Jon Pritchett's Dream of Reviving AstroTurf Became a PR Nightmare
In the fall of 2007, New Jersey state health officials made a troubling discovery: A playing field at a Newark park contained extremely high levels of lead. They assumed the contamination was coming from the abandoned scrap-metal yard next door. But the problem turned out to be deep in the fibers of the artificial turf covering the field. When the news broke the following spring, it set off a nationwide scare, and for tiny GeneralSports Venue, a public-relations nightmare.
The company, a five-year-old artificial-turf supplier with 42 employees, wasn't at fault. But the brand name it had just adopted was. GeneralSports had acquired an exclusive license on the name AstroTurf -- the same one used by the now-defunct company that had manufactured the Newark field almost a decade earlier -- and had spent millions of dollars to resurrect it. But now that familiar name was at the center of fears about the safety of playing fields, and GSV's big investment was suddenly at risk. "I'm a parent, and if you think about children, turf, and lead, it's pretty scary," says Jon Pritchett, the company's co-founder and CEO. "Not a whole lot more needs to be said."
Just how much more to say was, in fact, the critical question. On the one hand, it's rarely advisable for a company to keep quiet in a crisis. But no one was claiming that GSV was responsible for products made long ago by another company. So, anything it said risked drawing even more negative attention. Yet the AstroTurf name, which to many is synonymous with all brands of artificial turf, was being invoked in every story about the lead scare, often erroneously. Could GSV really stay silent while AstroTurf was trashed?
The granddaddy of fake grass was invented by Monsanto and was a household name from the moment it was rolled out in the Houston Astrodome, in 1966. The brilliant-green carpet became the surface of choice for America's new climate-controlled domed stadiums. But by the 1990s, AstroTurf started to fade. Athletes complained of injuries suffered on the abrasive, unforgiving nylon, and a softer polyethylene turf marketed by rival brand FieldTurf became the industry standard. AstroTurf changed hands twice, and in 2004, its owner filed for bankruptcy.
At the time, GSV was a bit player in the artificial-turf business. The company was formed when Pritchett, a sports marketing executive who worked in the University of South Carolina's athletic department while getting his M.B.A., hooked up with Michigan sports and entertainment entrepreneur Andy Appleby. With a business plan based on consolidating a fragmented but growing market, they raised $3 million from investors, including a New Jersey telecom executive named Michael Dennis.
But the company's brand struggled to gain traction against FieldTurf. In 2006, sensing that AstroTurf's worldwide name recognition could vault it into contention, GSV negotiated a license lasting 50 years with the brand's owner, Textile Management Associates, which continued to handle manufacturing.
Pritchett quickly set about bringing AstroTurf back, starting with an announcement in December 2006 at the ESPN Zone restaurant in New York City's Times Square. GSV rebranded its existing product line and hired a national sales force. An ad campaign emphasized the storied brand's place in sports history and its new, cushier, player-friendly surface. Pritchett even hired football great Archie Manning, father of NFL stars Peyton and Eli, to be AstroTurf's brand ambassador. By the end of 2007, sales were up 67 percent, to $25 million, and were projected to hit $40 million in 2008. With 10 percent of the market, up from less than 2 percent in 2006, AstroTurf now trailed only FieldTurf.
Then, during a March 12 staff conference call, Pritchett was notified about the lead discovery in Newark. GSV believed its current products were safe, but it couldn't vouch for AstroTurf installed by others years earlier. GSV began gathering information from industry experts as well as its own suppliers, trying to understand the depth of the problem.
But AstroTurf's troubles grew. On April 14, the New Jersey state health department announced it had tested 12 more artificial-turf fields for lead and found two with levels eight to 10 times what it considered safe. As in Newark, both were nylon fields, and both were AstroTurf. The state's top epidemiologists called for a federal investigation into the safety of artificial turf.
Media across the country picked up the story of New Jersey's toxic turf, with television footage showing workers wearing protective green suits as they tore up the field in Newark. Elsewhere, fields were padlocked, events were canceled, and school board hearings were held. "Our thinking was this could last long enough that it could do a lot of damage," says Pritchett.
