Bicentennial Celebration: Pierce's obscurity draws attention to 200th anniversary

Louis Karno & Co. Communications (LKC), the New Hampshire Historical Society's AOR, was not going to let the 200th birthday of Franklin Pierce, the only President from the state, pass by unnoticed.

Louis Karno & Co. Communications (LKC), the New Hampshire Historical Society's AOR, was not going to let the 200th birthday of Franklin Pierce, the only President from the state, pass by unnoticed.

Working partly on a pro-bono basis, LKC president Jayme Simoes led a yearlong effort to raise the profile of the beleaguered Pierce and to introduce America to his deep historic connections to the Granite State.

Strategy

Simoes planned to capitalize on Pierce's relative anonymity as a hook to pique media and public interest in the ex-President. "We wanted to use his obscurity to educate," he says. "Our goal was neither to praise nor bury Pierce. It was simply to start a discussion about who he was."

Simoes knew that history is not always a subject sure to pull in a hefty audience in this country. He also realized that Pierce, who supported slavery when he was elected in 1852, was a controversial figure. But he believed the historical value for the entire state would be immeasurable.

"By showing that Pierce was at almost every major stage of our nation's history for the first half of the 19th century, we helped to ignite a curiosity about Pierce, his times, and his legacy," Joan Desmarais, the historical society's assistant executive director, adds via e-mail.

Simoes also wanted to keep the commemoration dignified, recalling a recent event at the Abraham Lincoln library, involving people in costumes, that was the opposite of what LKC was shooting for. "Does [such an event] add to the discussion or knowledge of Lincoln?" Simoes asks. "Or does it further condense Lincoln into a two-dimensional cartoon-book character?"

Tactics

First, LKC launched a website, www.franklinpierce.ws, to serve as a touchpoint for the interest it hoped to generate with its campaign. Next, the firm prepared a four-color rack card to publicize the bicentennial celebrations and attract visitors to a "Franklin Pierce Highway Trail" that passed by key Pierce-related sites in the state. Simoes persuaded a diverse array of educational and nonprofit groups to join a coalition to promote a series of bicentennial events, including an exhibit at the Museum of New Hampshire History.

In conjunction with that, LKC was simultaneously promoting Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son, a newly released biography by historian Peter Wallner, another agency client. Simoes streamlined promotions for both sides by having Wallner serve as a spokesman for the bicentennial effort, which lent itself naturally to opportunities to talk up his book - the first new Pierce biography in three-quarters of a century.

Results

National media outlets liked LKC's quirky angle on the story. The bicentennial garnered stories from the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio, as well as a number of regional New England papers. The website recorded an average of 4,000 hits per month during the campaign, says Simoes, and 4,500 people stopped to see the museum exhibit in the last half of 2004.

Wallner's book also benefited from the fortuitous timing. Its entire first printing of 2,000 copies sold out, and a paperback reprint is slated to arrive soon. When Wallner attended a book signing by Bill Clinton with a copy of the Pierce biography as a gift, "Clinton said, 'Oh no, I've already got a copy. It was given to me by [NBC News anchor] Brian Williams,'" Simoes says. "That right there tells me we did something pretty good."

Future

LKC has been working with the historical society for more than two years, and plans to continue the relationship into the foreseeable future.

Wallner and LKC aren't done with their work either. Volume two of the Pierce biography is still to come. For the sake of New Hampshire, let's hope it sells.

PR team: Louis Karno & Co. Communications and the New Hampshire Historical Society (both Concord, NH)

Campaign: The Franklin Pierce Bicentennial

Time frame: January to December 2004

Budget: About $5,000

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