When you’ve got the ear of 2,500 reporters, you’d be crazy not to seize the public relations opportunity.
That’s why the Chicago NATO Host Committee
is pushing the media to get out and see more than the NATO summit, held at a sprawling convention center where reporters are mostly covering events from the press center by webcast.
“As they’re walking by to talk about Afghanistan or to learn more about NATO, we wanted to let them know they were in a special city,” says David Boul, communications director at the host committee.
The committee, part of the nonprofit World Business Chicago
, is encouraging reporters to write about the arts, architecture, the blues scene, and international business. Its partners include the City of Chicago and many local organizations.
Reporting by webcast
Lucky thing the committee is here to make a splash, since to be at the NATO summit is to realize how little of the real action is open to in-person reporting. Pool reporters and photographers rotate into the public meetings. Hundreds of journalists are left watching webcast or live video on giant screens while listening on headsets.
Military officials stroll through the press center, and reporters from European, Chinese, and other news agencies spend the day hunched over their laptops.
A summit of this type involves an Olympian communications effort, from the credentialing of reporters to the advance press conferences announcing security measures. Sunday’s open portion of the summit was slated to end with a press conference open to all credentialed reporters.
But the event also reveals public affairs attachés and press officials who are anxious to avoid the limelight and decline to go on the record while many of the world’s heads of state are in town. Journalists seeking comments at NATO’s press office are diverted to the U.S. State Department, only to be sent back to NATO.
‘Pontius Pilate routine’
Richard Kusiolek, a writer for Via Satellite
and other magazines, complained about the “Pontius Pilate routine” as public affairs officers kept brushing off reporters.
“The people over at the Secretary of State have been very evasive in trying to do the most important thing, which is to allow the press to meet with the key people who are the decision makers in NATO,” Kusiolek says.
“In addition, they sent me on a couple of wild goose chases, which I had to bird-dog down to really get what was going on.”
The State Department declined to comment. No one from NATO would agree to be interviewed by Ragan.com and PR Daily despite weeks of emails and calls.
Streets mostly peaceful, despite evening skirmishes
Out on the streets, Reuters reported that thousands protesters marched. The event was peaceful, but later in the day a small number of protesters scuffled with Chicago police. Several people were injured and dozens were arrested, according to reports. Skirmishes with police continued throughout Sunday night.
Earlier, four people were arrested on terrorism charges. Three were allegedly were caught in the act of making Molotov cocktails, police told Reuters.
Reached by phone, a spokeswoman from anti-NATO Occupy Chicago said she was in the midst of the protests and couldn’t comment. No one returned a reporter’s message left at protesters’ 24-hour press center.
Protester Jeri Sparks told CBS News, “We're spending $2 billion a week killing people who are very far away and really haven't [done] anything to us.”
Time-honored press influencer: free grub
Back at the NATO summit, the committee presents a friendly face to reporters at its information station in the entry area. Eight officials, including communicators from the City of Chicago, were staffing the booths in shifts.
The committee is also using a time-honored tradition of influencing reporters: by providing free grub and booze. Caterers dished up Chicago-style pizza, hot dogs, and a salad bar for lunch. A free bar was pouring beer and wine already at noon, presumably for all those who were after hours in their home time zones.
The committee also handed out bags with its logo, containing Chicago maps, tourist information, bike maps, daintily wrapped chocolates, NATO publications, and a postcard that reads “I ♥ NATO Social Media.” (There were links to NATO channels such as Twitter
, where events like a press conference with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the press hall was broadcast.)
But its communications efforts go beyond the freebies. Boul spoke to at least 100 reporters in the days before the summit started, he says. The committee’s website is getting 75,000 visitors a day. Boul and other communicators were directing journalists to businesses or experts in topics they were interested in covering.
“We’ve grabbed their attention and it’s working for us,” Boul says. “We couldn’t be happier.”
With the help of corporate sponsors, the committee constructed a snazzy information center in the press area of the summit. Displayed on an archway overhead is a rolling video shot from a helicopter over Chicago.
(NATO also has erected a two-story rocket nearby, along with an extensive display about ballistic missile defense.)
The committee has created a stage that is hosting musical events, food samples, and short talks by figures of interest to the press. Titanium-looking blocks are inscribed with Chicago facts, ranging from the number of Nobel laureates affiliated with the University of Chicago (87) to the artery-clogging news that “Chicago has the most hot dog joints of any city in America.”
The committee has also broadened its outreach to all of the 18,500 visitors expected this weekend, counting delegates and family members. It created videos that are running on its website and in hotels and taxicabs. The footage featured Mayor Rahm Emanuel people and luminaries from places like the Lyric Opera.
Boul declined to say how much the events cost the committee (or its sponsors). Figures would be released in June, he says. But he says he is pleased with the results.
“How often do you get the chance to tell your story to 2,000 reporters from around the world at one time?” Boul asks.
Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com.