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The (PR) mouse that roared in six languages.

Feature articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, hundreds of other U.S. publications, plus every European newspaper and magazine of any significance heralded the unveiling of Europe's Magic Kingdom.

While keeping all those journalists happy might have been an impossible job, some rebelled against Disney's controlled approach. Media coverage was mixed. European reaction to the park remains to be tested at the box office.

Disney faced multicultural challenge--still does

From a communication viewpoint, EuroDisney was faced with the overwhelming challenge of how to "spread the Disney word" throughout Europe, where styles differ from country to country, and theme parks have not experienced great success.

In addition, Disney had to fight the perception of having created what some called "a cultural Chernobyl" and the "invasion of a Trojan horse of American culture." Many French intellectuals were enraged by the advent of EuroDisney, while displaced residents and neighboring communities greeted the American corporation's development with mixed sentiments. Some viewed it with outspoken contempt, while others saw it as a way to profit financially. Still others saw it as a source of jobs, since 12,000 "cast members" (Disney-speak for staff, 70 percent of whom would -- eventually -- be French) were to be hired.

In spite of its central location 20 miles outside of Paris, easily accessible by car, train and air from all of Europe, this complex may prove more difficult to sell than forecast. The weather is frequently cold and rainy, and the sagging European economy has caused Europeans to tighten their belts. And, ironically, with the dollar so weak it is often less expensive for a European family of four to take a package tour to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., than to visit EuroDisney. That is, if they have time to make the transatlantic trip and would prefer that to staying closer to home and still experiencing a bit of America.

Creating fantasy from wheat fields

In less than six years, with the help of the French government and preferential financing, the formerly agricultural site was transmogrified into what Disney is famous for -- a "total AMERICAN/DISNEY entertainment experience"--designed to accommodate and please all ages. It is a fantasyland surging out of what used to be miles and miles of sugarbeet and wheat fields.

Disney's first task was to deal with the French government to negotiate what many financial analysts view as a brilliant financing and incentive package. The French government picked up the tab for the infrastructure (new roads, a TGV subway stop within the park, a guaranteed link-up in 1994 with the high-speed railroad system) and provided many other enticements to induce Disney to choose this site over some 200 others.

The negotiations were spearheaded by Robert Fitzpatrick, who joined EuroDisney as president in 1987. Fitzpatrick, an erudite former professor of French, previously headed the California Institute of Arts as well as the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival. Married to a French woman, he was well accepted by the French and was effective in his role as spokesman.

However, in keeping with EuroDisney's commitment that top management would be replaced with French citizens, last September Philippe Bourguignon, senior vice president for real estate development at EuroDisney since 1988, succeeded Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick was named chairman of the EuroDisney board of directors.

EuroDisney also teamed up with corporate sponsors such as Mattel, Coca-Cola, BNP, France Telecom, Renault, Esso, Europcar, Philips, Nestle, Kodak, American Express and others who not only helped finance the project, but also became partners in marketing the theme park.

Lots of press coverage, not all good

EuroDisney was certainly successful in getting as much press coverage as any organization could wish for. But the question remains, was it the kind of coverage it needed? Was it sufficiently tailored to Europeans? And will it ultimately draw the numbers of people and the amount of money the financial managers had projected? An article in the September 26th edition of The Economist questions the original revenue estimates and whether the projected 11 million people will visit the park during its first year of operation. EuroDisney executives feel confident that they will reach their attendance goals and financial projections because many French began flocking to the complex after August when their vacations were over and the summer crowds had cleared out.

In the months immediately following the opening, the highest percentage of EuroDisney visitors were from England and Germany along with a larger-than-anticipated number from Spain and Italy.

The French, who tend to adopt a "wait-and-see" attitude, were not as actively targeted until after school began in September. Then an advertising and public relations campaign specifically designed to attract them was initiated.

The Resorts Division, responsible for the hotels and restaurants not in the park, inaugurated a dining club which offers reservations on a priority basis and discounts in the restaurants and hotels for area residents who want to eat at one of the hotels' varied restaurants or at Festival Disney.

Additionally, the Resorts Division restructured restaurant concepts, menus and prices in response to the reactions they received during the initial months of operation. Visitors are tired after a day at the park and don't necessarily feel like having an elaborate meal. And to attract more guests, the hotels are lowering their room prices substantially during the off-seasons.

Some journalists say relations were heavy handed

Response to the media relations program has been mixed: Some journalists perceived Disney's approach as so heavy-handed that it generated negative rather than positive publicity. "Disney controlled access and made it difficult to schedule interviews with key executives," was heard frequently. The press resent what they describe as having information "spoon-fed," and object to the Disney Company policy against releasing attendance figures and other pertinent data. They complain that phone calls often go unreturned and information about communication and marketing is not available.

Other members of the press corps are miffed that requests for interviews (and frequently questions) must be submitted in writing and that a representative from the EuroDisney communication team is always present at the interviews. Other journalists suggest that they are treated like school children -- which only serves to heighten the friction between the European press and what is perceived to be an American Goliath.

This may explain why more than one publication described the opening of the complex as the "final Yankee nail in Europe's cultural coffin."

Vibeke Rachline, Paris correspondent for the Danish newspaper Dagbladet and vice-chairman of the Association of Foreign Correspondents in Paris, said that many of the European contingent were offended by how "managed" the press was. "European journalists are not used to being told to whom they may and may not speak, and many of my colleagues were amazed by the autocratic manner in which we were treated. Maybe American journalists are more used to this."

