When Your Cover is Blown: Managing the Spy Museum’s PR

Psst. Hear about that International Spy Museum that opened in Washington, D.C., on July 19th? Probably. With massive multi-platform media coverage across the nation and internationally, it was one of the most successful promotions of a cultural institution in recent memory (see "Counting the Hits"). The museum has been counting 3,000 visitors a day and 100,000 within its first month, on pace to handily beat initial projections of 500,000 visitors in the first year. But even Media Relations Manager Jennifer Saxon admits that a spy museum pretty much sells itself to the press. Saxon, Charlene Duryea, director of communications, and contracted PR firm Resnicow Schroeder Associates (which specializes in museum promotion), had begun in January pitching key media and holding meet-and-greet press luncheons in New York and D.C. In the end, however, the espionage hook was so strong in the press given the current situation in world news that their job turned quickly from getting coverage to managing a media tsunami that continues months after opening. PRN: Tell us about the very specific goals and media targets you had for this campaign when it started last January. J.S.: It consisted of creating a national buzz about the museum but also trying to get as much coverage around the opening so it would drive people to come to the museum. So, we focused on the publications in the top states and countries of origin for visitors to our region, to make sure that the people who ordinarily would come here put us on their must-see list. Since it is a large area of origin for our visitors, we focused on getting at least one or two articles in The New York Times [the museum got two pieces]. Here, The Washington Post served a dual function, being a large national paper and regional paper. We tried to build relationships with key editors there, especially in the Style section and the museum reviewers. PRN: How did you straddle two promotional messages at once: that this is a serious museum and that it is a fun and sexy pop cultural curiosity? J.S.: The International Spy Musuem sounds like its going to be all about pop culture. We wanted to make sure the message was that this is a serious museum. It is a world-class museum that covers the real life of espionage, not just pop culture. [The museum's board of advisors is populated by former defense and intelligence community officials, and its executive director is CIA veteran E. Peter Earnest, all of whom were presented at the introductory press luncheons in early 2002.] We also realized that pop culture was one of the things that would make people come visit us, so we tried to embrace that, telling people, 'You might think you know espionage. But you really don't.' PRN: How did the CNN coverage work in your favor? J.S.: It was something we focused on. We offered CNN a sneak peek at the museum a few months before opening, not only because we wanted to get the national and international press. The other key media outlets like the morning TV news shows saw us in The Times. But the people who would pay money to come saw us on CNN. When the story hit in The Times in January, we got a lot of calls from other press, but not many from the general public. After the CNN piece hit, we got a few calls from the press, but a lot of calls from the general public. PRN: How does such a small PR staff handle such a deluge of media? J.S.: On this project, the biggest challenge was managing interest. The lesson we learned is that from the beginning it is best to assume everyone wants to cover you, so that you are prepared for it. Determine who is going to handle which kinds of media. If you are going to be exclusive, how are you going to do that? Are you going to declare a blanket "no exclusive" or do you give topic exclusives? That's what we did [exclusive coverage of particular rooms of the museum to specific outlets]. PRN: Tactically, what do you need in place to handle an outsized response with limited staff? J.S.: Any system that you need, any paperwork you think you will need, get set up ahead of time, because once the media hits there is no time to create anything. We were getting at least 150 emails and 100 calls a day. Have your cell phone available to people on your answering machine and business cards. Make sure you have the OK and the budget to have more people come on if you need them. One media person was upset that the temp couldn't answer her question, but we thought it was more important that the media talk to a human than get an answering machine every time they called. Let people know on the phone that the closer they get to the opening the more likely they will talk to somebody who is there temporarily. PRN: How did you manage the events themselves, keeping the press crowd manageable and happy? J.S.: We learned from the two [earlier] press luncheons how many press would show up from the number of invitations you would send out. We were expecting maybe 20 percent or 25 percent of invitations to come back, but really it's only about 10 percent. In order to fit 150 people in the room, we sent out about 1,000 invitations. More press came because of the extra people on the crews. Maybe 100 outlets came, but you're talking about 150 people. The photographers especially only wanted to see the museum. The reporters who were there wanted to talk to the people. We divided up the group. The people who waited had a chance to interview people outside so everyone was occupied. (Contact: Jennifer Saxon, 202/654-0946) Counting the Hits Still early in the accounting process, initial reports on the Spy Museum's coverage show remarkable media interest worldwide. Among the top circulation newspapers in the U.S., the museum received coverage in four of the top five, nine of the top 10, 19 of the top 25 and 33 of the top 50. On TV, the museum was on CNN live five times during opening day, carried also on Headline News and international venues. On opening week, spots ran on the "Today" show, CBS Morning, and CBS Sunday Morning, while a taped segment for "Good Morning America" got bumped by breaking news. According to Saxon, the evaluation of the hits will take into account how well they covered the initial target areas. And because there was no way to register press effectiveness in driving attendance to the museum itself before the opening, they will be looking at the logs of the elaborate museum Web site (http://www.spymuseum.org) to see which press coverage resulted in increased Web visits.

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