A TRICKY CLIENT LIGHTS UP THE VILLAGE ON HALLOWEEN
As the agency of record for the New York City’s 39th Annual Village Halloween Parade, Gutenberg Communications was privy to work with organizers of one of the world’s most famous and longstanding public events that makes Greenwich Village a top international destination on the scariest night of the year. Billed as “the nation’s most wildly creative public participatory event,” and “New York’s Mardi Gras,” the New York Village Halloween Parade, now in its 39th year, typically attracts approximately 2 million attendees – and that’s not counting Parade participants! Like no other public event in the world (well maybe Burning Man), the Parade constantly makes the “bucket list” of things to do before you kick. So who actually shows ups and what sorts of public relations challenges does it present?
WHO SHOWS UP?
About 50,000 participants including hundreds of giant puppets, artists with explosive imaginations, thousands of New Yorkers in costumes of their own creation, dancers of all styles and more than 50 bands show up to be in the Parade. Talk about photo opportunities! That’s not to mention the 450 “media” who registered online this year for a Press Pass so they could join in and cover the Parade en route from the inside.- A contingent of NYPD officers are on Parade duty that night as are big crews from NY 1 and WPIX which station their production trucks to capture a live broadcast of the Parade as it s makes its way through the Greenwich Village up Avenue of the Americans from Soho to Chelsea.
Pointing press to the event highlights can be incredibly difficult when your line-up includes: the Incredible Hulk, the Mad Hatter, Roving Eyeballs, decked out Mini-Coopers, Chubaka, flying snakes, giant dragons, the rock band KISS, Little Red Riding Hood, Spiderman, drag queens and kings, Pirate Bluebeard, Princess Diana, Jagermeister skeletons, the Abominable Snowman, WonderWoman, robots and thousands of witches, ghosts and ghouls – just to name of tiny few of those available for photo opportunities. Bigfoot also showed up this year as did Obama, who appeared many times throughout the line-up violently wielding a budget ax.
PRE-EVENT PHOTO AND STORY OPPS
Each year, in keeping with tradition, the Parade is headed by an ever-changing menagerie of Giant Puppets and special costumed performances. This entourage provides the kernel of inspiration that sparks the creative energies of the other 50,000 Parade participants. We try to engage media to attend one of the scheduled workshops and locations where the Parade’s giant puppets are built and created by master puppet artists. Media can go to the workshops to engage in this wonderful process and meet with the artists. Technicians responsible for these puppets work throughout the summer and fall in many locations around the Greater New York City area, Upstate New York, New Jersey, Boston, Cleveland and the North East. These workshops are busy designing and fabricating new creations to fulfill the changing themes of each new Parade. Some 600 volunteers from the local communities and from New York City assist in the various stages of building, assembling and operating the puppets and costumes.
Communicating about enterprise software, venture capital and IT services can be downright scary at times but here’s a more daunting PR challenge: Each year the Parade has an artistic theme set by master puppet and pageantry artists Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles of Superior Concept Monsters, the Parade’s official puppeteers. The chosen theme is based on oral history, socio-political concerns, myth and tradition. The overarching, grand-view messages behind their large-scale puppet creations are not exactly easy to convey in words to journalists who have become more accustomed to sound bites and simplified bullet points. This year’s 2011 theme, “The i of the Beholder,” explores what makes the disembodied EYE so disturbing and familiar. Tradition associates the all-seeing eye with inescapable power and authority – coldly remote, yet as near to us as the back of a dollar bill. (sounds like a few clients we know:) As Kahn and Michalles put it, “The technology of Facebook and Flickr offers us the possibility of seeing everything, we risk seeing nothing but ourselves, eyes wide shut, in a collective feast of Narcissism. Argus, for all his vigilance, is slain by Hermes (God of Communication), and for his sacrifice, is turned into a peacock.” For this year’s Parade, video images of a close-up eye were projected onto a “Great Eyeball high in the Parade sky, in a succession of images at once intimate and anonymous.” This was beautifully executed visually at the front of the Parade. While hard to encapsulate into a sound bite or bullet point in our preliminary press, it was great to be able to point journalist to actual visuals – moving giant puppets processing up 6th Avenue and as they were coming to life at the puppet workshops.
