Kent State ‘flash mob’ creates news, buzz — and maybe saves a life or two

This week the old professor basks in the reflected glory of Kent State’s “Donate Life Ohio” team. These 7 PR students, all juniors, have spent the last 10 weeks executing a campaign to increase the number of organ donors in Northeast Ohio.

flashmobteam.jpgTheir campaign is working.

So far, the Kent team has signed some 7,500 new donors. They used traditional face-to-face tools like information booths and presentations, but they also plugged into Web 2.0 with a range of Facebook tactics and this follow-up video on YouTube.

Thirteen Ohio schools have fielded teams in the Donate Life College Program. But we’re gonna win — I just know it.

The campaign’s “Do It Now” theme is a simple imperative. It imparts an urgency felt by some 3,000 Ohioans now on transplant waiting lists.

doitnow_large.gifThe team’s goal this week was awareness through good old fashioned publicity. And the kids pulled off an event that would make Ed Bernays proud. (Here’s the news release.)

Journalists from 3 daily newspapers and 2 network TV affiliates were drawn to KSU by an orchestrated event known as a “flash mob.” Wikipedia calls a flash mob “a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief period of time, then quickly disperse.”

Here’s a cool example of a flash mob staged in NYC by the Sketches Comedy group. This case inspired our students to try it on a slightly smaller scale.

The Donate Life Ohio campaign — and the flash mob in particular — is just one of many occasions when PRKent students leave the comfortable world of theory and textbooks to plunge into the real world. Those who know our program won’t be surprised, as you know our insistence on learning by doing, and doing, and doing…

freezeframe.jpgI wasn’t able to attend the event, but I learned from the coverage that ensued. From a photo caption in the Akron Beacon Journal, I learned that Donate Life Ohio is seeking 400,000 new donor sign ups this year. From the story in the Daily Kent Stater, I learned that 18 people die each day in the U.S. while waiting for an organ transplant. From the Record Courier story I learned all about the PRKent team’s strategy. From online coverage I learned how we can all become organ donors AND support the DLO team. Nowhere in the coverage do we learn what it takes to freeze in the high-five position for five minutes.

Thanks to our students’ efforts, thousands of people today have a greater awareness of organ donation and the life-giving power each of us holds. So sign up, OK?

Here’s how!

I wish I could take credit for this PR masterpiece, but that belongs to the members of the DNO team and their adviser, Professor Michele Ewing. I will insert a plug for the team spokesperson, Julie McKinney — not because she worked any harder than the others, but because she’s a blogger in my PR Online Tactics class, and a good one at that. A tip of the hat goes to Flash Communications, our student PR firm that operates under the capable mentoring of Rob Jewell.

At the risk of overplaying this post, I’ll add this lesson:

Staging pseudo events like the flash mob — events contrived to draw the attention of news media — has always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it’s why I never enjoyed media relations. Pseudo events are a part of our business borrowed from P.T. Barnum, and I never did like the circus — never.

One of my first mentors in the 70s didn’t mince words about such events. He used them a lot to promote our firm’s consumer product clients. “Manipulating news media is part of what we do,” he said. “It’s part of our role.” That never sat well with me. I don’t like manipulation.

Another of my mentors bristled at the idea of publicity stunts, insisting that “a story must fundamentally sell itself.” P.T. Barnum was a shill, he said, not a PR professional. I always nodded in agreement.

It took one of my contemporaries from Cleveland to finally set me straight: “Bill, if a story fundamentally sells itself, the client doesn’t need us.” Ain’t it the truth?

This week, a group of Kent PR majors created an event and pitched a story that would never, ever have sold itself. Without the flash mob, the key message might never have been heard.

These kids told an important story that may someday save your life. To that I say: Long live P.T. Barnum!

10 Responses to Kent State ‘flash mob’ creates news, buzz — and maybe saves a life or two

  1. Nice job, everybody! And much obliged for the Facebook invite to join the Donate Life Ohio group. I may live in Michigan but I’m always a Buckeye Golden Flash at heart.

  2. Allison says:

    Great idea and post. The major has progressed so much more since I left two years ago with a variety of classes and independent studies. I’m just hoping PR people don’t run this innovative idea into the ground. Let’s use it where it makes the most sense.

  3. […] flash mobs are random and organized just for fun but companies can definitely benefit from the buzz these quirky events create. In London, Wrigley’s organized a flash mob to get […]

  4. Michele Ewing says:

    Allison raises a good point about running the flash mob idea into the ground. A couple of months ago, I never heard of a flash mob. Now, this type of stunt seems to be everywhere. While we were thrilled with the news coverage and people who became donors, there was another valuable outcome–the high level of student engagement. The DLO students passionately worked hours on this five-minute event. Their enthusiasm became contagious. Students representing different majors and organizations got involved in the organ donation cause. I’m not a circus fan either, but the pseudo event certainly can be effective. Bill, thanks for taking the time to recognize our students’ efforts. I’m sure they’re thrilled.

  5. Shelley Prisco says:

    Now this is what I call a creative way to raise awareness. It may have been a staged event, but it was for a good cause. You can’t go wrong with that. We always need new ways to get our messages out there.

  6. Abby says:

    yay!! I would like to say congratulations to these students. Last semester when we had campaigns class and drew up the initial plans for a college-based Organ Donation Campaign, I was skeptical. It seemed like so much work needed to be done in order to make it successful– it looks like they found a way to do just that!

  7. Brandi Neloms says:

    ~Update~

    Our PRKent team was the overall winner of the Do It Now College Challenge. We won $5000 for PRSSA, interniship opportunities and great publicity for the public relations department here at KSU!

    Thank you Bill for your efforts in helping us raise awareness to our cause, flash mob and overall campaign!

  8. Brandi Neloms says:

    BTW ~ It is projected that the PRKent team will be responsible for 12,500 new donors added to the registry in Cuyahoga, Geauga and Portage counties (BMV numbers included).

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Brandi. You have reminded me of the need to write a post and brag on the DLO team. You were awesome.

  10. […] learned last year that our 3rd-year students are up to the task. Regular readers will recall a post I wrote about our Donate Life Ohio Team. That group won a 14-campus competition and a $5,000 prize. […]

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