The Toy Book chats with Lisa Orman, president and founder of KidStuff PR, about the agency’s 25th anniversary, advice to PR professionals, and how the toy industry has evolved.
Toy Book: Congratulations on KidStuff PR’s 25th anniversary this year! How did the company get its start?
Lisa Orman: I had been a journalist for seven years (Dallas Morning News, Des Moines Register, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Crain’s Chicago Business) and a retail management marketing consultant in Chicago. I was traveling like mad in the consulting job and was newly married at a relatively late age, so my husband and I were ready to start a family. A friend and neighbor in the Chicago area suggested I try the public relations (PR) field because he thought I had the perfect combination of skills for it. He had a PR agency that specialized in real estate.
After two years of working on real estate clients, which I found that I loved, my friend and I decided to pitch Zany Brainy, a national chain of large specialty toy stores. We saw that the company advertised for a general manager and other staff as it entered the Chicago market, so we pitched their marketing vice president on a grand opening project. We got the gig, and the rest—as they say—was history. We worked with the retailer for seven years, and the last six of those years were under my agency name, KidStuff PR.
I had a team of six other moms who were publicists across the country. There wasn’t a term for what I was doing, but it was a “virtual business,” which turned out to be a pioneer for the time. By then, I was pregnant with my daughter (now 24), and my focus and passion were on products and services for families. I realized all new moms go through a massive education process to learn about all the choices to make for their new families.
After seven years, Zany Brainy filed for bankruptcy. That was incredibly hard, as was the financial loss I took. But rather than quit PR or the toy industry, I realized I had met so many people in the industry and learned a tremendous amount about it. I decided to focus on helping build awareness for smaller companies who were creating or manufacturing truly innovative products and services for families. We’re still doing that!
TB: How did KidStuff PR evolve from when it first began?
LO: Zany Brainy was our first and only client for the first seven years of KidStuff PR’s existence. It was a rookie mistake to put all our eggs in one basket, but they were all-consuming. We learned a lot of hard lessons with their demise, but as Kelly Clarkson’s song “Stronger” says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In the past 18 years, our clientele has been heavily comprised of toy and game manufacturers, with a few services or non-toy companies mixed in. Four years ago, I started TechStuff PR to represent technology for families or app-enhanced toys.
TB: In what ways has public relations in the toy industry changed since you founded KidStuff PR?
LO: When I started, we had a $3,000 a month fax bill, and $12,000 a month went to printing and postage to mail press releases to media. AOL was the only email service, and it was unacceptable to email reporters. We didn’t have cell phones, so the long-distance phone bill for my team was more than $6,000 a month. Now, those expenses and practices are virtually gone.
About 14 to 15 years ago, a phenomenon called mom bloggers popped up. We recognized right away they were going to be a force to be reckoned with—and important to our industry—so we started working with them for our clients. Their role and the respect for them changed a lot over the years, and now they are accepted as an important part of PR campaigns and awareness building. Through the years, we’ve educated our clients about how to regard and evaluate bloggers. Most companies want to equate immediate sales from bloggers’ product reviews, but it doesn’t work that way. Clients must have a longer and broader view of their role. We have 300 vetted bloggers on our team, many with specialties, such as home schooling, crafting or DIY, tech for families, or baby toys.
TB: What is the biggest piece of advice you could give to public relations professionals trying to break into the toy industry?
LO: Never burn a bridge (or a person, or client). Be kind and patient—most people really don’t understand public relations, and it’s a constant process of educating. PR is constantly changing. Most changes are for the better, but sometimes you must consider if a change passes the sniff test or meets your moral code.
TB: What are the most effective ways for manufacturers to create buzz about their products and get coverage?
LO: Have great photography and video (b-roll) of the product in use. Brevity is valued. If it takes five minutes to explain it, we have a problem. Have a clear “reason for being”—why is your product better, different, special, fun, educational, or of value? Does it have an ingenious design? Don’t be a copycat. Be prepared to send out a lot of samples—you want your new product in as many people’s hands as will assess and review it! Have a name that’s fun, descriptive, and makes sense. Work with an agency, such as KidStuff PR, that specializes in this niche, has deep relationships with media in this realm from years of experience, and loves the industry!