PRESS CHECK-IN: OH JOY!
Over 450 “journalists” registered for media passes to the Parade this year. Last year it was about 250. Anyone who registers at the Parade’s Online Press and Media Center as “press” must check-in on-site at the Press Table starting at the Parade starting point at 2pm on All Hallow’s Eve. We issue official NYC Parade press badge badges to anyone who took this action or. The majority of registrants are freelance photographers who have agreed to submit their photos to the Parade Photo Gallery at the Parade’s official website. This, in return for a pass to cover the Parade from an insider’s vantage point. Many stragglers with cameras, who did not take the time to register, nor have any press credentials, still show up requesting a badge. In addition, several credentialed media on assignment showed up and checked in. This year they hailed from outlets including Barron’s, the Associated Press, Reuters TV, the BBC, Agence France, The Daily News and others on a mission to capture and file photos and reports by deadline that night. The credentialed are approved and their laminated NYC press badges are enough to ward off the NYPD who are empowered to promptly non-badged photographers from the lineup. But other bloggers, photographers who are neither credentialed nor took the time to register are sometimes left hanging. It’s tough being a gatekeeper on this massive media event.
The Parade steps off at 7 p.m. on Halloween and media typically arrive to start their reporting at approximately 6:30 p.m. at which time they ask for spokesperson interviews. Now, there are three official spokespersons including the creatives, Kahn and Michalles and our key spokesperson, the Parade’s Producing Director and national Celebration Artists Ms. Jeanne Fleming, who has a legacy with the Parade, and is one of the most electrifying clients and dynamic spokespeople a publicist could ever hope to work with. At the bewitching hour when most journalists want their interviews, however, all three spokespeople are crazily busy dealing with any number of things that could go wrong (and never do). Puppet artists can speak eloquently about their creations but they are so busy rigging the giant puppets and organizing teams of handlers it’s hard to find them let alone nail them down for interviews. Ms. Fleming is on a 2-way radio with the NYPD police chiefs, head marshals, drivers, bands, crowd control specialists, sponsors and VIPs so she’s a bit hard to nail down for interviews. This whole scenario has forever changed our view how to wrangle for interviews at an event.
OCCUPY WALL STREET IS COMING?!
“A spokesperson from Occupy Wall Street said a contingent of 500 Occupiers be showing up to march in the Parade. Can you confirm that?” a reporter with a major metropolitan daily asks. “No, but anyone is welcome to join the Parade If they are in costume.” The tradition of the Village Halloween Parade is to invite everyone in costume to join the parade — and typically 50,000 to 60,000 people take advantage of that invitation every year! Most of these are costumed celebrants on foot. As the nation’s most wildly creative public participatory event and the greatest City in the world, anyone and everyone in COSTUME is welcome. Safety and enjoyment come first. Parade organizers, therefore, ask all participants (including those from Occupy Wall Street) to keep the spirit and tradition of the Village Halloween Parade alive and abide by these simple rules. So the word went out: Get Your Costume Together!
CONTROL FREAKS BACK DOWN
Once the Parade gets underway we lose our authority, power and control as PR gatekeepers, and follow our natural inclination to keep watch beside the broadcast production trucks of NY 1 and WPIX where crews are set up and directors calling the shots, keeping the parade moving despite the many photographers who hold up the procession as masqueraders pose for their cameras. It’s hard to distinguish between the officials from those who are costumed like them. It’s chaos at the very hour when the world of the living and the dead can supposedly see through to the other. As the Parade processes, we resume our role as ushers and facilitators in a massive public procession that has a mind and spirit of its own. We watch the procession move with the powers that be: Frankenstein families, pirates, dead presidents, super heroes, monsters, ghouls, ghosts, witches, Tea Parties, Budget Axes and other creatures of the night. To stand and watch: now that’s a tall order when you’re a bunch of control-freakish PR people. The next day’s results hit national and international outlets and the stories, blogs and photos all publish in a wicked PR Brew!