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Boost Your PR by Doing Something, Not Just Saying Something

Marketers Should Consider the Potential of Annual Events

By Published on . 2

Remember when a political party used to hold a convention to select its candidates for national office? Of course you don't. Today, the candidates are already selected long before the convention starts. Then what is the function of a national convention?

Public relations.

More than 40 million Americans watched Barack Obama's acceptance speech last Thursday night. That's a larger audience than the Olympics drew on any given night and even larger than the season finale of "American Idol." As an indication of the real function of a political convention, consider that some 14,000 journalists traveled to Denver to cover the activities of only 3,000 delegates.

Why did China spend an estimated $44 billion to hold the 2008 Summer Olympics, including an estimated $350 million for the opening ceremonies alone?

PR.

There's enormous PR potential in international events repeated on a regular basis. One has to feel sympathy for Greece, the inventor of the Olympics, the host of the games for more than 1,100 years, and the site in 1896 of the first modern games. The country should have had the foresight to trademark the Olympics name and to hold the games on a regular basis.

Every country, every state, every city, every company should consider the long-term potential of sponsoring events that generate PR.

Lavish spending not a must
They need not be particularly expensive, either. Since 1933, Rockefeller Center in New York has sponsored its annual Christmas tree lighting, which always generates a raft of favorable stories. In 1964, the tree-lighting ceremony became an annual TV special.

Lighting a Christmas tree is a big PR story? Sure, if the tree is enormous and you are the first entity to use the concept to capture the media's attention.

PR and advertising are in a symbiotic relationship. Before you launch an advertising war, you should first engage in a PR battle.

"America's best truck" is the headline of a recent Chevrolet advertisement. That, in itself, is not going to motivate many buyers to switch from a Ford 150 or a Dodge Ram to a Chevy Silverado. But the copy reinforces the headline by documenting Chevy's PR successes:
  • "Car and Driver"'s best pickup, two years running
  • Lowest cost of ownership, based on Vincentric's 2008 model level analysis
  • Best V8 fuel economy, large pickup segment, EPA data
Creating effective advertising is extremely difficult in today's overcommunicated society. It's not just the volume of advertising ($285 billion this year), but the inherent lack of credibility in the message. Nobody is going to believe that Chevrolet is "America's best truck" just because General Motors says so.

PR provides the credibility that makes your advertising much more effective.

PR's targets multiply
But generating PR is no easy job today. The traditional tools of the trade, the press release and the press conference, are useless except for the mega-corporations, the Apples, the IBMs and the P&Gs.

For millions of smaller companies, PR today is grunt work. You have to approach individual media outlets with pitches tailored to their audiences. Advertising is mass communication; PR is one-to-one communication.

There is an alternative. Do something that attracts media attention.

Atlantic City invented the Miss America contest not to select the most beautiful women in America, but to promote Atlantic City as a tourist destination.

Macy's invented the Thanksgiving Day parade not to give thanks for a bountiful harvest, but to promote the Macy's department-store brand. This annual event must have been one reason for the conversion of 62 Marshall Field's stores to the Macy's name after the 2005 acquisition of May Department Stores (owner of Marshall Field's) by Federated Department Stores, now Macy's.

"PR first, advertising second" has been our mantra for a number of years. But PR can often be more effective if it's based on "doing something" rather than just "saying something."

Singapore's vague claim
Singapore, for example, has launched a branding program with a traditional theme, "Uniquely Singapore," an idea that is not only devoid of PR potential, but also one that has little meaning for the average consumer.

Every city, every state, every country is unique. Why is Singapore unique and what could the city-state do to communicate its uniqueness?

It turns out that Singapore is unique. More people (86% of the population) in Singapore live in high-rise apartments than in any other city in the world. "Singapore should market itself as city of the future," was the headline in a local business newspaper, referring to a marketing approach I had suggested to a reporter.

"City of the future"? In an era of energy shortages and $100-a-barrel oil, it would make a lot of sense for people to move from single-family homes to high-rise apartments, a development that is sure to come.

Compare Singapore with the U.S. Here the numbers are reversed: 87% live in single-family homes. Only 2.5% live in apartment houses with five or more units.

Now compare energy costs (I'm using the most recent statistics from the Department of Energy from 2001): The average single-family home in America spent $1,697 a year in energy costs vs. $803 for the average apartment unit.

Move everybody into high-rises and cut energy costs in half.

I don't think that's so outrageous. Yesterday, farms. Today, single-family homes. Tomorrow, high-rise apartments.

City of the future. That's the idea. But the "do something" is different. Singapore could hold an annual global forum on urban architecture that would attract not only some of the world's most famous architects, but also some of the world's most famous media.

Look ahead
Like advertising, PR needs to think long-term. It takes a while for a good PR concept to develop traction. The first modern-day Olympics attracted only 300 athletes from 13 countries. The Beijing Olympics attracted more than 10,000 athletes from 205 countries. (There are 192 members of the United Nations.)

When you launch a PR program, your first thought should be, "What can we do?"

Actions speak louder than words.

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In addition to his monthly AdAge.com column, Al and his daughter and partner Laura Ries host a weekly video report at www.RiesReport.com.
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