public relations campaign and advertising. Thus far, the moves are paying dividends.

High gas prices are a boon to Amtrak not just because the company sees an increase in travel, but also because it sees a change in attitudes. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, for example, is pushing Amtrak to refurbish rail cars that have been stuck in storage so that the company can add more capacity to meet demand. Durbin and others are leading an effort in Congress to approve more funding for Amtrak, leading to the type of public relations victories that companies such as rail car manufacturers usually have to pay lobbyists for.

Amtrak is not the only travel company benefiting from the economic downturn. Greyhound and Coach USA, two of the country’s largest bus operators, each recently launched new services under separate brands.

BoltBus, owned by Greyhound, travels between New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. MegaBus, Coach USA’s offering, travels between a number of cities in the U.S. and Canada, but recently expanded its Northeast service to compete with BoltBus. Both companies offer cheap tickets, new buses, and free Wi-Fi. Both companies also aim to compete with the infamous “Chinatown buses,” privately owned bus companies with roots in local Chinatowns, offering extremely cheap trips on Northeast routes.

BoltBus and MegaBus are taking advantage of high gas and air travel prices with aggressive public relations and savvy online marketing. Appaloosa Express, a local bus company operated by the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, has done so as well.

“We’re packed on the buses,” Wenona Andrew, transit dispatch supervisor for the Nez Perce Tribe, told Montana’s Fremont Tribune. “We don’t have enough seats. We’re looking at getting more buses.”

An economic downturn is certainly not a positive thing, but it can be a public relations opportunity, provided your company or clients offers consumers more bang for their buck. The media is currently eating up stories about companies big and small that offer consumers salvation from high gas prices, inflation, and paychecks stretched thin. The key to pitching a “money-saving” story is crafting a clear pitch indicating how a product or service offers a cost-effective alternative to a more established entity.

Side-by-side cost comparisons jump out and grab the media’s attention, giving reporters an easy starting point for a money-saving story. The convenience factor also plays into a money-saving pitch because consumers want to know whether a cheaper price means more, less, or the same amount of convenience. Moreover, quality matters. A money-saving pitch should make it clear to consumers, including editors, that cheaper does not mean less quality, just more bang for their buck.

In Fort Worth, Texas, for example, the Fort Worth Cats are drawing more than 5,000 customers per game. The numbers are impressive for a minor league baseball that is not affiliated with any major league team and does not compete directly in a market with the major league Texas Rangers and two more established minor league teams where future major leaguers play. More impressively, customers can get into the stadium for as little as $4–sometimes less than the cost of a gallon of gas–and the team has won three consecutive league championships, which is three more than the Texas Rangers have ever won.

“There’s a lot of competition for the sports dollar, but we feel we offer the most affordable ticket prices in a great atmosphere,” Emil Moffatt, the Cats’ assistant vice president of communications and radio announcer, told NBC 5 in Dallas.

Tying economic savings into other trends is also important, and that’s what Burpee has been doing. The company with a funny name is one the nation’s largest seed and plant producers. Burpee owner George C. Ball, Jr. recently told the New York Times that sales of vegetable and herb seeds and plants are up 40 percent year-over-year due to a combination of rising food prices, health scares related to mass-produced vegetables, more awareness of global warming and a healthier attitude among customers. Another factor driving sales has been something that people have more of because it’s the cheapest thing on the planet: time at home.

“Food prices have spiked because of fuel prices and they redounded to the benefit of the garden,” Ball said. “People are driving less, taking fewer vacations, so there is more time to garden.”

An economic downturn is a painful experience, but there are plenty of companies that prosper during such times. These companies need to take advantage of the public relations opportunity and use it to highlight the benefits of more affordable products and services. Affordable is chic right now and consumers are desperately searching for cheaper alternatives. Strike while the iron is hot.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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