ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: Williamsburg's progressive PR is steeped in history

Even though Colonial Williamsburg is all about history and the old way of doing things, its PR efforts are forward-looking and inventive in a time when tourists are hard to attract.

Even though Colonial Williamsburg is all about history and the old way of doing things, its PR efforts are forward-looking and inventive in a time when tourists are hard to attract.

The New York Daily News reported in June that three out of five American families will skip their summer vacation this year. Money is tight, terrorist threats remain, and freak outbreaks of bizarre illnesses on a massive scale - SARS, monkeypox - make the outside world less appealing than ever. All this according to a Harris Poll released last month. It's awful news for the tourism industry, but not for Tim Andrews, director of PR at Colonial Williamsburg (CW). Why would a man in charge of attracting families to one of the country's largest travel destinations rejoice over a poll confirming that Americans would rather stay home? For one, it was Andrews who commissioned the poll, and pitched it to reporters all over the country. And if that seems odd, then you probably don't understand CW very well. Bringing history to life Much as the name suggests, CW is one of those places that invites families to "step back into history," mostly by ambling down dirt roads lined with actors dressed in period costume. If you show up on the right day, Thomas Jefferson may sit next to you under a windmill and discuss the Declaration of Independence. Or General Lord Cornwallis may try to impose martial law on your children. What really sets CW apart from your local restoration village is its enormous scale and the complexity of its operation. It's the Disney World of US history, 300 acres of live-action American heritage - with five hotels, five museums, 12 restaurants, at least as many retail stores, and three golf courses. What it doesn't have are roller coasters and giant fuzzy characters running around to entertain (or terrify) your kids. CW competes with those parks for the American family's dwindling vacation dollars. Which is why the place runs its PR operation less like a resort and more like a huge advocacy organization for American history. "We approach things creatively, differently, and in general very effectively," Andrews offers. "I feel we have an advantage being a nonprofit institution because we're a place whose biggest goal is to help future generations learn from the past rather than make money. We have a very different sense of what our priorities are." That "different sense" permeates the deceptively small department. Andrews presides over four PR managers, two associates, and two administrative assistants. Each carries a workload that appears nothing short of heroic - apropos when you consider their backgrounds. Lorraine Brooks, an eight-year CW veteran, is a Marine who became a public information officer following basic training. Her "beat" includes promoting CW's educational and historical programs, holiday programs, and African-American programs. She also manages outreach to niche publications and internal communications - itself a mighty job given the nearly 4,000 employees spread out across the park, many of whom don't even have a desk, much less e-mail access. Sophia Hart, also with CW for eight years, came direct from the Foreign Service. She was stationed in Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union and in China during the Tiananmen Square massacre. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Hart is an Asian studies professor at The College of William & Mary "in her spare time." Hart's beat includes publicizing CW's museums, its national retailing and licensing programs (CW has the oldest merchandise licensing program in America), and its on-site shopping. Jim Bradley, now in his 15th year, manages fundraising. "Many people think we're a national park, but we're not," Andrews explains. "We're a privately funded institution, and we get no money from the state or federal governments." A former broadcast journalist, Bradley also manages CW's educational outreach program, one of its more expansive and creative attempts to reach its target audience. Would-be visitors, mostly students, can arrange for "electronic field trips" or even have custom-made educational TV shows beamed live via satellite into the classroom. Andrews estimates that the program reaches more than 1 million people a year. "These shows aren't only live, they're interactive," Andrews boasts. "We actually allow students from all over the country to pick up phones or use their computers and communicate directly with the people during the show. And it's funded entirely by donors." The final PR manager is Carol Godwin. The newest of the group (five years), Godwin promotes CW's hotels, restaurants, and golf courses, one of which was designed by the legendary Robert Trent Jones, and two of which have hosted major pro tournaments. In the end, there are too many outreach initiatives and responsibilities to list. There's also no AOR, though there is a litany of firms retained for various projects over the years: Hill & Knowlton, Eisner Petrou in Baltimore, Edelman, Ketchum, and Global Communicators in Washington, DC, to name a few. Yet the PR budget is "well under" $1 million, says Andrews. "We do good, old-fashioned, face-to-face, hand-to-hand outreach," he says. Though according to Paula Thrasher, a travel writer with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, they manage not to do too much of it. "What they don't do is call me every day, which a lot of these resorts do for some reason," she laughs. "They're responsive when I need something, but they don't try to get me to write about them every week." Andrews himself has been there only since 1997, which means he's still wet behind the ears in CW terms. "When I showed up, one of the defining moments for me was walking into the PR office and sitting on the wall was a framed poster that we redo every single year of the dozens of people at CW who are celebrating their 25th anniversary here." The former producer for NBC Radio comes to CW by way of Greenpeace, where he was director of PR from 1994 to 1997. So why is Andrews going around telling the media that American families are pinching their holiday pennies? "One of my philosophies is that in order to be effective, we must be strategic, proactive, and nimble," says Andrews. "We have to be able to adjust our thinking and messaging on a dime." When CW commissioned the poll, it wasn't expecting such dreary results. Andrews is even quoted to that effect in the Post story. "It caused us some concern," he told the paper. But the underlying message of the poll was frugality. Americans wanted to get away; they just couldn't afford to go far. And they needed as much bang for the vacation buck as possible. Andrews' team decided to turn that message to their advantage. "We very quickly fine-tuned what we were doing to reach out to the media," he says. "We came up with some pitches that emphasized how close we are to major drive markets." They reached out with hard data on driving distances from a dozen cities. "I got calls from reporters all up and down the East Coast and the Mid-Atlantic region who never realized we were that close," he says. Tapping into public patriotism Andrews' team is pitching much more than the driving distance, however. They're emphasizing the value of a CW vacation, both financially and educationally. Americans may not have much money, but they do have more pride and interest in their heritage than they've had in a long time. And CW is well positioned to take advantage of that. Or as Colin Campbell, chairman and president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, says in one of their many press releases, "A renewed sense of patriotism and national awareness has swept the country. People are feeling a greater need than ever to reconnect with their country and its history, and experience the earliest chapters of America." If Campbell is right, Disney World doesn't stand a chance. ----- PR contacts Director of PR Tim Andrews PR managers Jim Bradley; Lorraine Brooks; Carol Godwin; Sophia Hart Outside agencies Hill & Knowlton, Eisner Petrou, Edelman, Ketchum, Global Communicators PR budget Under $1 million

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