San Diego has long been known as a military town, and PR avidly supports the armed forces. For example, a marathon public relations effort made it possible for the most-visited floating ship museum in the United States to be berthed in San Diego.
It required a 12-year PR campaign, led by Scott McGaugh, beginning in 1992 when the historic USS Midway aircraft carrier was decommissioned. The campaign resulted In the Midway returning to San Diego and open as a museum in 2004. Community leaders relied on public relations, as there were no advertising, marketing, or merchandising resources. Local public relations officials donated their time to the cause, developing and implementing a coordinated community relations, alliance-building, and media relations campaign. The challenges were formidable:
- Educate and then motivate leaders and the public to support the establishment of an aircraft carrier museum
- Maintain awareness and enthusiasm as innumerable bureaucratic delays stretched the expected four-year effort into more than a decade
- Generate fundraising support for an initiative that received no public funds, grants, or allocations in any way.
The fundamental strategy centered on leveraging San Diegans’ pride in their heritage as a “Navy town” and one that valued those who serve America in uniform. This was accomplished in part by positioning respected civilians as leaders of the effort. Supporting the Midway vision became a patriotic duty in the absence of a San Diego memorial that paid tribute to those who serve and sacrifice.
As one delay after another surfaced, the PR group took a proactive approach by openly announcing the delays, their reasons, and the plan of undaunted action. Over time, a surprising degree of empathy was generated among reporters and editors. The PR plan also moved to “localize the story” to an extreme. This was done by focusing heavily on the small, weekly suburban publications by profiling neighborhood residents who were involved in the program.
Many times crisis communications was dealt with creativity. It came down to a final California Coastal Commission hearing in which its staff opposed Midway and the Commission prohibited “packing the house” with applauding supporters. So the house was packed with hundreds of supporters who silently waved American flags at the conclusion of each proponent’s presentation.
Ultimately the Commission unanimously overruled its staff and within a year the USS Midway arrived in San Diego. The extended PR program earned a prestigious PRSA Silver Anvil Award and became a textbook case history that is now taught at more than 140 colleges and universities around the country.