A PR Coup: How I “Did” A Last-Minute Inaugural Ball

The eNaugural.com ball — a perfect mix of celebrities, entertainment, and media coverage, with a Toy Story theme — how was it done?

[Editor’s Note: People in PR often get asked what it is exactly that they actually do. PR wizard Tanya Hilleary gives a glimpse of the inside world…managing multiple celebrities at a last-minute event, arranging a huge media splash, ensuring that everything went perfectly at the event itself…and leveraging her success to grow her firm. Definitely worth a read! This article was originally posted to the Small shop PR Agency discussion list at yahoogroups.com, and is, of course, used with the author’s permission.
–Shel Horowitz, Editor, Down to Business]

I jumped on the Inaugural Ball train on the 6th of January – 14 days before the BIG EVENT. Like everything surrounding the ball, the group putting on the event was about 2 months behind in their preparations. They had originally contracted with Ogilvy [Ed. note: A prominent ad agency] to do PR, but Ogilvy dropped them when by early December there was no decision on the Presidency, and the inauguration looked like it could possibly by cancelled outright. All these guys had was a great venue (The National Press Club) – and some big dreams. They had only just begun selling tickets through C-vent and had sold 100 tickets for a 1200 person event.

Enter, me. When all was said & done, we had 30 print/online media on the story and 5 TV networks covering the event (NBC, CNN, FOX, WPNI, and some Asian News Network that was only seen in India). NBC did before and after coverage, CNN did pre-event coverage, and Fox did a live stand up from the event.

The first thing I did was get the eNaugural Ball on local calendar and event listings – everything from the very local DC Netpreneur calendar to the Reuters Inaugural Event Calendar. All in all, very VERY good. The Reuters Calendar is a HUGE advantage, basically every major broadcast news outlet pulls from there. It sure is nice to have TV producers call you for a change.

We issued one press release before the event – hyping the venue and pushing the entertainment and VIP guests. People caught on. Initially, the only VIP guest we had was Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin – a personal hero- and we wanted something flashier to offset the NASA junkies. I had an “in” with the Miss America Pageant and I arranged for Miss Virginia, Miss Maryland, Miss Delaware and Miss Washington, DC to attend the event as well. The girls were thrilled to participate. (Just a word on pageant gals- not baton-twirling lightweights. One was getting her MBA, another was in Law School, one a trained classical harpist…this pageant was a means to an end for them, and a good one at that.)

Riverbyte Communications is a one person “MicroShop” PR firm. I honestly didn’t think we’d get the kind of play we were getting. We were an “unofficial” ball, which means the President wasn’t going to be there, however other “unofficial” Balls like the Texas Black Tie & Boots Ball were also getting big media play – I figured we had an opportunity and a unique story to tell. When the event neared and I realized I had credentialed nearly 40 media outlets, 5 of which were TV networks, and I had 4 beauty queens and 1 astronaut to manage for the evening. I traded my black gown for a red one – something that would be easier to pick out of a crowd, and I realized I needed some on-site help – fast!

I enlisted my ever-supportive husband, Brian, to corral the “Misses” – a task he loved. In his discussions with Miss DC, he learned she was a trained classical harpist – and he arranged for her to sit in with the classical trio we had set up in a dining area. She was delighted and Brian orchestrated the Webcast crew to film her first-ever broadcast performance on the harp. The girl played a beautiful piece she composed herself and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Her parents came too, and they beamed with pride at their daughter. Brian earned a promotion to “Husband, First Class”.

I had been advised that Buzz Aldrin was an absolute doll to work with, and that Mrs. Aldrin is extremely protective of her husband and enjoys sharing the limelight. I knew in order to keep Buzz happy, I’d have to keep her happy. I needed someone special to be on “Mrs. Aldrin Detail” all evening making sure she was having a wonderful time and feeling a part of her husband’s event. I needed someone who was outstanding in dealing with strong personalities, someone who would give off an air of authority as well as be an on-site customer service person who could be as flexible as the finest hotel concierge yet be ready for crisis management if it came to that. I needed a mom.

So, I called my mom. She’s a manager for American Express Centurion in Miami, FL. She deals with the rich and famous every day, caters to their whims, and knows what impeccable personal service means. Centurion is the highest level card Amex offers – it costs a ridiculous $2500/year just to carry it in your wallet. (i.e. Not a product Frugal Shel would endorse…) It turns out, Mom and Mrs. Aldrin actually had a mutual acquaintance, so Mom & Lois Aldrin fast became friends. Life was good.

For my final on-site helper, I needed someone who could help with the media, orchestrate interviews, and act as a “back-up me” if I was indisposed. Person had to be good at multitasking and handle on site stress with ease. They had to know me well, and the way I work. Had to be able to identify a congressperson should anyone show up. Republican preferred (since I’m not, I wanted someone who could talk the talk about Bush) Enter good friend and former college roommate Heather Cox, top consultant at Deloitte & Touche.

Together, we 4 formed a dynamic SWAT team. We were EVERYWHERE! In fact, some publications even thought Riverbyte put on the event.

We needed a way for the Misses and Buzz to work together. What do beauty queens and a moon-walking astronaut have in common? Well, I heard through Buzz’s handlers that Inaugural Evening, January, 20, was Dr. Aldrin’s 71st Birthday. Ah-ha! Ok, so, I planned a well publicized serenade of one of America’s beloved heroes by some of America’s loveliest gals. The ladies loved the idea, and I got Lois Aldrin in on it as well. She LOVED it – felt like a beauty queen herself. I arranged for a special cake to be made to be used as a prop – the local bakery does cakes with a Toy Story theme – know the character, Buzz Lightyear? Well, guess who that was modeled after? Yep, I had a custom cake done with a Buzz action figure standing next to an American Flag with stars in the sky – my “Space Cake” would look great on camera.

Sure enough, we had it all orchestrated – astronaut, wife, beauty queen serenade, candles, etc. Buzz announced it was his best birthday ever. It’s really a great feeling when you can watch an American hero’s face light up over something you’ve done. Buzz collected the cake-sized American flags and gave them to my husband, Brian for his valiant efforts. Brian was so pleased. Buzz pocketed the mini-Buzz Action Figure for himself. (I had a chuckle at that…)

All in all, it was an incredible event. From Washington Post Style editors wandering and snapping photos of outfits to be posted on the web site to Time Magazine and the NBC correspondent actually BOWING to me in front of my client, I really couldn’t have asked for a better situation. I made sure my current clients & prospects were on the invite list – the VP of an area prospect came at my invitation and she called me the Tuesday afterward to tell me we had a deal…and to mention she had a wonderful time.

This was a very high-profile gig for me. I continue to be floored by the leads it has generated in just 2 weeks time. I’m really swamped. [Editor’s Note: Not for publication, Tanya shared several very prominent organizations that had approached her as a direct result of this event.]

This post was really a brain-dump of the enaugural.com ball. I’m happy to entertain any specific questions anyone may have.

Tanya F. Hilleary
Riverbyte Communications
P.O. Box 3226
Reston, VA 20195