Stinking It Up: Lessons From a PR Failure

We had a big party, but got no buzz. Lessons from a PR failure.

I've been thinking a lot about poop lately, and not just because I have two young kids. In particular, I've been pondering that clichéd philosophical question: If a bear poops in the woods and nobody's around, does it still stink?

Recently, DoSomething.org hosted what I'd normally consider a successful party. The event raised half a million dollars. We honored five amazing youths for doing amazing things, from building an orphanage in Nepal to registering thousands of new voters. (Read their stories at FastCompany.com.) Our red carpet at Harlem's Apollo Theater was packed with celebs, and performers including Boys Like Girls and Akon — who crowdsurfed — rocked the place. The 1,600 people there were floored. But did anybody else smell what we were cooking? Nope.

Our event PR, it turns out, was crappy. We generated almost no buzz. For the time, energy, and money that go into an event, it ought to reach well beyond the room. You want that poop in the woods to stink far and wide.

After the event, I sat down with my staff to analyze what went wrong and then I called some PR experts for advice. Given how many other organizations — for-profit and not-for-profit — do events, I thought the lessons might be worth sharing. Here's what we'll do next time.

Do some digging. We ended up with some run-of-the-mill photos, but Tess Finkle of Metro PR says our shots could have been better had we done more research: Find a juicy story. Get the photo. Were there people in the room who once dated? Which people were meeting for the first time? (The answer was yes: Boys Like Girls have a pet turtle named Dorota, named after the Gossip Girl character, and they met Zuzanna Szadkowski, who plays Dorota, at the event. Unfortunately, I have no photo.)

Be exclusive. We had celebs at the event, but we didn't exploit them well. Nobody loves exclusivity more than the media, so give a blog, a TV outlet, and a magazine one-on-ones with the night's big names. The sidebar exclusives benefit the talent, too: It's a chance to build their bleeding-heart brands.

Get help. Especially for youth-focused orgs like mine, the Web is crucial. Next time, I'll give free flights and hotel to Fred Figglehorn, the 16-year-old You-Tube star with more than 55 million views and 276,000 MySpace friends. And Lisa Witter, COO of Fenton Communications, told me to think beyond "official" bloggers: "You've got a zillion Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Don't forget to recruit them. You never know who has what friend." Had our 18 staffers and 12 interns utilized their Facebook networks, we would have reached 12,781 people.

Feed the paparazzi. I don't mean stories or photo ops. One of our interns gave cupcakes to the voracious photographers who were shooting our red carpet. Smart kid. Good move. I'm told those photogs will remember us now — and we want as many of them as we can to come back for our next event.

Make your own paparazzi. At most events, they tell you to turn your cell phones off. Next year, I'll ask the crowd to turn them on. Then they can take photos, tweet, upload clips, and update their Facebook statuses. A key to maximizing the multimedia maelstrom, says Attention PR's Naomi Hirabayashi, is to "ask those people to use the same keywords in titles. It will make it easier for you to search for those items later."

Strategize ... after the event. Right after the event (as in that night), gather the staff to review what happened — and I don't mean what went wrong. What nuggets of info did each of us collect? Nick Cannon presented an award while on a "bathroom break" from an event where he was accompanying his wife, Mariah Carey? Really? Is that a Perez Hilton item? Or maybe we'd rather give him the bit about the Real Housewives of New York City and send Nick to People.com. This is exactly why all the items need to be collected quickly and divvied up strategically.

Follow up. This doesn't just mean pestering people to write stories, which we did. When those stories show up online, it means Digging, retweeting, forwarding, and using every other tech tool out there to spread the word.

And having a column in Fast Company doesn't hurt either.

Nancy Lublin is CEO of Do Something.

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