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With a background in politics, PR and network news, Joe Rutledge shook up General Mills' communications tactics.

When the VP-communications joined Big G in 1995, the PR department was "dormant," he says. "They'd write up a press release after the fact."

Immediately, he brought in a "highly motivated, energetic field staff," schooled in the ways of politics. With his team in place, he put into motion an agenda stressing high-profile, quasi-news events.

This plan, which Mr. Rutledge says is a part of Big G's integrated marketing communications program, has given the company dozens of hours of free airtime.

"There's little inherently newsworthy in cake mix," says Mr. Rutledge.

Among the events his department has successfully staged: The Bisquick Pancake Breakfast, a pancake-flipping event among the Republican presidential candidates in Manchester, N.H., during the primaries that Mr. Rutledge says ran for two hours live on C-SPAN; and the Wheaties Olympics box promotion that "yielded more than 1.5 million consumer impressions at the cost of peanuts," he says.

Mr. Rutledge says there have been several cases when retailers substantially hiked orders of a new product in response to a PR event before any advertising had run.

"PR is traditionally at the bottom of the communcations hierarchy," says Mr. Rutledge, 43.

One reason for the PR step-up is that TV advertising isn't always what it's cracked up to be.

"The effectiveness of TV advertising continues to erode, making the value of non-conventional messages in a credible news envirorment all the more important," he says.

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