Special events generate publicity,
but are they effective public relations?
Special events aren’t new. More than 170 years ago P.T. Barnum built his name and fortune by staging grand openings, special museum exhibits, concert tours, and other spectacular happenings. Ever since, public relations practitioners have used and perfected his ideas.
Today, the special events industry is a big business in its own right and has established its own trade association to promote the use of special events, help set standards, and encourage professionalism among practitioners. As a result, special events are no longer limited to being occasional tools used by public relations people to achieve broad public relations purposes; many are now seen as ends in themselves and are conducted on an incredibly grand scale.
- Worldwide spending on special events now tops $500 billion per year according to the International Special Events Society (ISES).
- In the city of Indianapolis alone, spending on special events amounts to “nearly $3 billion a year,” according to the Indiana Convention & Visitors Association (Indianapolis Business Journal; 5/08/06).
Special events also offer wonderful, albeit not necessarily totally secure, career opportunities. The ISES has even established a formal certification process to promote professional development by formally recognizing accomplished event planners who meet the qualifications set for a Certified Special Event Professional (CSEP). Alan Rider, in an trade journal article entitled "Stage an Event - and Profit," described the “potentially lucrative opportunity for creative entrepreneurs with a good mind for detail” to earn well over $100,000 per year.
Special events range from once-in-a-lifetime occasions such as a centennial celebration or a new building's dedication to routine and recurring events such as employee Christmas parties, volunteer recognition ceremonies, and business open houses and tours. The possibilities are limitless. Indeed, Leibert and Sheldon's Handbook of Special Events for Nonprofit Organizations claims that almost any activity can be turned into a special event by making it a "dramatized effort to promote an idea, a cause, or a program [whose] purpose is to improve relations with an organization's public, develop understanding, and strengthen support." That last phrase is critical.
It's so easy to get caught up in the hype, glamour, and myriad of details that surround a special event that public relations practitioners who plan them must be careful that they don't lose sight of their objective. Their primary purpose is to assist their organization in maintaining its key relationships; it is not to stage spectacular events. Such events may be important, but only as a means to an end.
From a public relations perspective, the reason an organization hosts a special event is to promote an idea, a cause, or a project that is important to the organization and its publics. Special events should not be done just for the sake of doing them. Nor should they be repeated simply because they were initially well-received. Their purpose is not to generate publicity for themselves, although it may be to generate publicity for the event’s sponsors. That, however, is a very different matter.
Special events, like any other public relations technique, should be used to achieve a specific public relations purpose. That means having a specific target audience in mind before the event planning starts and forcefully delivering a clear and unique message to that audience with the event. What counts is not the event itself but the event sponsor’s recognition and approval by its publics.
- Helen of Troy Limited, for instance, owns the Brut line of men’s toiletries and has for the last several years been the sponsor of the Brut Sun Bowl. However, Helen of Troy really doesn’t care which college football team wins the games it sponsors as long as people remember the Brut name and appreciate its support of the Sun Bowl.
- Similarly, the Scripps Howard Company doesn’t really care who wins the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee each year. It just wants that annual competition to remind people that Scripps Howard is committed to improving literacy and is a major provider of mass media products.
For this reason, The Handbook of Special Events for Nonprofit Organizations advises public relations practitioners who want to become an event sponsor to carefully assess whether "the proposed event is important enough, is identified sufficiently with a purpose or service of the organization, and justifies the effort and cost necessary to assure the event's success."
Special events are meant to be "special;"
don't jump in without careful planning.
Special events don't just happen. Someone has to think about all the possibilities and make them happen. Deciding the general nature, location, and date of the event are just the beginning. After that, come such considerations as ...
- Who will and won’t be invited, and how will they be invited?
- How will people get in and out of the event? Will they need tickets or other identification to do so? How will unexpected and/or uninvited guests be handled?
- Will there be enough parking room to accommodate everyone who comes? Is it accessible, safe, and reasonably priced for the expected guests?
- Will there be adequate rest rooms? If porta-potties have to be used, will they be wheelchair accessible? What other accommodations are needed for people with disabilities?
- What will be done to ensure adequate crowd control and security? – Taking the location, number of people, and potential volatility of the circumstances into account, will plain-clothes greeters be sufficient, or would uniformed guides and ushers be more suitable? Will armed security personnel be needed? If so, should they be police officers or a private security force?