Rachline emphasizes that she and many others feel that EuroDisney should have tailored the way they handled the press to a more European style rather than implementing only their own communication philosophy. She also expressed amazement that EuroDisney hosted more than 20 journalists from Denmark alone and comments that it was apparent that some press were more equal than others.

For example, at the opening, some representatives of the more "important" publications had private escorts as facilitators but, as Cathy Nolan of People Magazine said, "This hindered us more than it helped. Our courier was lovely, but she knew absolutely nothing and finally confessed that she has deliberately not been told where the key people and celebrities would be. My colleague and I came to the grand opening never dreaming we would have to fight for interviews. But we did."

On the other hand, Rachline gives Disney high marks for the organization of the opening event and says that many members of the European press were impressed by the Disney mind set. "It's almost like a religion where everyone smiles all the time."

Opening extravaganza a roaring success

EuroDisney spent tens of millions of dollars on one of the most extensive communication blitzes ever staged. It was designed to ensure that all of Europe would know that the Disney dream had arrived. Without a doubt, they were successful in their goal.

Approximately 2,500 print and broadcast journalists, not to mention photographers and camera crews -- all sporting aqua blue mouse ear badges around their necks -- attended the inauguration which began the Friday night before the official Sunday opening. All expenses, frequently including transportation, were absorbed by EuroDisney and their "travel alliance partners."

Impressive press center

The 22,000+ square foot press center at the grand opening would be the envy of anyone in the communication business. More than 150 press releases (in six languages) and a selection of approximately 200 photos were available for immediate distribution.

There were special areas for radio and television interviews, and unlimited free use of computers, fax machines and photofacsimile machines. In other words, EuroDisney made it easy to get a story filed. As a result, the opening received worldwide coverage. More than 150 communication "cast" members (some imported from Orlando) were on duty during the weekend. It's probable that no other event, except a political election, the Olympics, a war -- or possibly the British Royal family -- has received so much exposure in such a concentrated period of time.

Each working journalist was given a press kit containing more than a dozen press releases, numerous photographs and a 79-page press book describing in Disneyese every detail of the facilities in the complex. This manual was the ultimate guide to the park, its attractions, restaurants and fast food outlets as well as the stores within the park.

Another section of the guide book described the resort complex of six hotels (5,200 rooms), the campground, Festival Disney (an entertainment complex with six restaurants), Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and more stores selling souvenirs. At EuroDisney, stores are everywhere. (Remember, merchandising revenues are an essential part of Disney's profit-and-loss statement.)

Biographies of key "cast members" as well as "architectural notes" about each building and its designer were included.

The gala ended at 2 a.m.

The weekend began Friday evening with "Night of Nights," a progressive open house through the hotels and Festival Disney. Entertainment and never-ending buffets, examples of what each hotel and restaurant would be serving, were a huge gastronomic hit. And there was a nonstop supply of Taittenger champagne.

After midnight came the grand finale -- a spectacular display of fireworks over the manufactured lake that is the core of the hotel and resort complex.

Saturday included an "Exclusive Sneak Peek of EuroDisneyland," highlighted by the "Disney Classics Parade." The evening's activities, including Cher and company, began at seven and ended at two a.m.

By Sunday morning and the official opening, most press had filed their stories and, exhausted, were ready to head home.

For many of the press, this was not the first visit to EuroDisney: there was a giant press event on April 12, 1991 -- one year before the opening date -- and a "Backstage Tour" on February 25, 1992.

During the February tour, many of the press were annoyed when they were told that they would not be allowed inside the park, and some left after being shuttled from one photo opportunity to another. "I don't have all day," said one reporter from CNN as she and her crew left after lunch. Had they stayed, they would have been part of the five p.m. "SURPRISE!," which was a walk down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom -- but no cameras allowed, thank you very much, merci beaucoup.

Before the deluge came five years of hard work

In reality, the opening weekend was the culmination of five years of work and tens of thousands of staff hours dealing with the press and generating hundreds of different publications for both internal and external use.

Thousands of articles appeared in the press during the years preceding EuroDisney's opening. They described a broad range of issues: the negotiations with the French government for the site, financing and construction, investor relations in both Europe and the U.S., labor and construction problems, recruitment issues, controversy over dress and conduct codes, to name only a few. Internal publications were created by the hundreds, from annual reports, to marketing materials, recruitment packages, and a magazine, En Coulisse (in French and English), distributed to all cast members describing different areas of EuroDisney and the progress being made within the complex.

But one of EuroDisney's greatest challenges was having to attract and train 12,000 cast members from throughout the E.C. and to train them as Disney ambassadors. All cast members are required to speak French and English -- the level of proficiency depending on the visibility of the job. Every one of them attended Disney University to be introduced to and indoctrinated in the Disney culture and its commitment to hospitality. Some employees balked at the regimentation, but most understood that they were part of a carefully choreographed show.

Some impressions remain

In spite of complaints about the style of communication or lack thereof, the consensus is that this was an almost impossible job and no matter how critical people may be of the Disney style, EuroDisney has been successful in getting the park open on time and transporting the Disney image, as foreign as some may find it, to Europeans who are not used to the always enthusiastic and smiling style of the Disney culture.

The majority of visitors come away with smiles on their faces and most are betting that although EuroDisney will not succeed in homogenizing Europe, it will fascinate visitors, many of whom grew up with Disney characters as part of their childhood mythology, regardless of nationality.

Karen Fawcett is a Paris-based consultant/journalist. She formerly was director of marketing and public affairs for EDIC, the city of Boston's Economic Development Agency.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:EuroDisney's public relations campaign
Author:Fawcett, Karen
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:2316
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