How to Shake Off Dusty Misconceptions: PR in Action

Siobhan Reardon
Siobhan Reardon

As the President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, I am fortunate to witness the great work carried out every day by our expert librarians. Of course, they connect readers of all ages with new favorite books. But they also help our customers customize their résumés and share our rich special collections with curiosity seekers from around the world. They create more than 25,000 lively programs annually, and they’re always on hand to assist folks with downloading ebooks and audiobooks to their digital devices. Plus, they do all this and more while answering 3 million reference questions each year.

Talk about impressive.

Yet we often heard from various sources that many people just weren’t aware of the great services we offer and the great work that we do. With a lean staff and an even leaner budget, we had to get creative about how to spread the message about the Free Library in a bigger and more impactful way. So we approached ADLOOP—an arm of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As) comprised of young ad professionals from a variety of agencies—about collaborating on a promotional campaign to showcase our dynamic, 21st century Free Library of Philadelphia and shake off some of those dusty misconceptions still floating around out there about libraries (outdated) and librarians (so quick to shush). I was thrilled when they agreed to take us on as a pro bono client. Through a series of extensive conversations with Library staff and ADLOOP professionals, we developed four key goals for the campaign:

  • Demonstrate the extensive cultural resources the Free Library has to offer
  • Showcase the Library’s modern, digitally savvy information experts
  • Debunk outdated stereotypes about libraries and librarians
  • Encourage Philadelphians—especially those in their 20s and 30s—to get a Free Library card

In short, we wanted to let Philadelphia know that we’re here, we’re awesome and we’re ready to help.

Spearheaded by ADLOOP president Devin Short, the ADLOOP team developed the concept for a series of colorful, quirky ads featuring Free Library staff members that encourage the public to “Get a card and check us out.” Five of our librarians and digital resource specialists agreed to appear in these geo-targeted ads on popular websites like Facebook and Pandora, as well as on buses, billboards and subway placards throughout the Greater Philadelphia region. They brought their A-game to the photo shoot, and their unique personalities enlivened the campaign with a playful and fun spirit.

ADLOOP’s creative vision and expertise truly drove this partnership. They knew how best to target Philadelphia’s young professional community through the media they consume. Their compelling copy embodied the Free Library’s aspirational brand message to transform lives at any given moment. Their eye-catching art meshed perfectly with the Library’s colorful, graphic, modern design style. They turned around an incredible amount of high-quality work in a tight timeline. And once the campaign went live on May 13, the response was immediate and exciting—tweets and Facebook messages came flooding in, all in praise of the clever campaign and in support of the Library. 

For an organization that has a smart but spare communications staff, it was incredibly valuable for us at the Free Library to observe and learn from the ADLOOP team. While we have done in-house campaigns and promotions in the past, to see the full impact of the combined efforts of a complete advertising team—from copywriting and design to strategic media buying and logistical intricacies—has helped us understand the importance—and power—of collaboration between our professional library staff and advertising experts.

From a public relations perspective, the campaign reminded us that sometimes creating news values and visibility is about a return to the basics—about a return to highlighting the human-interest piece of campaigns.

In a world that praises digital innovation, stories that are grounded in the human element cannot only compete, but outperform the glitz and glamour of the next shiny new thing. Today, we are still able to create media excitement and news coverage by highlighting the people who breathe life into different organizations everywhere, and it’s important to remember that we don’t always need to rely on a new, innovative stunt or a catchy visual staged for the media.

Not only did this campaign generate business press, but a variety of media outlets across all platforms used the campaign as a chance to tell the stories of our librarians and create awareness of the many ways they connect with our customers and bring our neighborhood libraries to life each and every day.

In an ever-evolving public relations landscape where the rise of social media, bloggers, and the changing face of the newspaper industry continue to alter the name of the PR game, it’s clear that human-interest stories still create meaningful connection points with both journalists and the public.

By being a part of the creative process and relying on and learning from the expertise of others, the Free Library staff and I have gained valuable new skills and insight into advertising and public relations best practices. We are confident that our future, in-house work will be even stronger, thanks to the partnership with ADLOOP.

Siobhan A. Reardon is president and executive director of The Free Library.