Have a crazy idea? Go for it!

photo courtesy of The Forks

photo courtesy of The Forks

Have you ever had an idea for a public relations campaign where everyone around you was saying: “You’re nuts, it won’t work”? Well, your crazy idea might just turn out to be a pivotal moment for your company, product, or brand.

Recently over coffee, I had the pleasure of speaking with my friend Clare MacKay, Vice President of Communications and Marketing for The Forks North Portage, who shared with me her crazy idea for a public relations campaign that, as she says, “changed people’s perception of winter in Winnipeg”.

Many people consider The Forks to be a great summer destination because of  the riverwalk, shops, restaurants, and attractions. How do you make this hip summer place the hot spot to visit in the dead cold of winter? Even more challenging, how do you do it on a shoestring budget?

Answer: Get listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

photo courtesy of The Forks

photo courtesy of The Forks

One day, it dawned on Clare that they could apply to have The Forks river skating trail declared the longest ice skating trail in the world. She recognized that this would be an effective PR tool to “maximize exposure of the trail while spending very little money”. In fact, the total cost to get the trail assessed and approved was $6000.

Normally, the Guinness World Record process, from start to finish, can take several months to a year. With hard work, Clare and her team were able to fast track it so they could have a media event surrounding the measurement of the trail and then three weeks later hold a press conference surrounding the certification of the record in early 2008.

The city of Ottawa, a long-time rival claiming to have the largest ice skating trail, soon got wind of this certification resulting in national exposure by many media outlets. In addition to local media, the campaign has been featured in the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Sun, Maclean’s, Canadian Living, Air Canada’s EnRoute, and WestJet’s Up!.

Every winter since 2008, The Forks continues to get media attention due to the rivalry with Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. The total earned media from all this is estimated at $1.1 million. The Forks is now a cool place to go in the winter, with many people taking pride in being able to say they skated the whole 8.54 km trail. In 2012, 45,000 pairs of skates were rented at The Forks.

Not bad for a crazy idea and a small budget.

As a soon-to-graduate PR student, I asked Clare for her top tips in approaching campaigns. These are her recommendations:

  1. Try everything once.
  2. Plan, but be flexible and adaptable to changes.
  3. Learn how to pitch to the sponsors who can help provide funding.
  4. Use PR every step of the way during a campaign. Don’t wait until the end to celebrate and promote what you achieve.
  5. The idea doesn’t have to be big to be good.

After listening to her story, I have one of my own to add: Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge and inspiring me, Clare.


Don’t forget the “R” in the RACE to develop your campaign

I think it’s human nature to want to get to where you’re going in a hurry, especially if you are excited about the end result. This couldn’t be more evident the other day in class when, in groups, we were discussing our public relations campaign assignment. In our enthusiasm for the project, we naturally jumped to discussing ideas for tactics in how we would carry out the campaign.

Whoa! Back up the bus.

In our race to get to the finish line (or at least to the good stuff), we forgot the most important first step in the RACE formula: RESEARCH. Of course it’s fun to start thinking of tactics because that’s where your creativity can shine, but jumping to tactics is like a doctor prescribing medication without examining the patient first. If you want your campaign to be successful, you need to understand the situation. In order to do that, you need to start with research.

Research will provide insight to what’s happening at that particular point in time: what people think and feel about the issue, what challenges you face, and what else is happening in the environment that may affect your campaign. Research will help you identify your audience, illuminate your strengths and weaknesses, and highlight your opportunities and threats. By examining what was done in the past, you can determine what wasn’t successful and make improvements. Research guides the development of your objectives, strategies, and tactics. Essentially, research provides the foundation for everything that comes after. It may be time consuming and not very exciting (unless you are a research/analytical type of person), but research is crucial to your campaign’s success.

photo: Forbes.com

photo: Forbes.com

I’m sure there are times when you see a campaign and wonder: “What were they thinking?” Well, a lot of people were doing just that when American Apparel launched their Hurricane Sandy Sale in 2012. The sale was targeted by email to customers in the affected states notifying them of the event with the caption: “In case you’re bored during the storm.” Bored? Really? It didn’t take long for the backlash to start with people tweeting about the company’s insensitivity and swearing to boycott the stores. The company failed to take a pulse on public opinion before coming up with their promotion. This is just one example of when failing to do research can not only hinder your campaign, but also harm your reputation.

A poorly planned campaign can affect a company under normal, everyday circumstances. What happens when a company is in the midst of a public relations crisis with their reputation already under fire? Getting it right has never been more important.


photo: Forbes.com

In 2010 British Petroleum (BP) was under fire after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. How they handled the situation is a defining ¬†example of what not to do. It all started with CEO Tony Hayward’s regrettable statement to the press where he makes the tragedy all about him: “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”[i] Apparently, this is not his only public gaffe.

In the 4 months following the spill, the company spent over $93 million dollars in local and national TV, radio, and newspaper advertising. This amount is 3 times the budget spent during the same time period the previous year. The company claimed the advertising was to inform the public about the clean-up efforts; however many critics viewed the ads simply as a means for the company to polish its image. Over $93 million spent on ads while affected business owners, fisherman, and others struggled for their livelihood due to the damage caused by the spill. I’m sure the ads were a great comfort to them. The money could have been better spent on the clean-up effort and supporting those affected.

Among the numerous mistakes the company made, they chose the wrong person to be their spokesperson and they failed to find out what the public needed from them in order to regain trust. Research could have helped prevent the mistakes they made. Of course, this is simply looking at the issue from the perspective of the public relations campaign at that particular point in time. The company, as later uncovered, was plagued with many other ethical issues as well. That topic would require its own blog post.

As tempting as it may be to jump to the tactics, ensure the necessary research is done first to get your campaign off to a good start.