Civil rights museum opens door to a seminal period in US history

On February 1, 1960, four black college students sat down in protest at F. W. Woolworth's "whites only" lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. The act ignited the sit-in movement and, ultimately, the civil rights movement.

Client: International Civil Rights Center & Museum (Greensboro, NC)
PR agency: RLF Communications (Greensboro, NC)
Campaign: Opening of International Civil Rights Center & Museum
Duration: July 2009-February 2010
Budget: $212,000

On February 1, 1960, four black college students sat down in protest at F. W. Woolworth's "whites only" lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. The act ignited the sit-in movement and, ultimately, the civil rights movement.

When Woolworth closed in 1993 to be razed for a parking lot, various individuals and groups offered funding to preserve it. Seventeen years later, on the 50th anniversary of the first sit-in, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum opened in the Woolworth building. RLF Communications was hired to build a launch campaign.

"The museum must generate operating funds," says Richard Moore, vice chair of the museum and president of the Weaver Foundation, which helps fund and support it. "The campaign built a base for tourism."

RLF CEO Monty Hagler says the team aimed to raise $350,000, secure media impressions and pro bono PSA placements, in-crease web traffic by 50%, and gain a social media following.

The team leveraged the sit-in's 50th anniversary to educate audiences and tell the museum's story. It used national media relations, social media outreach,, and community events to drive awareness and engagement.

The media tour revealed that very few reporters knew about the sit-ins. The team had to "create interest and educate," says Hagler. "Social media was critical to reach younger audiences who may not have been aware."

In October and November, the museum's founders conducted tours for long-lead print media in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, and targeted all segments of mainstream media, as well as outlets for the black community.

RLF created PSAs featuring images from the sit-ins and comments from civil rights leaders, such as Jesse Jackson. The museum's website relaunched in December, with new interactive elements, educational materials, and donation information.

Community events were held immediately prior to the opening, including a unity service featuring civil rights leaders at Greensboro Coliseum for an audience of 15,000. The team also used Facebook and Twitter to share information and posted event videos on YouTube.

Moore spearheaded fundraising, organizing a committee and speaking to various audiences.

"We wanted to jump-start what would become an annual giving campaign," he says. "PR created an environment in which fundraising was more successful."

The effort helped the museum raise $750,000, says Moore, and opening-day tickets sold out in 36 hours. The February 1 ribbon-cutting ceremony drew 3,000 visitors; 2,000 more attended opening week. Since its launch, the museum has averaged 1,500 visitors a week, maximum normal operating capacity. Summer hours were extended to accommodate additional visitors.

From July to December 2009, monthly website traffic averaged 1,712 unique visits. From January to April 2010, the site averaged more than 17,000 unique visits per month.

Social media engagement was also up, with the museum gaining more than 11,000 Facebook fans and 300 Twitter followers in six weeks. YouTube videos had more than 3,000 views during the campaign. Media outlets such as USA Today, CNN, and NPR also covered the opening.

Hagler reports PSAs were distributed to more than 200 TV and radio outlets and more than 100 print outlets. "We've heard the PSAs ran on more than 25 stations," he adds.

The museum and RLF will work to raise the facility's profile and promote programming. Moore says the focus will include tourism and fundraising.

PRWeek's View
The results for this campaign were outstanding. The power of broad, sustained media relations can't be underestimated. The team also did a brilliant job ensuring tactics worked cohesively to build and sustain momentum. The museum is an educational interactive institution and the team extended education and interaction outward through all channels. It also was prudent with social media use in communicating news and encouraging dialogue, thus attracting and retaining the attention of a large number of media, as well as the general public.

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