The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where I work, just opened a new exhibition on the subject — undoubtedly off-putting to some — of the history of lynching in America. The exhibition is called “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.” It consists primarily of some 80 photographs taken at lynchings across the United States from the 1880s to well into the 20th Century. Estimates are that more than 5,000 people were victims of this especially cruel form of mob “justice,” and that of those, the majority, by far, were African Americans.
My role is to help promote the exhibition and build crowds. The Freedom Center committed more marketing dollars to Without Sanctuary than ever before, which is manifested in billboards all over town, radio spots and online advertisements. In addition, and supplementing paid media, we are working aggressively to generate free publicity in the form of news stories about the exhibition in the traditional media — newspapers and TV news.
All of this activity is basic PR stagecraft that anyone in my position would plan. The added element was our focused effort to create favorable “buzz” about Without Sanctuary in digital space — the Internet generally and in the blogs of well-regarded, influential social media content providers. We invited a group of these folks to a sneak peek of the exhibition, and a baker’s dozen accepted the offer. Our ground rules were that there were no ground rules; each of the bloggers could write about Without Sanctuary — or not — and anyone could critique the exhibition, savage it if they felt it deserved to be panned, or write a positive review. Totally their call. To date, this effort has produced very positive reviews. Here’s one by Michael R on Yelp. Debba posted this on her Girlfriendology blog, and David Bowman wrote an especially insightful review.
In reaching out to those in the social media realm, I employed the very same tactics I use with traditional reporters working in the “old” media. That is, I sought coverage by offering tours of the exhibit prior to the general public opening, and supplied everyone with background information and perspective on Without Sanctuary ‘s graphic and grisly images. We made staff available for interviews with both traditional and new media writers, and we directed them to our website for additional information.
Here’s the difference. We sought to engage social media bloggers because we were seeking to access a new and growing audience: people who obtain their daily content through online sources of information that combine “news” and personal commentary that is more subjective and opinionated. The bloggers invited to the Freedom Center have that cachet; each has a following online that is based upon mutual interests and a level of trust. Having them comment on the exhibition creates a two-way conversation between blogger and audience and, depending upon the extent to which that conversation is repeated in digital space, the end result is a highly targeted word-of-mouth (“viral”) event.
Even though the PR techniques involved in reaching these bloggers closely parallels the way reporters and editors are approached, the outcome is something significantly different: not an account so much as a dialogue. Given the nature of Without Sanctuary and the subject of lynching, we concluded that we needed something more personal and more personalized than standard news coverage, instigated by people who create their own brand of content for online consumption.
So far, the social media discussion is positive. But traditional news coverage also has been good. The lesson in this is that finding your audience — and drawing them in — requires reaching out across a myriad of media channels — the old and the new.