Effort draws support for Games

Special Olympics events in the US had been limited strictly to state competitions until the 2006 inaugural Special Olympics USA National Games.

Special Olympics events in the US had been limited strictly to state competitions until the 2006 inaugural Special Olympics USA National Games.

The Games Organizing Committee approached Denver-based GroundFloor Media (GFM) in May 2005 - more than a year before the Games would commence - for help in generating national interest and sponsorships .

However, there was another challenge looming in the cornfields of Ames, Iowa, the site of the games.

"In a city of 50,000, we needed to recruit 8,000 volunteers," says J. Elaine Hieber, Games Organizing Committee chairperson. "The question was: Would Iowans answer the call?"

Strategy

"This was a first-time event, so there were no blueprints," says John Shors, senior PR manager at GFM. "But we knew early on that momentum was critical and pre-event coverage was vital, so we needed to get people talking."

In addition to planning and coordinating media outreach and other PR activities associated with the actual Games, GFM created two major events in the summer and fall of 2005.

Tactics

On July 1, 2005, GFM officially "launched" the National Games with a press conference in a Cessna hangar at the Des Moines, IA, airport to celebrate the one-year countdown to the airlift -in which the athletes would be transported to Des Moines aboard 225 Cessna Citation jets - and the opening ceremonies.

Subsequently, on September 1, 2005, GFM arranged for a farmer in rural Iowa to create the world's largest corn maze in the shape of the National Games logo.

"It took me about an hour and a half to navigate [the maze], and I admit I was lost there for a bit," Shors concedes.

With the start of the Games about 10 months away, half of the GFM team worked to secure media sponsors/celebrities, and the other half continued pre-event publicity, as well as securing interest from local and national media members to attend.

A press kit distributed to more than 300 sources included various fact sheets and press releases.

And GFM later had six team members on-site for the Games to corral more than 200 members of the media.

Results

GFM generated more than 2,000 news stories on the National Games, achieving more than 90 million media hits. National highlights included multiple stories on Today and in USA Today.

During the event, The Des Moines Register ran full-page, multi-page stories for eight consecutive days.

GFM was also successful in landing The Oxygen Network, Midwest Living, The Des Moines Register, KCCI-TV, and Spring Hill Press as media sponsors.

And the effort resulted in not only recruiting the 8,000 required volunteers, but "we had to turn away nearly 3,000 volunteers," Hieber says. "It really was such an inspiring outpouring of support."

Future

Based in part on the goodwill generated by the games, including a $500,000 donation from Bank of America, Special Olympics Team USA - a group of approximately 400 athletes and 170 coaches representing all 50 states - are heading to Shanghai, China, in October for the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

PRWeek's view

The first key to this campaign was recognizing that an inaugural event would need publicity well ahead of time to help generate adequate coverage and sponsorships.

However, successfully getting on the nightly news and drumming up corporate cash were only two facets of the effort, which would have collapsed without all of the volunteers working behind the scenes.

While Iowans should be commended for their admirable spirit of volunteerism, someone first had to reach out and give them a compelling reason to show up.

Campaign: 2006 Special Olympics USA National Games

PR team: Games Organizing Committee (Ames, IA) and GroundFloor Media (Denver)

Duration: May 1, 2005 to July 31, 2006

Budget: $250,000

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