GSV spent the next seven days in near-constant deliberations. At the table were Pritchett's management team and legal counsel, AstroTurf's manufacturer, and GSV's PR firm. Initially GSV had let the Synthetic Turf Council, the industry's trade association, respond publicly. But Pritchett knew that the council couldn't be expected to offer a vigorous defense of a single member's brand. For that, the company would have to step out on its own.
Yet doing so risked heightening the unwanted scrutiny on AstroTurf and making the brand an even bigger lightning rod. GSV wasn't responsible and could be forgiven for keeping quiet, it was pointed out. And though some GSV executives wanted to come out swinging, Michael Dennis argued for taking the high road. "We all took it personally," says sales and marketing manager Philip Primato. "We had put so much into building this brand back that we were not going to let something like this stop us."
The Decision Pritchett opted for going on the offensive. GSV spent the next 10 days planning a major press conference for May 5, at which four company-retained scientists would present their findings. The venue, the New York Public Library for Science, Industry and Business, was chosen to reinforce the scientists' message. The team worked hard to distill the data to a form the public could easily absorb. No one disputed the source of the lead: the pigment that gives artificial turf its green-grass color and that the industry has been trying to eliminate. But GSV's panel argued that, even in older turf, the lead compound was encapsulated before being extruded into the fibers. So it would be impossible for lead to leach from an AstroTurf-covered field. Even if those fibers were somehow ingested, the amount of lead they contained was much too small to be dangerous. A 100-pound child would have to eat 23 pounds of AstroTurf before it would pose a health hazard, they said.
The press conference attracted reporters from more than two dozen media outlets, including USA Today. That night, sitting with Pritchett on the patio of Dennis's home in Chester, New Jersey, Primato pulled up the newspaper's website on his laptop. The front page of the sports section featured a story about the press conference and a photo showing the 23 pounds of AstroTurf GSV had dumped in front of the podium for effect. For at least a moment, the company had seized control of the spotlight.
In the following days, press reports were less alarmist. Pritchett says he believes GSV's willingness to confront the issue head on defused the PR fallout. And when the final results from the state's tests on the three fields with high lead levels came out, in early June, the findings seemed to support GSV's position, showing an even smaller threat of lead exposure than GSV's estimates.
GSV was even chosen to replace the field in Newark that had started it all, after Dennis lobbied for the contract. "Our reputation was on the line," says Dennis, now the company's majority shareholder. "I was not going to let it be replaced with a competitive product." Still, the fight isn't over. In June, the Centers for Disease Control issued a health advisory, urging caution before letting children play on artificial turf. Earlier, the Consumer Product Safety Commission began a separate investigation.
Pritchett maintains that by taking the initiative in the lead scare, GSV positioned itself as more than just the caretaker of an aging brand. "It tested us," he says. "I wouldn't want to do it again, but I do think it helped us."
The Experts Weigh In
Change the name
In many cases, you want to shut up and not say anything. But GSV took the right action. It needed to put its case forward and protect its investment. Unfortunately, scientific verification isn't believed by a lot of people. Going forward, if Pritchett and his team haven't considered changing the name of AstroTurf, they're crazy. They need it to be AstroTurf Pure, AstroTurf Prime, AstroTurf whatever. And they need to use Archie Manning. If they can't get him, get a soccer mom, somebody who has a vested interest. They need a spokesperson -- besides one of their suits.
Brace for a long fight
When I was spokeswoman for Odwalla, which suffered an E. coli outbreak in 1996, our humility went a long way to helping sustain the brand through a really tough situation. I'm not sure New York City was the best venue for a press conference. I would have done it on a field, maybe in New Jersey. But that was just one step in the process. Every time something comes up in the future, even if it's a good thing, this crisis is going to be brought up in every story. It will linger for a long time, and you just have to gird yourself for that and incorporate that into your strategy.
Sydney Fisher Bernier
Half Moon Bay, California
Use the Web
GSV was not as proactive in using Internet-based communications tools as it could have been. Steps as simple as making its press release friendlier for Web-based media or using search-engine marketing to promote its side of the story would have gone a long way toward defusing the controversy. GSV blew hard on it early with some traditional methods, but in today's environment, wildfires spread on the Internet. Businesses like GSV could learn from the approaches political candidates are taking to fight the spread of misinformation.