This summer, I attended a conversation led by Sound Transit’s public information officer, Bruce Gray, and hosted by the Puget Sound Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. Having just gone through the public unveiling of two new stations in Seattle’s light rail system, Gray had a lot to say about how to make complicated communications moments successful.

Like all good advice, the insights I gathered here apply pretty broadly. So whether you’re planning a 30,000-person conference or a 50-person demo, keep the following five strategies in mind:

Traditional Media Is Gold

Good old-fashioned traditional media remains the most trusted, pervasive and influential of all media, making media relations vital to any PR plan. Pre-event coverage establish a tone and prepare audiences for what to expect, while post-event coverage recaps what happened and propels the narrative into the next stage.

Ahead of opening its new stations, Sound Transit held a tried-and-true press conference, with attention-grabbing elements like a large clock counting down to opening day and high-profile spokespeople like the mayor. The event drove strong preliminary coverage, helped build anticipation and provided the public with more information about the grand opening and the rail stations themselves.

Then, five days before the actual opening, Sound Transit let local print and broadcast media tour the new stations and shoot b-roll and interviews. So when the big day finally came around, the media had stories queued up and ready to roll. The hallmark win was an above-the-fold, front-page feature in “The Seattle Times the Sunday following the opening, a story that reached readers all over the Puget Sound area.

Partner Outreach Pays Off

Your event is going to have neighbors. Make sure surrounding businesses and partners are part of the planning process. This is a chance not only to preempt complaints and confusion but also to identify third-party advocates and build goodwill in the community. Best-case scenario, these partners help spread the news for you.

In Sound Transit’s case, the team set up Q&A sessions for community members, to ensure they were informed ahead of the event. It also worked with the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce to set up websites and phone numbers for businesses to use if they had questions or concerns during the day of the event. Gray told us that the day went off without a hitch, and he felt the cooperation of partners was a big reason.

Engage Onsite

At the event itself, you can create a lasting impression with thoughtful giveaways and keepsakes, such as reusable bags, charging devices and water bottles stamped with your branding. People like to receive gifts (duh!), and if they hang on to yours then you’ve got a form of advertising that really sticks in their mind. The Huffington Post reported that 89 percent of people who received a promotional item in the last 24 months can remember the name of the company associated with it.
In Sound Transit’s case, they gave away paper trains, branded buttons, reusable tote bags and a limited-edition, commemorative transit card (available only on the day of the grand opening). From fun to useful, these gifts went home with untold numbers of attendees, and many probably still live on in the offices, cars and homes of their recipients.

Use Social Media (Intelligently and Often)

Social media is your direct channel to your target audience. To hook them most effectively,  create content that is easily digestible — like photos, infographics and videos — and include links to your website, where people can get the full story about the event and the brand behind it. Also, keep in mind that an increasing number of media outlets are assessing companies’ online presence as they decide whether to do a story on them.

Over three months leading up to their unveiling, Sound Transit increased their Twitter followers by 12 percent and their Facebook likes by 10 percent. In their social media posts, Sound Transit linked to various microsites set up specifically for the unveiling. The event organizers also offered social media engagement opportunities onsite at the event, like photo booths that ported images to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with a custom hashtag. (Check out the results on Twitter!)

Have a Contingency Plan

Accidents happen. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate, and sometimes crowds get rowdy.

In the midst of a crisis, it’s too late to start planning. So it’s important to get ahead of issues and prepare ahead of time.

There are several things you can do now to prepare, including establishing a dedicated crisis team, making sure your staff knows you have a plan and what it entails, and securing approvals for important pre-drafted materials (e.g., prepared comments in case there’s an injury onsite).

Of course, even when you’re prepared, some things will be out of your control. Sound Transit was criticized in The Capitol Hill Seattle Blog for spending more than $850,000 of taxpayer money on the station unveiling. But it had a strong handle on it own messaging and had built strong relationships with many reporters (including, it should be noted, some at the Capitol Hill blog), so the conversation overall was positive and celebratory — just like the organization wanted.

Are you fully prepared for your next PR event or activation? If not, what are you worried about? Leave a comment or contact our office and we can discuss.


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