Porter Novelli pulls plug on billboard event after crash

MIAMI: When a fatal, three-vehicle accident shut down South Florida's busy I-95, it was all too familiar for executives with Porter Novelli.

MIAMI: When a fatal, three-vehicle accident shut down South Florida's busy I-95, it was all too familiar for executives with Porter Novelli.

The firm was there to create a "living billboard" event for Procter & Gamble's Millstone Coffee. Celebrities, the client, and media were to be sipping coffee as commuters zoomed past on the highway.

Little more than a year ago, the same team launched the same three-day promotion in Atlanta. The date was September 10, 2001. The next day, the terrorists struck, and the promotion was postponed.

"In this business, you have to be ready for anything," said Starr McCaffery, VP with Porter Novelli's Chicago office, and senior executive on site.

Already held in Seattle and San Francisco in October, the South Florida stop was the last for Millstone's "Taste what's out there" marketing campaign.

Executives from Millstone and the agency were hosting a handful of local celebrities and athletes on a 20-foot-high set designed to resemble a luxury kitchen. A sommelier served coffee and pastries.

Around 11am on November 12, however, the agency and client learned about the accident on I-95. McCaffery, Millstone marketing manager Rick Kern, and P&G external relations manager Tonia Hyatt huddled to consider their options. By then, the media had reported fatalities.

Media exposure had already included a local daily, TV, and radio charity promotion broadcast from the site. Given the gravity of the accident (five were killed, and I-95 was closed for seven hours), they immediately ceased media outreach.

But then there was a decision to make: Should they strike the project, or wait it out? McCaffery admitted too many "unknowns" were stacking up against the campaign: Loss of life, inability to compete with a larger, more urgent news story, and a forecast promising cold and rain for the next day.

McCaffery and account executive Rachel Groleau had already been up for eight hours preparing the set. McCaffery called Chicago to confer with peers. They agreed to stop the event.

"Was I coherent enough to make this decision alone? We were on the inside looking out. I had to confer with somebody outside," she said. "It's always good to get a second opinion."

McCaffery also strived to manage her client expectations. Discussions included Kern and P&G media relations manager Tonia Hyatt. "It was so unfortunate that that happened," Hyatt said. "You just accept what you cannot control."

By the next day, the scaffolding was being dismantled, but thousands of drivers saw the "living billboard," media hits were strong, and the billboard was contracted through the month of November.

"We achieved our goal of introducing the brand," Hyatt said. "We don't have to squeeze it and see if we could get TV crews out two days later. We did the right thing."

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