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

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

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