Media Management: Navy Pier PR a Lifesaver After Media Snafu

Chicago’s top cultural attraction, Navy Pier, is undergoing redevelopment for its 100th anniversary in 2016. Plans call for updating its 50 waterfront acres into a spectacular, global destination and treasure for Chicagoans and visitors. But a media snafu nearly derailed the project. In late spring 2014, Navy Pier crafted plans to announce a $20 million legacy gift from the Polk family, which would support phase one of the Pier’s redevelopment. To manage media support and event PR needs, Navy Pier retained Henson Consulting (HC) as its agency of record, tasking the firm with leading the PR effort.


The legacy gift announcement brought many powerful players and interests to the table, namely Navy Pier staff, Navy Pier’s Board of Directors, the Polk family and the City of Chicago.

Success for the legacy gift announcement event depended upon meeting the objectives of each entity: Navy Pier aspired to build positive momentum for the centennial redevelopment plan and its ongoing fundraising effort. The Navy Pier Board sought to elevate and uphold the Pier’s reputation as an iconic Chicago landmark. The Polk family desired to make a lasting impact on the Pier. The City of Chicago looked to demonstrate, through the gift, Chicago’s greatness and the Pier’s important role as an economic engine.

A major complication arose when a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, on the eve of the press announcement, reported incorrectly that Navy Pier would “sell naming rights” to the Polk Bros Foundation. In fact, the gift was from the Polk family, not the foundation, and her characterization of the gift as a “naming rights purchase” undercut the generosity and impact of the money, which was to be used to offer arts programming at the Pier.

The HC team had to work quickly to reroute public focus to the legacy of the Polk family and its entrepreneurial and philanthropic contributions to the city.


HC organized and executed a press conference at Navy Pier with Pier executives and Polk family members to create widespread awareness of the gift.

To support the press conference, HC developed a suite of media materials, including key messages, a media advisory, the event-day flow, remarks for the President/CEO of Navy Pier Inc. and the Chairman of the Navy Pier Inc. board, an event-day press release and a story for the landing page of the Navy Pier website.

The leaked story created a media frenzy. A multitude of reporters and producers called HC for comment and requests to interview a Pier or Polk family spokesperson.

HC decided the message must remain consistent: the agency let the media know that HC could not confirm or deny the Chicago Sun-Times report. It encouraged them to attend the event the following day to receive the full and accurate story.

“Although we all had certainly hoped to keep our news quiet until the day of the announcement, once that particular story hit, we immediately determined a new course of action. We focused on providing a top Chicago Tribune reporter with exclusive, early access to key elements of the announcement, with the agreement that nothing would run until the morning of our media event, incentivizing thorough, accurate event-day coverage,” said Nick Shields, director of external communications at Navy Pier Inc.


Despite fears that the Chicago Sun-Times ’ column would prevent a good event-day turnout by local media, HC’s ability to stay the course and hold back additional information was successful in generating intrigue for the announcement. The event was attended by every local television crew and all major print outlets, resulting in high-quality media coverage.

Sharing the release with Chicago Tribune in advance enabled the reporter to complete her story before attending the event, resulting in a high-quality piece. In addition, an Associated Press placement extended the reach of the Pier well beyond Chicagoland.

By dominating the day’s news cycle that day, Navy Pier continues to leverage positive coverage for its fundraising effort. The announcement garnered 100 media placements, reaching nearly 32 million viewers and readers.

This article was written by Victoria Gestner, account manager at Henson Consulting.

Sidebar: Tips for Handling a Media Leak

While every situation is very different, ranging from full-blown crises to a minor headache, all media leaks must be quickly and carefully evaluated to determine the best course of action. When faced with a news leak, here are three ways to contain the damage:

Steve Singerman
Steve Singerman

Issue a statement. When your message gets out before you’re ready, you first need to evaluate if the news is accurate. If there are significant inaccuracies, immediately craft a short statement to correct the information, gain approval from necessary parties and distribute through all available channels, including your owned social media properties.

Revisit the plan. Determine if your media relations timeline needs to be moved up; this might mean shaving days or weeks off your timeline (and possibly years off your life). Push up the press release distribution date and adjust activities accordingly so that you regain control of the situation.

Dig deeper. In some cases, you may want to provide another news outlet with an even deeper story. Determine if you have enough exclusive material and information to provide to another select outlet, and use that opportunity to tell a more in-depth story. Reclaim the upper hand by offering compelling visuals (renderings or behind-the-scenes photos) or access to exclusive interviews with key players to generate continued interest and excitement among the media.

This sidebar was written by Steve Singerman, senior strategist at Henson Consulting. He can be reached at


Victoria Gestner,

This article originally appeared in the January 26, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.