Alumna Puts Sizzle in Public Affairs Campaign with Bacon Vending Machine

Public Affairs Professional and ComArtSci Alumna Emily Bir brought 21st century sizzle to the adage “the medium is the message” in a recent campaign for the pork industry.

In late 2018, Bir and the Ohio Pork Council supplied ready-to-eat bacon snacks via a strategically placed vending machine at The Ohio State University. For a dollar, hungry students and staff could grab high-protein snacks during finals week, with all proceeds benefitting the school’s meat science program.

The story of dispensing the trendy breakfast staple as a grab-and-go snack went viral—becoming the main course of thousands of articles, tweets and shares. In the week the machine was in use, Bir and the Ohio Pork Council charted more than 1,100 news stories and more than 6,470 social mentions. The media outlets were primarily regional, but wire services ensured the story got national traction.

“We were always looking at unique ways to promote pork farmers and their product,” said Bir, who worked as the council’s director of communication. “We were talking about bacon food trucks one day, and it inspired me to go out and find a bacon vending machine.”

Bir and her coworkers searched online and found a used vending machine through Facebook Marketplace. After a few phone calls, Bir and her team secured donations of pre-cooked bacon strips and bags of bacon bits from notable companies like Smithfield, Hormel and Sugardale.

“We wrapped the machine with an attractive design and filled it with boxes and packages of bacon,” she said. “In the end, we sold about 450 bacon products at $1 each and donated everything back to OSU.”

Down on the farm

Bir’s route to the world of public relations and communications consulting started when she decided to attend MSU. Both her mother and father were Spartan alumni who had also worked at the university. Her father, Pat LeBlanc, worked as a tenured professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, before returning to his hometown to lead his father’s business.

Her parents’ ties and an upbringing in Greater Lansing made MSU a natural fit for Bir. After graduating from Lansing Catholic High School, she applied for MSU and was accepted to play for the tennis team. Excelling both on and off the court, Bir majored in communication and graduated in under four years with her bachelor’s in 2013.

An internship with the State House of Representatives during sophomore year set Bir down her career path, she said. After finishing her degree, she worked briefly for the House. She got married and moved out east, then ventured back to Ohio—all the time working various posts in public affairs. One of those posts included the Ohio Pork Council.

“I had never worked in or around agriculture,” said Bir. “But the work was interesting and had lots of opportunities for fun campaigns—like the vending machine.”

In late April, Bir’s work with the Ohio Pork Council made more headlines when the bacon vending machine campaign received top honors in the Best New and Unusual Tactic category at the 2019 American Association of Political Consultants Pollie Award Conference. The Pollie Awards are considered the most prized and sought-after awards in the political communications and public affairs industries.

“It really was a fun campaign with a quick turnaround,” said Bir. “We had lots of media interviews and great conversations. Talks are in progress to leverage the machine and publicity.”

Minding the mindset

Bir recently resettled in Grand Haven, Michigan, to be closer to her family and to set up shop as a public affairs consultant. She continues to work with the Ohio Pork Council as a communications consultant, and with other clients through a partnerships with Templar Baker Group out of Lansing.

“I like the challenge of working in communications and media relations,” said Bir. “There is always a new issue that’s hitting the news. It’s interesting. You can be talking about something one day, and something totally different the next.”

While her husband, Mike, hails from Ohio, Bir says he has fully adapted to the Spartan lifestyle and is a fan of MSU sports. Part of that, she said, is due to her passion for a university that encouraged her to approach her work with a creative mindset.

“That sense of innovation has been very helpful working with PR clients who want to find a way to make their message relevant across the country,” she said. “I’m excited to be back in Michigan and to work with clients to come up with crazy innovative ideas that deliver results.”

By Ann Kammerer