When staging public events, the Smithsonian reaches for the moon.
Too often, public relations professionals overlook the fact that they can create a successful special event around a less glitzy occasion. All it takes is a bit of imagination, a lot of hard work, and a well-organized, well-fortified and creative staff. With some planning, just about any event can become a public "happening," garnering press attention and public goodwill along the way.
At the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, we create at least one special public event each year. In years past, these have ranged from celebrating the 200th anniversary of flight and the 75th anniversary of the Wright brothers to the reappearance of Halley's Comet.
The events surrounding the 20th anniversary of the first landing on the moon, held July 20, 1989, were the most complex ever staged at the Air and Space Museum and encompassed the full range of planning operations. For this reason, the Apollo 11 anniversary provides an excellent example of what is necessary to stage a successful event. Regardless of its focus or complexity, the skills and planning necessary for an event to work well remain the same.
Celebrating the Apollo 11
The centerpiece of the Apollo anniversary was an outdoor public ceremony involving US President George Bush, Vice President Quayle, the astronaut crew of Apollo 11, high-ranking officials from the Smithsonian and NASA, and scores of VIPs. During that same week, we also coordinated the presentation of a one-man play about the Apollo era; a VIP reception for 1,500 guests (including a few dozen former astronauts); an appearance by artist (and space enthusiast) Peter Max, who launched a new space poster created for the anniversary, and a late night public Lunar Landing Party.
Press coverage of these events was intense; more than 75 camera crews from around the world and scores of reporters and radio broadcasters were on hand for the outdoor ceremony alone. The three major US networks, as well as Cable News Network, broadcast back-to-back live interviews with the Apollo 11 astronauts - all within a 20-minute time frame on the morning of the anniversary.
The Apollo celebration capped off more than 1-1/2 years of meetings and walk-throughs with the White-House, NASA and most of the US major science and space associations. But staging public events of this magnitude involves more than just the ability to hold good meetings and schedule walk-throughs.
Involve Appropriate Staff
From the Start
Planning for the Apollo 11 anniversary began about 18 months in advance with a series of meetings held at first about every eight weeks. Later, we met nearly every day as changes and additions to the program were made and refined, and walk-throughs with the White House and US Secret Service were scheduled. The initial planning meetings brought together all museum departments that would have a role to play: Space History, Art, Education, Development and Interpretive Programs. Early planning also involved negotiations with officials at NASA, whose primary interest - for maximum public relations impact - was in assisting with the daytime public ceremony. (It was NASA that arranged the involvement of the Apollo 11 astronauts.)
Each meeting was followed by an action item memo, which became a critical planning document in itself. The memo allowed us to see at a glance what had been accomplished and what still needed to be resolved. For an event with a variety of components and many staff members working on it, the importance of this central planning document cannot be overemphasized. The action memo for the Apollo anniversary tracked, for example, if corporate sponsors were on board, whether films for a public film series could be located, and what was the status of updating our existing Apollo 11 exhibits.
Regularly scheduled meetings also give appropriate staff members a sense of being involved and a firm understanding of your organization's goals: In this case, to recognize an important historical occasion, to attract international media attention and to offer visitors and locals alike an exciting special event.
Ideas Generate Ideas
Brainstorming sessions should be an integral part of the programming process. In meetings actually billed for this purpose, I encourage my staff to come up with any and all ideas, regardless of how zany they might seem. Often the crazier ideas turn out to be not only the most workable, but also the most attractive for both public participation and press coverage. We have successfully sponsored costume parties, photo contests, treasure hunts, frisbee festivals, and even hired a robot band to make our events fun for the public and visually attractive to the media.
During the Fantastic Festival of Flight, held to commemorate the 200th anniversary of flight, we used space both inside the museum as well as outdoors on the National Mall. Because the festival celebrated flight in all its forms, we hired performers who defied gravity - stiltwalkers, jugglers and a local balloonist who made a tethered flight on the Mall. Of course, his balloon wasn't just any balloon, but a replica of the first manned balloon, the Montgolfier. A "Come as your Favorite Fantasy of Flight" costume party grabbed the attention of local residents, who came dressed as, among other things, the flying nun and Superman.
Costume parties have worked successfully for us on other occasions as well. When the museum launched a new planetarium show that explored the possibility of life on other planets, we staged a Cosmic Costume Contest. The contest offered "astronomical" prizes in three categories: alien, heavenly body (the interpretations of that were interesting!) and sky watcher. All those who came dressed in costume received two free tickets to the new planetarium show. The result was a well covered media event coupled with good exposure for the new planetarium presentation. And it was a lot of fun. Everyone was a winner.
Tap into Community Support
The reappearance of Comet Halley a few years ago gave us the impetus for a Once-in-a-Lifetime Party. (The title capitalized on the fact that Halley's Comet comes only once every 85 or so years.) Some special activities included a telescope fair, tours through galleries and an address by astronomer Carl Sagan.
Without the support of museum volunteers, area clubs and local chapters of national organizations, these activities would not have been possible. Club members and volunteers can set up demonstration booths, give tours, answer questions and provide a host of other support services. In fact, most of our events make use of community resources - from the Academy of Model Aeronautics to the National Space Club to organizations that find employment for the retarded (the Northern Virginia Mental Health Association assists with stuffing envelopes and packages for distribution).
But don't think of these community resources as helpful only for offices operating on a shoestring budget. Besides providing demonstrations and support, they can also publicize your event in their newsletter and club bulletins, reaching exactly the audience you want. It's a resource worth tapping.
Create a Special Event within
Your Special Event
When planning an event, remember that you may be competing with other similar activities staged by area universities or community organizations. Although each special event usually has a few standard elements - a lecture, film series or tour - try to incorporate one different activity as a promotional peg.
During the late-night Lunar Landing Party, held during the Apollo 11 anniversary, we worked with network news to obtain actual footage of the landing on the moon as it appeared on television 20 years ago. We replayed that coverage, complete with commentary, on closed circuit monitors around the building - in real time. In this way, at 10:56 pm, visitors to the museum in 1989 could see Neil Armstrong take that first step onto the lunar surface, just as they did 20 years ago.
This proved very appealing to local and network television, for broadcasters were able to spin off a variety of stories around it: It was a happening - timed, of course, to hit the 11 pm news slot; it provided a perfect site for an informal survey on US support for the space program, and it brought to light an entire generation of young adults who were born after the moonwalk and for whom space travel was a commonplace occurrence. By being able to suggest a number of angles as possible feature ideas, we increased our chances of coverage.
What we had not counted on was the emotional intensity of the moment. When Neil Armstrong stepped from the Eagle onto the surface of the moon, and the monitors once again announced his "one giant leap for mankind," the entire museum - some 3,000 visitors - sent up a rousing cheer.
Other Lunar Landing Party activities included special guided tours through galleries that contained artifacts related to Apollo 11, telescope viewing of the rising moon and planets, a robot band and a table of "lunar touchables" - a glove, boot and helmet from the Apollo programs as well as tools similar to those used in manned lunar missions.
The payoff from special events cannot be overemphasized. They garner increased media attention for your organization. They foster goodwill and a spirit of community among local groups. They give staff members a feeling of pride and confidence. And they provide the public with an educational, family-oriented, fun happening. And after all, isn't that what public relations is all about?
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article; Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1990|
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