Case Study: PR Execs Crunch Numbers and Conduct Research To Help Alleviate Financial Burden of College Education


Company: AllianceBernstein Investments Agency: Tiller, LLC Timeframe: 2006 - present Although a college education may be a necessity in today's competitive job market, it is virtually unaffordable for many families across the country. As college tuition increases every year, families very often find themselves unable to meet the financial burden due to a poor savings plan. What often results is a mountain of debt that parents pass on to their children, who in turn find themselves living paycheck to paycheck and delaying major life goals, such as buying a home or having children. To combat this problem of families not properly preparing for the high costs of a college education, and to prevent the resulting debt, AllianceBernstein Investments embarked on a program that would help parents plan, save and invest better for their children's college educations. Having worked previously with Tiller, LLC, (a New York-based marketing communications firm) on an assets allocation initiative called "The Right Mix," AllianceBernstein executives quickly enlisted the agency's support for their new "College Savings Crunch" program. "After we had done the asset allocation program, [we thought], 'What can you do to help us raise our profile?' It really started internally to get our own salespeople to start talking about this great product again, and to start talking to our financial advisers about the importance of saving for college," says Stephanie Giaramita, assistant VP of media relations for AllianceBernstein Investments. Her fellow PR exec and partner on the "College Savings Crunch" program confirmed the fluidity of the relationship, as well as the cause it stood to benefit. "AllianceBernstein is one of the premier managers of the 529 plan [a tax-advantaged investment vehicle designed to encourage saving for the future higher education expenses]," says Rob Densen, president of Tiller, LLC. "And, saving for college is almost like a public policy issue now." Honing Goals To Enable Measurable Results Early on, the team homed in on three main objectives for the initiative: Educate and motivate families to plan and save effectively for their children's college ?education; Provide families with information, tools and resources to help them meet their financial goals for paying for college; and, Position AllianceBernstein as a thought leader and investor advocate while elevating awareness of the company and its tax-advantaged 529 college savings plan, the CollegeBoundfund. Strategizing was key in the initial stage of the campaign, which began in 2006 and is ongoing. The team designed public opinion polls to better understand the cause and effects of families' college savings shortfalls. The research findings would become the basis of media and marketing communications materials. Also important was drawing attention to the issue through widespread media coverage of the research, and leveraging it to educate the public to meet their college savings goals. As a follow-up to the initial research, AllianceBernstein retained the services of market research company Matthew Greenwald & Associates to survey more than 1,500 college graduates, ages 21 to 35, both with and without college debt, to understand their post-college lives. The results were eye-opening, revealing the extent that college debt can have on a young adult's life. According to the survey: 42% of those with college debt said that the phrase "living paycheck to paycheck" described them very well; 34% had sold personal possessions to make ends meet; 44% have delayed buying a house; 28% have delayed having a children; and, 32% had move back in with a parent or guardian or live at home longer than expected. It was also discovered that college debt could also harm a college graduate's ability to pay for their own children's education as well as save for retirement. These findings became the basis of a story in BusinessWeek, which helped elevate the profile of this program. "Tiller helped us pre-negotiate with BusinessWeek," says Giaramita. "We did an exclusive with them [during the first phase of the program, which was May 2006]." The timing was hardly coincidental. "We timed it to the Memorial Day weekend for a number of reasons," recalls Densen. "One, it's a large news hole, so the press is looking for copy. But it's also kind of a start of the high school graduation season, so saving for college is now on people's minds." In addition to BusinessWeek, Carolyn Bigda, a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune who covers young people in their twenties and thirties, was also approached for media coverage. "We gave her a leg up as well," says Densen. "Carolyn's story really had a running head start coverage-wise." Other media outlets that also covered the initiative's research on the long-term impact of college debt during the first phase of the College Savings Crunch campaign were the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and, later in the fall of 2006, the Associated Press, which ran an exclusive on the realities and falsehoods of college financing. Crunching Numbers In the summer of 2006, the team conducted a bilateral study consisting of 1,538 parents of children under age 18, as well as 200 financial aid administrators. The aim was to illuminate the realities of paying for a college education and pinpoint the misconceptions and mistakes that derail families from college savings plans. What the team found was that even though most parents understand the high costs of college, they still remain ill-prepared to meet these costs. The average parents of college- bound students think that having $12,000 saved for their children's education is enough, when in truth, that amount covers less than the current cost of one year at a public college. This survey also revealed other significant findings: 87% of parents are counting on their children receiving financial aid, such as scholarships and grant money, thus creating a false sense of ?security; Nearly three-fourths of parents think their children are likely to have "special or unique" talents that merit scholarships; Many parents aren't making college savings a priority as they opt to spend more on dining out, vacations and electronics each year rather than saving for college costs; and, The majority of parents expect their children to go into debt, thinking that it's just part of life. "What we wanted to do was highlight what parents thought how financial aid would be available. A lot of them think it's free money, and they don't realize they have to pay it back," explains Giaramita. "We had this he says/she says dynamic with what the parents believed and what the university financial aid administrators who put together this package say the real impact is. So, it was differentiating and unique. We had kind of the myths and realities, which garnered huge press coverage." To help further the program, a Web site, http://www.collegesavingscrunch.com, was created to educate consumers about the importance of saving for college, and to teach them about the benefits that can be derived from working with a financial adviser and using a 529 plan. For the next part of the campaign, press kits containing the aforementioned research findings, screen shots from the initiative's Web site and pithy quotes from AllianceBernstein spokespeople were sent to key media targets, which included personal finance, higher education and parenting reporters. AllianceBernstein also parlayed the research to create a number of tools and resources, which included consumer brochures, a college saving guide and a slide-rule calculator that compares the monthly cost of paying off a student loan versus how much those payments could grow to if they were invested instead. Gauging The Return On Investment The ROI more than fulfilled the program's chief objectives. Media coverage citing AllianceBernstein's research, underscoring the importance of saving for college, appeared in publications and broadcast outlets that had a combined circulation/viewership of more than 120 million. Also, consumers have ordered more than 20,000 educational brochures, and many families have visited the Web site, taking advantage of its resources. The college debt slide rule created for the campaign was cited by syndicated columnist Chuck Jaffe as one of the investment industry's best educational tools. In addition to informing investors and advisers, the College Savings Crunch initiative built brand recognition of AllianceBernstein, positioning the firm as one that is working to help families meet their financial goals. For both Giaramita and Densen, presenting the research in a unique and fresh way was a demanding task but one they were able to meet with flying colors. "It's a really crowded area. A lot of parents are looking at college planning," says Densen. "To come up with a research plan that's so differentiated--that was the primary challenge. And it was the quality of the research that piqued media interest. It just happened that the timing of what is going on in the news, with lots of people focusing on this issue, was propitious." "That's part of the thrilling thing about doing campaigns like this, because you feel like you are contributing to the public discourse," he continues. "That's something that as a PR practitioner, you feel really good about." PRN CONTACTS: Stephanie Giaramita, stephanie.giaramita@alliancebernstein.com; Rob Densen, rdensen@tillerllc.com Do Your Research--and Do it Well For Rob Densen, whose company, Tiller, LLC, executed the marketing and communications strategy for AllianceBernstein's College Savings Crunch program, the lessons learned were simple but potent. "The bar is really high to do really smart, original research. I think AllianceBernstein did that. No one had ever before taken a long-term look on the impact of college debt on people's lives. People look at what the college deficit was but no one looked outward, such as how does it impact your life and life choices. No one had ever looked at it [extensively like this]. This was the first piece of research that did that, and one of the reasons that we [were so successful] with the press was because [the program used] smart, original research.

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