Thursday, March 6, 2014

PR for the Pittsburgh St. Patrick's Day Parade

If you’re in PR for any length of time, sooner or later you become an events planner.  It may not be your specialty, but you have to be able to plan and stage events, whether they be store openings or press conferences, trade show panel discussions or annual meetings.

Tied to this, you need to be able to create all of the communications around the event to make sure people know about it, want to be there, and when they get there, your messages are effectively delivered and objectives achieved.  Sounds simple, right?

I’ve been involved with all of the above, but I have to admit one of my favorite events to plan and support is the Pittsburgh St. Patrick's Day Parade.

I’m in charge of public relations for the parade, and I get involved in obtaining sponsors and some fundraising.  I’d characterize it all as a labor of love.  With a name like “O’Brien” this may be understandable, but tied to this, there are other reasons.

The planning and implementation of the event allows me to intersect once again with people I have known in any many other contexts throughout my life.  People from my old neighborhood, old school friends, reporters with whom I’ve worked on other stories, people I’ve known in business. And I’ve met and gotten to know many new people, new friends.

On the PR side, I’ve been able to do what I love on a project that matters to me, but also continue my own professional development through the process.  In the years since I’ve handled PR for the parade, social media has emerged and become a dominant media channel.  The parade provided one outlet where I’ve been able to experiment, learn and hone my own social media skills and knowledge in the process.  Thanks to the parade and other social media work, I have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t.  As a result, we’ve built a few things.

The Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade regularly is the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the country with New York’s event being the largest.

On a cold day, we attract about 150,000 spectators.  Two years ago on a sunny day we drew 350,000 mostly peaceful and happy spectators.  The biggest crowd the parade ever drew was 450,000 spectators.  Keep in mind, the entire population of the City of Pittsburgh proper (excluding suburbs) is just over 300,000.

One thing I and others on the Parade Committee are proud of is positioning the event as a family-friendly one where “kids of all ages” are welcome and have a great time.  This isn’t lip service. We’ve taken some very specific actions that have over time had positive effect.  To be sure, this is a work in progress, but much of the work here is to counter stereotypes of the Irish and the holiday, overtly and subtly.  Parties are called for, but the celebration is of one of the region’s largest ethnic groups’ Irish heritage.

In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a much more religious holiday than here in the U.S.  Still, the Parade Committee has made sure not to get away from the spiritual aspect of the event, kicking  off parade week with a Communion Breakfast, and on parade day starting with mass near the starting line.  Not many events of this size are as unapologetic about its religious roots, while at the same time, extending a hand to people of all other cultures.  The spirit of the parade is to consider everyone, regardless of nationality “Irish for a day.”

The parade now receives much attention from the media and the public in the weeks leading up to the parade.  News stories and features start to pop up weeks before the parade and help involve the community in the celebration right up on through the event.  By the start of the parade, the excitement is palpable.

Our Facebook page  now has nearly 17,000 followers.  Our Twitter feed has over 1,600 followers, many of them key influencers in the media and in the community.  Combined, these social media channels drive the public’s awareness of parade plans all the way through the process, helping to create an environment of anticipation.

Social media supplements an active media relations program that involves not just the parade planners, but also others who may be involved in different aspects of the parade, from elected officials and civic leaders, to parade participants.

That may be the “magic sauce” behind the whole thing.  By the time the Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade marches on Grant Street to the Boulevard of the Allies, the region has been through the darkest, coldest and iciest days of winter.  Spring is days away.  People are ready to celebrate with family, friends and fellow Pittsburghers.

Cool thing is, on parade day if you’re a fellow Pittsburgher you are a friend.

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