Saturday, March 7, 2015

Pittsburgh St. Patrick's Day Parade Takes Me Home

Sometimes an important step in your career or life, one that transcends the traditional measures of success, is right in front of you. In fact, it may have been there for a long time, but you just weren’t ready to see it.

This was the case for me up until about seven years ago, not long before I decided to more meaningfully embrace my Irish-American roots and serve as the Public Relations chair of the Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I had many reasons for doing so, and they were all intertwined.

First, a little background on the parade. Mother Nature dropped a blizzard on it in 1993, and the show went on. Nothing stops this parade, among the largest in the nation. On a typically blustery March morning in Pittsburgh, the parade attracts an average of 150,000 spectators and 23,000 marchers – bands, Irish dancers, drums and pipes - all “Irish for the day.” When the weather has been unseasonably nice, we’ve attracted more than 350,000 to the parade.

It’s the town’s way to say goodbye to Winter and welcome in the warmer months with a citywide party. The fact that Pittsburgh – according to the U.S. Census – counts the Irish as one of its largest ethnic groups doesn’t hurt.

So it was that several years after starting my business and deep into my communications career, I had this strong urge to get back to my roots. To find a way to combine some of the things I care most about into one. This parade presented that opportunity to me.

I handle communications and marketing for the event and the growing number of activities that lead up to it. This parade is not just a three-hour march down a couple of city streets. Second, I have an opportunity to focus all of my PR efforts on a project that is mostly feel-good in nature. For this reason, the work and the planning can be a lot of fun. And third, I have the chance to work with new friends with similar backgrounds, and reconnect with a cross-section of people and families I’ve known since childhood. In some cases, the people I meet come from families that knew mine since before I was born. This dynamic keeps those who came before us alive in our hearts as we plan our annual rite.

Since I’ve been involved, I’ve been proud of a few of our PR and branding accomplishments, but also in putting a celebration of Irish heritage more at the forefront.

Before my time on the Parade Committee it had started to make a concerted effort to reposition the event as a family activity and not just an excuse to party and play to a stereotype of the Irish. The group took concrete steps to address this issue, and over time that has begun to pay off. I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the numbers of young families with strollers lining the parade route. More Downtown businesses are hosting family-friendly events to cater to this increased traffic.

Awareness of the parade and surrounding festivities starts to build weeks before the actual event.

On parade day, I have two secret pleasures. The first is to take in that quiet pause at the starting line when 23,000 marchers are lined up and ready to go as over 150,000 spectators wait. Lights flashing, marching units in formation, musical instruments all silent if just for that moment. You can feel the collective anticipation of a city, not just for a parade but for a celebration of better weather and better days ahead.

The other secret pleasure is a little thing. I like to watch the spectators more than the parade itself. The smiles and the excitement of parade-goers, whether they are one or 96 years old, are plentiful.

That makes it all worthwhile, and gives this event for me a sense of going home.

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