In June 2002, construction began on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.Though the interactive museum was intended to celebrate the racial cooperation used in the Underground Railroad - and encourage dialogue about and involvement in freedom movements across the world today - it faced a backlash from residents of a city sometimes prone to racial disturbances. Many believed it was to be merely a slavery museum that would end up causing a bigger rift between the races.
Before it was to open in August 2004, the people behind the center sought to change such misperceptions. "We wanted people to understand what the Freedom Center was and was going to be, as opposed to what people thought we were going to be," says Sue Feamster, the center's VP for advancement.
Working with its AOR, Dan Klores Communications, the center set out to promote its message in the media to ensure it would receive a warm welcome.
The Freedom Center worked with the Cincinnati office of PR shop Northlich to help secure regional and local coverage, but assigned DKC to spread the word on a national scale. One goal was to create brand awareness and tout the center as a "destination unlike any other museum," playing up its focus on ideas more so than artifacts, says Bruce Bobbins, EVP at DKC.
DKC also advised the center to be forthcoming with the press about the racial climate in the city and how it would fit in.
"The best way to fight controversy, I think, is not to shy away from it," Bobbins says.
DKC decided to pitch stories showing that the center sought to encourage dialogue about racial issues, while also celebrating racial harmony. It also wanted to play up that the center was not just for blacks or history buffs and that, with slavery still in existence in many countries today, it covered themes important to everyone.
A major challenge, however, was that Cincinnati was neither a media center nor a high-profile tourist destination. As a result, DKC and the center also hoped to boost Cincinnati tourism and get members of the media to visit the museum.
DKC used a variety of angles when pitching media outlets, such as informing them that the original architect for the center, who died before it opened, was the grandson of former slaves. It promoted the technology behind the exhibits, and the museum's central artifact - a slave pen found on a Kentucky farm and dating back to the 1800s - also was key.
"We pitched the slave pen like crazy because it is such a tangible reminder of our nation's past," says Bobbins.
With no national ad budget, DKC contacted some of the center's corporate sponsors in order to gain additional exposure. The agency also handled all the press relations at the dedication ceremony on August 23 and on the red carpet for the black-tie gala the night before. At the dedication, DKC worked with the White House on efforts surrounding special guest and first lady Laura Bush.
Traffic to the center's website jumped from 35,000 visitors a month from April through July to 77,000 in August and September. DKC helped the center generate about 175 million media impressions nationally. In addition, 300 national and international media attended the dedication weekend, and 1,500 people attended the invite-only gala, including Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities. Most important, 20,000 attendees showed up for the dedication ceremony.
"I honestly can't imagine it being more successful, even if we had a $20 million budget to spend," says Feamster.
Next up, DKC will promote the center's Everyday Freedom Heroes, a national program set to begin next year and highlight people who promote freedom in their communities.
PR team: Dan Klores Communications (New York) and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (Cincinnati)
Campaign: "Lighting Freedom's Flame"
Time frame: February to August 2004