With a name like O’Brien and having spent decades in the PR business, it was a no-brainer to take on handling public relations for the Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade when that opportunity came along. When I say “opportunity,” to be clear, it was a pro bono opportunity, or what others in the communications business may call a passion project.
As one of the oldest and largest St. Patricks’ Day Parades in the country, I had a lot to work with, but as with any public relations project, you can find ways to contribute to the event’s ongoing evolution.
In my case, that meant introducing social media to the process. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for the most part.
It also meant adding sponsors to the process, along with the creation of an annual collectible T-shirt.
Eventually, it would include livestreaming of the event in partnership with a local TV station via its Facebook page, extending the reach.
The parade already had in place a schedule based on long-standing traditions. There is the annual February fundraising party at a local Irish pub. Late in February is the formal announcement of Miss Smiling Irish Eyes and Her Court, along with the Parade Grand Marshal.
Around that same time, we created a media photo op event around the printing of the first run of our T-shirts.
A series of media alerts are sent out as new additions to the parade are announced.
Parade Week (the parade itself is always held on the Saturday before or on March 17th) is full of activities. Tuesday’s City of Pittsburgh Proclamation of St. Patrick’s Day Parade Week, combined with the Allegheny County Proclamation, usually the same day. There is the annual Crowning of Miss Smiling Irish Eyes by the Allegheny County Chief Executive. Along with each of these events is a flurry of media interviews and stories.
All of it culminates on parade day, rain or shine, where anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Pittsburghers, all Irish for a day, celebrate the city’s annual rite of Spring. Media coverage is wall-to-wall.
About Those Lessons
I didn’t forget. There have been some lessons I carried with me to other public relations work. Here they are:
- Positioning is Everything – The stereotypical perception of St. Patrick’s Day is it’s a drunk fest. Our parade committee sought to change that by working with the city to create strict alcohol-free zones in parade areas on parade day. To be sure, we understood that zero-tolerance was an unrealistic objective, but by formally prohibiting alcohol in certain public spaces, gone were the radio station-sponsored beer guzzling events. Bars were no longer serving green beer to the masses outside while parents with kids in strollers tried to navigate the scene.
The ”party” aspect of the day moved across the river to the South Side where the more adult celebration commenced where police could better manage the crowds. This was important because for the parade, our goal was to attract more families, and that meant creating a safe and positive environment for children.
During the time I worked on the parade and since, the incidents of public drunkenness dropped considerably, as reported by the Pittsburgh Police. They are now able to concentrate their forces where consumption is higher and spend most of their time during the parade looking after the safety of the growing numbers of young families in attendance.
- Events Generate Publicity – If you have a major event planned, and you want to generate publicity for that event, schedule a series of mini-events that have news media appeal in the run-up to the big day. This serves as one of the most effective pre-publicity strategies there is.
- The More the Merrier – The more people and organizations you involve in your event, the more attention and buzz it will create.
- Embrace the Chaos – If you’ve set everything into place and have a good process for your public relations efforts, it will start to take on a life of its own, and some things may happen that you never planned. Make that in itself part of the plan and embrace the chaos.
Meanwhile, enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day. Slainte!