Children's museum puts its PR creativity on display

With a two-person PR team and relatively modest budget, the Children's Museum of Houston has earned high marks for its innovative programs, and works tirelessly to get the word out.

With a two-person PR team and relatively modest budget, the Children's Museum of Houston has earned high marks for its innovative programs, and works tirelessly to get the word out.

Looking at some of the honors bestowed upon the Children's Museum of Houston, you might think running its PR department would be a breeze. After being rated one of the top two museums for kids in the US by Child magazine and rated among the top 10 by MSN.com, you might assume this nonprofit isn't in need of any further outreach. You'd be wrong.

"Our PR efforts have to be constant, ongoing, and we can't slack off," says Jodie Sinclair, the museum's PR director. "We want to maintain the increase in rate of attendance here. It's been at 7% per year for the past 10 years, so we have a very successful benchmark in place, and we intend to maintain that by utilizing all of the PR efforts and methods we had going in the past."

The 44,000-square-foot museum caters to 600,000 visitors annually, 70% of whom are kids - more children than any other such museum in the US on a per-square-foot basis.

The museum provides more than just a place for parents to bring their kids to be entertained. It also offers bilingual family learning programs and educational services. Children up to the age of 12 can visit the 14 exhibits, which include a replica of a real Oaxacan village in Mexico as well as a farm complete with a robotic cow that they can milk. While children are occupied with the hands-on educational sites, parents are offered materials on early childhood education and parenting at their own library.

"We're always adding a new aspect or changing something every week, so that the children have a new experience when they come here," says Sinclair. "We're all about the visitor experience, so the PR team has the task of keeping the media informed about the changes literally on a weekly basis."

Small team, big effort

Keeping up with PR for an organization with such a rapid growth rate would challenge even the largest communications department armed with a lofty budget. The museum's department meets the task with just $70,000 a year allotted for PR and marketing, and with only Sinclair and PR associate Susie Rodriguez at the helm.

"The children's museum has been tremendously successful at publicizing what we do here, given the size of its PR staff," says Sinclair.

But she also notes that the organization is now facing a market that's rapidly increasing, as other institutions in the Houston area begin to recognize a boom in childhood education. Organizations that are not focused specifically on children - including the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Downtown Aquarium - have added programs to attract kids. As a result of this competition, the Children's Museum has to be as innovative as possible with the few dollars it has.

"We have to find within each of the exhibits, each of the programs, each of the performances, those things that are very attractive to the media and get them out there, so we can have a high profile," says Sinclair. "We're up against organizations that have big budgets, and they can buy big ads."

Recently, the museum had a registered dietician appear at its supermarket exhibit for a live broadcast to illustrate how to make nutritious lunches for kids, with childhood obesity serving as the hard news angle.

"I'm trying to identify issues and find ways we can address them for parents and for kids," adds Sinclair. "The PR challenge is to convey to parents that this is the place to bring your children where it's healthy, safe, and fun."

On the less hard-hitting side of the media, the museum recently worked with Jonathan Walton, entertainment feature reporter for Houston's CBS affiliate, KHOU, for a contest based on the reality show The Amazing Race. After positive experiences working with the museum staff in the past, Walton chose the museum and its robotic cow as one of the locations for the challenge; contestants had to milk the cow.

"They're great people," says Walton. "I've done a lot of live shots with them because I do fun morning show features. They're always very helpful ... and it's always glitch-free."

But the media attention that the staff generates isn't only important to boost membership and attendance. Since the museum admits 36% of its visitors free of charge and another 20% at a reduced rate - in addition to offering free admission on Thursday nights - it greatly depends on grants and sponsorships to help make ends meet.

There's tremendous competition for the philanthropic dollar, says Sinclair. "You need to show that you're getting a lot of bang for your buck in terms of attendance, community outreach, and therefore, the value added to the community." Media impressions are used to demonstrate to sponsors the value of their donation to the children. "The exposure we get is used by the development department to show that this is a popular museum," she explains.

The museum's mouthpiece

Of course, the development department is not the only one that works hand in hand with the communications side of the operation.

"[The PR department] is the lead voice for the museum," says executive director Tammie Kahn. "It's one thing for the educators to sit down and pull together an extraordinary child development program that's dripping with good reasons for being at the children's museum. But it takes a savvy, high-energy communications pro to take that product or service and turn it around so that it can be communicated."

Because of its status as a nonprofit, the museum could not fulfill its mission if it didn't have top-notch PR people and low overhead. In fact, out every dollar it takes in, about 87 cents go directly into museum programming - so it has little money left over for administration and external communications.

"It's gratifying that [PR is] well recognized by the immediate community - the staff here, and the board of directors," says Sinclair.

"They're very responsive," says Lindsey Brown of the PR team. Brown is deputy director of marketing for the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They're always great about sending me any information I need, because clearly I can't do my job if I don't know what they are doing."

The museum's staff helps out the PR department by having select members serve as bilingual spokespersons when needed. "Houston is so ethnically dynamic and diverse, and our staff reflects that," says Kahn.

With an audience that consists of 37% Anglo Americans, 29% Hispanic/Latinos, 26% African Americans, and 7% Asian Americans, the museum needs people who can communicate with the city's diverse media. "We are the market of the future, and we are pioneering various sorts of techniques and methods for reaching that market," says Sinclair.

"If we can use the media to have our educators speak to the public directly, then we must make sure they are ready to deliver the message succinctly and effectively," says Kahn, referring to the training that the staff receives from the PR department.

The general public has gotten angry in the past if it was not kept up to speed about what's going on at the museum, says Kahn. "People don't like to miss out on opportunities, especially when it comes to their children. They don't blame the media - they'll blame the organization, because the responsibility resides with us to makes sure that not only do we have great programming, but that we let people know about it."

By this October, the museum's PR department will have yet another project to add to its everyday community and media outreach. The organization is gearing up to kick off a $35 million capital campaign, which will go toward expanding the museum, including the creation of an annex for older children as well as a new parking garage.

"PR is part of the reason we need the capital campaign, because we now serve over 600,000 attendees a year in a building for 300,000," says Kahn. "For me, that's a real indicator that we've been able to communicate to the public that it's worth it to come here."

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PR contacts

PR director Jodie Sinclair

PR associate Susie Rodriguez

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