Breaking Trail 2000: A Blizzard of News Coverage
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Breaking Trail 2000: A Blizzard of News Coverage

Two lifelong friends, who invented the snowmobile 45 years ago, trekked 1,000 miles across the untamed tundra of Alaska on snowmobiles last March.

Paul Holmes

Two lifelong friends, who invented the snowmobile 45 years ago, trekked 1,000 miles across the untamed tundra of Alaska on snowmobiles last March.  The feat recreated a 1960 adventure that launched a company called Polaris and an exhilarating sport for millions.  Last year’s eight-day trip marked the 40th anniversary of the first trans-Alaska snowmobile trek, prompting a blizzard of news coverage for the world’s largest snowmobile manufacturer and generating extra horsepower for the Polaris brand.
Challenge I:  Before planning began, we knew we had a great adventure story on our hands, but we needed to know who to pitch it to and how best to pitch it.  Our first step was to conduct secondary research for news coverage of recent adventures and invention anniversaries. 
Challenge II:  Besides providing a foundation for a target media list, our database searches also uncovered another long-distance snowmobile trip that was being planned just before ours.  We investigated this trip further and determined the “competing trip” was smaller, less organized and therefore not a threat to grab the media spotlight away from the Polaris trek.  We also conducted an audit of television assignment editors and newspaper reporters to test story angles and gauge interest in covering the trip. 
Challenge III:  We quickly learned that, with the exception of Alaska media, it was very unlikely any reporter would fly to Alaska to cover the event in person.  We would have to bring the story into newsrooms via satellite, news wires and the Internet.
Objectives:  Following research, we developed a plan to accomplish the following objectives and measurable goals:
Objective #1 – Raise awareness for Polaris as the company that invented the snowmobile and is now a world leader in the recreational vehicle industry. 
Target goals: 1) Two national news stories and 50 local market news stories about the trip that include at least two key messages.  2) Score 1,000 points on the Tiller Index, an evaluation system that measures Polaris news coverage based on how well it aligns with the business goals of Tom Tiller, Polaris’ CEO.  (Our Tiller Index goal for the entire year was 2,000 points.)
Objective #2 – Drive traffic to the Polaris Web site.  Target goal: drive one million people to the Polaris Web site during the course of the Alaska trip.
Target Audiences:  1) Existing and prospective snowmobile owners; 2) Existing and prospective snowmobile dealers; and 3) Analysts and investors.
Our research told us we wouldn’t get reporters to fly to Alaska to cover the trek, so our plan focused on bringing the Alaska story to reporters.  Our strategic approach was to focus on the historical significance of the trek and on the co-inventors of the snowmobile, who are now in their late seventies.  We front-loaded the plan with media opportunities prior to the trip, emphasizing the grave risk the adventurers were undertaking. 
While every precaution was taken to ensure the trip would be safe (Polaris even hired survival experts to develop emergency rescue plans) we wanted to plant this question in reporters’ minds:  How in the world are two men in their late seventies going to survive a snowmobile trip across Alaska?  Our plan contained the following elements: 1) A news conference in Anchorage, where Alaska’s largest media are based; 2) A satellite media tour from the starting point on the Bering Sea Coast; 3) Wire photos, news releases and Web site updates throughout the trip; 4) A welcoming ceremony at the end of the trip, including a photo opportunity with Santa Claus at the North Pole (North Pole, Alaska).  A total agency budget of $150,000 was established for Weber Shandwick fees and expenses.  Polaris’ ad agency handled the Web site design and maintenance.
Our strategic approach was to focus on history, snowmobile heritage and the two Polaris founders, so we depended heavily on the founders’ archives to bring the story to life.  We used photos and vintage home movies from the first Alaska trip in 1960 in the media kit and throughout the program, which reporters used often.  Pitch calls to key media started a month before the trek and netted a CNNfn feature segment and several other strong leads.  We held a news conference in Anchorage the day before the trip began.  Four Alaska television news stations, one daily newspaper, two statewide radio stations and the Associated Press attended the news conference that featured Polaris CEO Tom Tiller, the company’s founders and Polaris snowmobiles from the 1960s.  An early morning satellite media tour from the starting point netted interviews on national and regional television.  Later that morning, we distributed a news release and wire photo from the beginning of the trek. 
Our photographer rode along with the group with a digital camera and portable computer with satellite uplink capability.  Every day, he emailed photos from the trail back to Weber Shandwick.  We reviewed the photos, drafted captions and distributed updates via news wire and Polaris’ Web site.  In the middle of the trek, we publicized a live chat with the snowmobile inventors and Polaris’ current CEO on the Polaris Web site.  We also coordinated telephone interviews with radio stations throughout the trip.
A welcoming ceremony at the end of the trip included several photo and interview opportunities (AP and local television, radio and newspaper were in attendance).  We coordinated a photo opportunity with the Polaris founders and Santa Claus at North Pole, Alaska, which was a twenty-minute ride from the ending point of the trek.  Newspapers across the country ran this photo.  We also distributed a summary news release and beamed a B-roll package of the completed trek via satellite.  To make the B-roll package as appealing as possible, we included more archived footage from the 1960 Alaska trek and footage of the “summit with Santa.” 
Polaris’ ad agency monitored traffic to Polaris’ Web site and Weber Shandwick tracked news coverage with database searches and print and broadcast clipping services.  The trek was an amazing success, surpassing all goals outlined in our objectives.  Goal #1 – Eight national news stories and nearly 200 local market news stories ran containing two or more key messages (surpassing national goal by six and local market goal by nearly 150).  Television coverage totaled more than one hour.  Goal #2 – Total coverage amassed more than 1,800 points on the Tiller Index (surpassing goal by more than 800).  Goal #3 – There were more than 1.5 million hits on the Polaris Web site (surpassing goal by more than 500,000).   The average user session was longer than eight minutes and repeat visitor ratio was high. 
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