Thou Shalt Learn the Parable of the Corn-Burning Stove
You may recall that I don’t work in full-time PR anymore. My days are anchored at a publishing company in Connecticut where I’m the editor of a mortgage banking magazine. I recently snagged a second gig at this company, as the editor of an alternative energy publication. You can check it out online at www.aer-online.com.
Now, alternative energy has enjoyed a ton of media attention lately. But surprisingly, there are considerable pockets within that industry that escaped notice. For example: corn-burning stoves.
Corn-burning stoves? Did you know that there are stoves on the market that burn corn cobs? Instead of paying for heating oil or electric, you can just throw a few corn cobs in the stove and your house will be roasty-toasty.
This is not a new technology. In fact, it’s been around for years. But I only learned of it when I took over the editorial reins of the alternative energy magazine. And I felt rather ignorant, not knowing that corn-burning stoves existed.
So I got in touch with my pal Justin, who grew up on a farm in the middle of Indiana corn country. Justin could easily be a poster child for agriculture: he was involved in Future Farmers of America and 4-H during his youth and he currently lives in a small town surrounded by corn farms. I asked him if he was aware of corn-burning stoves. He said that he never heard of them. In fact, he was genuinely surprised to learn that corn could be used in such a manner.
The PR point to this anecdote is anything but corny: what happens if your company or client has a breakthrough technology and no one hears about it? In this case, the corn-burning stove manufacturers seem to have missed two key sectors: the corn producers (Justin’s farming family and, I assume, his corn-growing neighbors) and those who need to save money on their winter heating bills (I live in Connecticut and use electric heat at my house, so I am assured of a monthly anxiety attack each winter when the utility bill arrives).
Many people approach business in general (and PR in particular) with a “Field of Dreams” mentality: if you build it, they will come. That may work for Kevin Costner in a movie, but it doesn’t work in real life.
And this goes back to a point I’ve belabored endlessly: PR is not a standalone function. It is part of the overall sales and marketing strategy, which in turn is a crucial element of the corporate operations. By not promoting products or services aggressively and intelligently, the PR professional fails at his mission.
Let’s use the corn-burning stove manufacturers as an example. If I were doing PR for this type of industry, there would be a two-pronged approach. The first is to reach the potential customers for this type of energy solution: the green-aware consumers, the home builders, the heating contractors, and business reporters who love quirky stories involving vegetables (trust me, they’re out there).
The second approach would be to reach the potential suppliers – after all, the corn has to come from somewhere. City slickers don’t realize that there’s a substantial orbit of agricultural industry trade media, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a high percentage of corn farmers didn’t realize their harvest could be used for home heating purposes.
Now you might wonder why I should go after the corn suppliers – isn’t that the function of the sales staff? The answer is simple and (to many PR people) radical. It is because PR is about building sales and sales leads. If PR outreach can get a company’s phone ringing and generate new business contacts, the PR professional has gone well beyond that extra mile and everyone benefits.
And to think – all of this came about because I didn’t know you could get a warm house by throwing a corn cob in a stove. Go figure!
This illustrates a bigger point in the "Greenscam", ie that the technologies being espoused as "greener than thou" are often not the best, just have the best funded PR/Lobbyists/whatever.
For example, there is emerging evidence that some biofuel plays are net Carbon Footprint (CF) neutral (if not negative), and by far the most expensive auto-CF is the energy used in making a car, not the relatively small amount saved in having slightly higher fuel efficiency (ie the greenest car strategy is buy one that is second hand).