- And the list goes on and on. The questions and concerns are nearly endless.
Among the most critical of these concerns are health and safety issues. Some are simply matters of common sense. If you hold an open house in a manufacturing facility, for instance, how can you keep unsupervised children away from dangerous machinery?
Other health and safety concerns are dictated by government regulations. Food safety is an excellent example of this. In most places in the United States, food cannot be prepared or served to the public unless local health authorities have inspected and certified the cleanliness of the food itself, the utensils used in its preparation, and the food preparation and service areas where it will be prepared and eaten.
And, since many of these and other health and safety concerns have ramifications in terms of legal liability, their final disposition may be dictated by the host's insurance company as a condition of continuing its insurance coverage. For instance, many insurers will require that an ambulance and at least two certified EMTs be on site for every 10,000 people in attendance.
This kind of planning takes time. Smooth-running special events are not thrown together at the last minute. A major event, or even a smaller one that expects to attract a significant number of out-of-town visitors who'll need overnight accommodations, should be planned at least a year in advance. And, the bigger and more special the event is, the more planning time it needs. Here are two examples.
When the Smithsonian Institution decided to host a special event to celebrate the anniversary of the first walk on the moon and wanted the President to participate, it was a major undertaking even in Washington, D.C., a city where special events are an everyday occurrence. Everyone involved knew it would require extensive and very detailed planning with particular emphasis on crowd control and security.
- Rita Cipalla, assistant director of communication for the National Air and Space Museum reported in IABC’s Communication World magazine: "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 the US Secret Service were scheduled."
Even more daunting – perhaps the ultimate special events challenge – is hosting the Olympics. It involves scheduling hundreds of competitive events, arranging housing, food, and transportation for thousands of athletes, and accommodating hundreds of thousands of spectators. Whether participating or spectating, these thousands of people speak dozens of different languages and have a wide variety of housing and special dietary needs. Beyond this, the planners have to provide for worldwide media coverage, contend with international animosities and potential terrorist attacks, and attend to the protocol and security concerns created by having dozens of heads of state in one place at one time.
For a potential Olympics host city and country, the preliminary planning which often includes a promise to build new sports facilities and athletic housing usually starts a decade or more before they submit their official bid to host an upcoming Olympics. And, that bidding is normally a decade before the Games. The potential hosts are, therefore, doing essentially 20 years of planning with no guarantee it will produce anything.
Even after their bids are in, the final site selection by the International Olympics Committee is a time-consuming winnowing down process that typically takes two or more years and often requires bidders to revise their plans to remain in consideration. Only after a host city is finally selected, usually 8 to 12 years before the Olympic Games it will host, does the planning really move into high gear. It then continues to accelerate up to and through the Games.
When Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, it was the culmination of planning that started more than 30 years earlier, back in the 1960s when it submitted its first Olympics bid to host the 1972 Olympics.
Obviously, these are extreme cases and are not typical of all special event planning, but they offer a useful perspective. Before public relation practitioners undertake special events, they need to look beyond the potential public relations benefits and understand what they're really getting into.
Don't smugly think you'll have no trouble handling your company's 100th anniversary party because you hosted a smash silver anniversary party for your parents. The two don't even begin to compare. A corporate special event is not just a bigger and more elaborate version of a party for friends. Even a small special event that's open to the general public can put reputations, financial stability, personal security, and even lives at risk. As a public relations practitioner, you need to be aware of these complexities, challenges, and legal ramifications, and you need to take them into account from the first moment you think about doing a special event.
If this is giving you second thoughts about special events, it should. My intention is not to scare you away from special events, but I do want you to be more thoughtful and more cautious about hosting them and about planning them.
Go ahead and host special events if they make sense for your organization, but do them methodically and carefully with lots of advance planning, adequate resources, and fallback options in case things go wrong. That way, it's more likely that everything will come together smoothly and you'll have a well-planned special event that achieves its goal.
My online readings in public relations supplement most PR textbooks. Topics range from basic terms and concepts through the evolution of the profession to tips on performing everyday PR tasks. Click here for a complete table of contents. The following reading offers a somewhat unusual view of special events: