Body Worlds is an exhibit of human cadavers and body parts preserved by a special "plastination" process developed by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens in the late 1970s.
Using a controlled methodology, von Hagens dissects donated human bodies and replaces their fluids with a preserving plastic. The displays were originally created for educational purposes, but have morphed into a traveling exhibit.
The California Science Center held the North and South American premiere of the exhibit last summer. But despite having only a few weeks to prepare for one of the art and science world's most contentious shows, the team of in-house and boutique firms that worked on it managed to craft a campaign that resulted in little controversy and great press.
In Europe, the exhibit had met with all sorts of media issues, from questions about the source of the donated bodies to the ethics of such an endeavor.
To help ensure that the focus stayed on the "health, physiology, and science messages," says Shell Amega, VP of communications for the California Science Center, communications work began while the museum was negotiating its contract with the artist and Body Worlds. Part of that contract dealt with how media would be handled.
"We negotiated to have the [media] messages as part of the contract," explains Amega. "This would set a tone for all interviews."
In laying those ground rules, the communications team also set clear goals for marketing. First, the team wanted to make sure it was prepared for controversy by educating itself on subjects reporters might cover and finding ways to redirect away from negative topics. Next, the team wanted to have an attendance of at least 400,000.
To anticipate trouble spots, the team created a "risk analysis," says Amega. She then asked boutique firm Christine Anderson & Associates (CAA) to come up with a list of 100 questions that reporters might ask. From that, Amega enlisted the pro-bono help of crisis experts Abernathy MacGregor and Lagrant Communications to handle Hispanic outreach. The team and Anderson created answers and helped media train all parties from the Body Worlds team and the Science Center.
"I have never done media training to this extent before," says Christine Anderson, principal of CAA. "No stone went unturned."
Amega also enlisted the help of the center's ethics committee, which included bioethicists, scientists, doctors, religious authorities, and community leaders, as resources for positive insights.
When it came to press, the team took the unusual measure of asking all reporters to sign a contract that said they would agree to only use the images and material to publicize the exhibit, says Amega. She also gave the LA Times an advance exclusive.
Amega says the exhibit garnered "a beautiful array of stories" in more than 500 media outlets. In addition to the front page of the LA Times, stories ran in Time, and USA Today, as well as on CNN and The History Channel. The exhibit even earned its own category on Jeopardy.
More than 930,000 people from across the US came to see the show. In fact, it was so popular that the center stayed open 24 hours a day in the final days to accommodate the crowds.
"The large crowds, huge free media placement, and critical acclaim the exhibit received are directly attributable to the exhibit's power and careful PR planning," says Ian Campbell, MD, West Coast, for The Abernathy MacGregor Group.
Amega says the center is getting ready to announce another large exhibit that she hopes will raise as much interest as Body Worlds - but for now, it's under wraps.
PR team: California Science Center, Abernathy MacGregor, Christine Anderson & Associates, Lagrant Communications (all Los Angeles)
Campaign: Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies
Time frame: July 2004 to February 2005