Client: Centre College (Danville, KY)
Client: Centre College (Danville, KY)
PR Team: Halstead Communications (New York)
Campaign: Save the Debate
Time Frame: September 4-14, 2000
Budget: dollars 2,500
'A funeral with pizza.' That's how Patsi Trollinger, public information coordinator at Centre College, described a meeting of her staff after the Bush/Cheney camp announced it was backing out of a vice presidential debate scheduled to take place at the small liberal arts school on October 5.
With one fell swoop, months of work campaigning to land the debate and promoting the college as a proper venue were in jeopardy. But Trollinger's team didn't lose hope, quickly picking themselves up and re-molding the existing PR effort into a crisis campaign aimed at convincing the Republicans to reconsider.
Halstead Communications, which specializes in college publicity, had been working with Centre College since July, helping it parlay its successful application to the Commission on Presidential Debates into added coverage.
'We came up with a wide array of stories that were unique to Centre College, like the fact that they had four Fulbright scholars and a Rhodes scholar in their last graduating class,' said Marilynne Herbert, Halstead's senior manager of media relations. But the campaign's initial emphasis - the school's alumni included two vice presidents and a chief justice - shifted radically when the college fell victim to political wrangling.
The small-town-America theme of the original campaign quickly had to be transformed into a theme of 'You can't turn your back on small town America.' The Commission on Presidential Debates required that the college's updated effort be done in a nonpartisan way.
Trollinger sought the advice of a reporter who happened to be at work on Labor Day afternoon. With his help, her team and Halstead constructed a David-versus-Goliath pitch.
Initial media contacts were made via e-mails to some 100 reporters. Successive releases played up the fact that local children had worked to get the debate and that the entire town was being let down.
Following the crisis, Halstead and Trollinger's team divided up national media phone lists and started calling all major national media outlets.
'I'm not particularly experienced in calling national media, but right in front of us were these lists that Halstead had produced for us,' said Trollinger.
While Centre College president John Roush held a press conference to launch the mini-campaign on September 4, the PR emphasis shifted from education reporters to political media. The school sent press releases and stories crafted by Halstead to 100 political writers and more than 50 national print and electronic outlets.
The PR team spent much of the next week recrafting the original angle.
Suddenly the small-town stories that promoted Centre College had to be replaced with stories about the political price Bush would pay for ignoring small-town America.
Meanwhile, the college's PR staff helped promote two rallies in Danville within the next ten days, with Halstead alerting the networks to pick up on their affiliate feeds. By September 14, they had the debate back, and the PR team was able to return to its original efforts.
Associated Press stories about the initial campaign landed in 84 newspapers totaling 6 million impressions, while AP stories on the campaign to save the debate garnered 1 million impressions in 42 newspapers, according to a Halstead clip report.
Several of the stories emphasized the local effort invested by Danville, as did an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News and a syndicated column by former UPI reporter Helen Thomas. Articles on the effort also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle. Segments on NPR and CNN highlighted the campaign as well.
Though Trollinger hopes to work with Halstead in the future, she says the school is limited by financial constraints.