Usually, vacation destinations like to tout their palm trees, white-sand beaches, and warm summer nights.
But last year, as the East Coast was preparing to be swarmed with millions of cicadas, one Maryland coastal city decided its best attribute would be its lack of the cricket-like creatures.
With the help of Baltimore-based MGH Public Relations, the Ocean City Department of Tourism crafted a PR and advertising campaign based on the fact that the bugs would be bypassing Ocean City, leaving it safe for America's vacationers.
Mike O'Brien, MGH SVP and director of PR, says he suggested the idea for the "Cicada-Free Zone" campaign during a brainstorming session because the bugs' imminent return was quickly becoming a hot topic along the entire East Coast.
It was local knowledge in Ocean City, however, that cicadas didn't like the soil conditions there and wouldn't be stopping by.
"We actually talked to two entomologists to make absolutely sure," says O'Brien.
Armed with scientific evidence, the MGH team decided to create a light-hearted initiative to let people know that it would be safe to visit Maryland's beaches as the cicadas were making a comeback.
"It was truly a unique initiative, not only because the cicada phenomenon occurs once every 17 years, but it was the most humorous, clever campaign Ocean City has ever done," says Martha Clements, director of marketing and PR for Ocean City/Office of Tourism.
The major problem for the PR team was finding a way to accurately predict when the cicadas would appear and be enough of a problem for travelers to help build interest in the campaign. While experts knew the bugs were coming, it was hard to pinpoint a date.
"We kept talking to the entomologists, saying, 'Can you tell us when these things are going to come out?'" says O'Brien.
Finally, the group was able to get a date, and began a PR campaign based around a series of four print ads that targeted Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and West Virginia. The ads offered an "escape route" from the bugs that ended in Ocean City. The company also did radio spots to get the message out.
To facilitate using media outreach and specially developed press materials, the team convinced Ocean City mayor Jim Mathias to issue an official proclamation declaring Ocean City a "Cicada-Free Zone." They then sent out press releases to local and regional media outlets, including those in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington, DC.
"We felt like we needed some kind of overt action to kick this off," says O'Brien of involving the mayor. "It was one of the funniest things I've read in my life. It was completely tongue in cheek," he adds of the mayor's proclamation.
Pretty soon, the bugs were all over the place. And as the number of cicadas in the areas around Ocean City increased, the media began to take note and the bugs became a common topic for water-cooler conversation.
"People driving to work, literally their car windshields were covered in bugs," O'Brien recalls. The cicadas had no problem proving themselves to be a nuisance, thus adding credibility to the campaign.
"The Cicada-Free Zone campaign gave Ocean City a significant boost in tourism, just as we were heading into the summer season, our busiest season of the year," says Clements.
The campaign resulted in more than 4 million media impressions, including 41 television placements, 12 print placements, 11 radio hits, and eight Internet stories.
Ocean City also marked an increase in tourism for May and June over the previous year, with a 24% increase in room-tax collections in May and a 14% jump in June.
"I can honestly tell you I have been doing this for 14 years, and I've never seen so much buzz about a campaign in such a short period of time," says O'Brien.
MGH PR has worked with the Ocean City Department of Tourism for three years, and it continues to do so. O'Brien says campaigns usually focus on the "shoulder months" of spring and fall, and are aimed at keeping Ocean City in the minds of East Coast travelers.
PR team: MGH Public Relations (Baltimore) and Ocean City, MD Department of Tourism
Campaign: Cicada-Free Zone
Time frame: May to June 2004
Budget: $160,000 ad costs; PR part of ongoing contract