In some parts of the world, the International Children's Games (ICG) - the only athletic competition for 12- to 15-year-olds endorsed by the International Olympic Committee - is a highly anticipated event.
Indeed, after 36 years of continuous competition, it should be. Unfortunately, the US isn't one of the places where it is well known, largely because it had never been held here before - until this year.
The ICG selected Cleveland as the location for its 2004 games, and it became the responsibility of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission (GCSC) not only to pull it off, but also to make sure people showed up. Luckily for all, Wayne Hill, president of Edward Howard & Co., the oldest independent PR firm in the country, sits on the GCSC board and was willing to volunteer his firm to perform pro bono PR for the games.
Hill and his firm teamed with the ICG's bare bones PR staff of one full-timer (who splits her time between PR and programming) and two support staffers. The plan was to start rousing interest by appealing to publications that were already familiar with the games: international and foreign-oriented outlets. They would also follow the lead of the Olympics and pitch the stories of the young athletes to their hometown publications.
They also had a pretty serious ace up their sleeve: "The publisher of the Cleveland Plain Dealer is one of the co-chairs of the sports commission," says Hill, "and we really can't say enough about role they played."
They had a small budget for paid media that would be used strategically (and economically) around town. Plus, a special visitor promised to generate a whirlwind of buzz - if he showed up.
The team started the push with a May 25 morning-drive-time radio tour and press conference at a local gymnastics studio to introduce the honorary co-chairs of the event: Olympic champions Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci. The two then practiced with participating young athletes, providing an ideal photo-op.
The Plain Dealer ran a special section and gave the games considerable attention throughout the summer. The PR team also developed a theme, "The World Comes to Cleveland," and worked with web portals like Cleveland.com to help keep the message top-of-mind with locals.
Banners were printed and hung around town, sides of buses and billboards were pasted with ads, commercials ran on the local network affiliates, and brochures and other materials with "The World Comes to Cleveland" theme were placed strategically about the city.
Then, two weeks before the games, came the big surprise: President George W. Bush might be attending.
"It was one of the biggest challenges we faced," recalls Emily Lauer, account manager with Edward Howard. "While we were fairly certain he was coming, we had the question for two weeks straight, and the local media had to plan for it. We had to be careful that everyone on our team had their message straight."
Because the games were free of charge, no formal body counts exist to gauge attendance. But Lauer says that of the four event areas, "most were at capacity, some with lines all day long."
The festival area, which was ticketed, drew about 40,000 people in three days, says David Gilbert, president of the GCSC.
"I really was amazed by what they were able to do with so little money," he says of Edward Howard. "And for taking something on pro bono, you would never have known it."
And ultimately, the President did come, which certainly didn't hurt the media attention.
In all, there were more than 1,100 radio, television, web, and print stories, massive local media coverage, a spot on Good Morning America, a feature story in USA Today, seven AP stories, two interviews on XM Kids Satellite Radio, and a write-up in Continental Airlines' in-flight magazine.
The ICG will not be held in the US next year, but the GCSC will continue to work with Edward Howard & Co.
PR team: Edward Howard & Co. and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission (Cleveland)
Campaign: 2004 International Children's Games & Cultural Festival - the World Comes to Cleveland
Time frame: Jan. to August 2004
Budget: approximately $200,000 pro bono