CAMPAIGNS: Coneman directs Pittsburgh drivers onto other routes

PR Team: Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and MARC Public Relations (Pittsburgh) Campaign: Coneman Time Frame: March-August 2002 Budget: $250,000

PR Team: Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and MARC Public Relations (Pittsburgh) Campaign: Coneman Time Frame: March-August 2002 Budget: $250,000

An onslaught of roadway construction projects was choking downtown Pittsburgh in early 2002. More than 40 simultaneous bridge, highway, and tunnel refurbishings were slowing traffic to a crawl in a city already known for maddening congestion. The problem wasn't just annoying commuters, it was discouraging tourists and shoppers from bringing their much-needed dollars into the region. Something had to be done. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership decided the problem could be alleviated if drivers were aware of alternate, underutilized routes through downtown. It hired MARC PR to do some research on the subject. After seeing the results, they hired the firm to put together an entire campaign. Strategy The research began by studying six communities that had experienced similar problems: Seattle, Houston, Austin, TX, Kalamazoo, MI, Grand Rapids, MI, and Boston. Focus groups were convened to measure the public's perceptions of Pittsburgh's current construction problems. The research suggested that drivers are willing to adjust if they receive ample notice; information must get out early and be accurate and uplifting; the media must be brought in and neutralized as an adversary; the communicators must stress the benefits of the project; and humor is key to delivering effective messages. "There was a brainstorming session, and someone said, 'Well, you could always have a guy out there in a big orange traffic barrel,'" recalls corporate communications manager Cheryl Sills. "People laughed and went on to something else, but [creative director] Dick Snodgrass and the art director took that throw-away idea and turned it into something wonderful." Tactics That "something wonderful" was Coneman, the superhero who would deliver Pittsburgh from the evils of traffic jams. To prepare the media for the coming of Coneman (and his sidekick, Caution the Wonder Dog) MARC held editorial board meetings with all manner of local media. They then developed a website containing alternate routes and traffic information, as well as upcoming events and special downtown attractions. For those without web access, a toll-free hotline was created. Two Coneman PSA TV spots were made, intended for use on local TV stations and on the Jumbotron screen at Pittsburgh Pirates games. Once Coneman and Caution debuted, they were everywhere. Collateral items featuring the two characters included posters, billboards, Pittsburgh Made Easy guides, merchant kits, T-shirts, chewing gum, air fresheners, publicity photos, temporary tattoos, and rubber cone-shaped stress relievers. Then they went a step further. "He started as an animated figure, then they actually created a costume," says Sills. "A guy went around doing personal appearances as Coneman." Results The campaign met its goal of giving drivers access to route information. Approximately 220,000 Pittsburgh Made Easy guides were distributed, and the website,, received nearly 30,000 hits. During the effort's first six months (March-August 2002), Coneman received more than 800 column inches in newspapers that reached 4.3 million readers. The campaign got more than 80 minutes of TV coverage, and Coneman himself answered more than 25 requests for personal appearances, including repeat performances on the city's two top morning radio shows. Future The campaign was renewed for the just-completed 2003 construction season. Coneman won national awards from the International Downtown Association and Association of Commuter Transportation. This has led to inquiries from other US cities for a visit from Coneman to mitigate their traffic woes.

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