The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
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The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio was poised to make history as the country’s first museum to honor the more than 3,000 daring and intrepid individuals.

Paul Holmes

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio was poised to make history as the country’s first museum to honor the more than 3,000 daring and intrepid individuals -- Black and White, as well as other races and ethnicities – whose courage and cooperation resulted in some 100,000 slaves going from slavery to freedom. 

The Freedom Center would educate the public about the historic struggle to abolish slavery in the U.S. and secure freedom for all people, as well as how the Underground Railroad impacts, informs and inspires other freedom movements, past and present, around the world.  And, the Freedom Center would be dedicated to inspiring individuals to find their voice in standing up for freedom through the telling of powerful stories of courage, beginning with the Underground Railroad and continuing through modern day.  Such a center was worthy of widespread public attention.

In February 2004, the Freedom Center selected Dan Klores Communications (DKC) as its national agency of record, and charged the firm with spearheading public relations efforts on the national level leading up to its official dedication this past August.  Cincinnati-based firm Northlich, which had been working with the Freedom Center since its inception, was charged with heightening awareness throughout Cincinnati and in the Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana region. 

DKC objectives included: present the Freedom Center as the first-ever museum honoring and explaining the Underground Railroad, educate the press and the public on the Underground Railroad’s impact in American history and its relevancy to other freedom movements of the past and in contemporary society, create a groundswell of excitement leading up to and then celebrate the official dedication, maximize media potential of integrated marketing partnerships and support national fundraising, “friend-raising,” membership and sales efforts.

Research was conducted by the client over the past decade as to the viability of having the Freedom Center located in Cincinnati.  This work illuminated the fact that the city was a main gateway to the free North; it is estimated that more than 40% of the 100,000 slaves who traveled along the Underground Railroad to freedom came through Cincinnati.  Research determined that there was tremendous interest among various audiences in a museum dedicated to this seminal period in American history, including the general public, academia, historians, history buffs, opinion and policy makers, the philanthropic community, and ethnic communities, particularly the African-American community. 

At the same time, research determined that there were a number of challenges to overcome. Cincinnati is not a “tourist” haven, nor is it a “must-stop” for the media.  Moreover, Cincinnati has had a recent history of racial unrest, due to a rash of widely-reported racial profiling incidents.  And, while the Freedom Center had to be mindful and respectful that it would appeal greatly to an African-American audience, it needed to attract the most ethnically and racially diverse audience as possible to meet the established goal of 250,000 annual visitors. 

DKC and Northlich partnered with the Freedom Center to develop “brand” positioning and ensure consistency of message.  Specifically, they developed a program aimed to: heighten national awareness about the Freedom Center in the months prior to and including its official dedication, and set the stage for the dedication to be a “must-attend” media event, tell the “big story” of the Freedom Center itself, encompassing its conception by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, success in raising money nationally, and challenges in a city with racial divisions, leverage the Freedom Center’s role as a safe house for dialogue for people of all ages, backgrounds and viewpoints on contemporary issues of “unfreedom,” from religious, racial, sexual, and ethnic persecution and genocide to hunger and illiteracy, and as a place to learn and experience how to make a difference, connect the lessons of the Underground Railroad to similarly uplifting stories of other freedom movements, past and present, reinforce the historical significance of the Ohio River valley as central to the Underground Railroad story, highlight the Freedom Center’s many facets, including its unique architectural design and exhibits, its role as a safe house for dialogue, its business partnerships, and its educational programs and leverage the news value of core experiences, including the Slave Pen, children’s gallery, environmental theater, and “Reflect, Respond, Resolve” exhibit, which uses psychologists to moderate dialogue sessions.

DKC and Northlich employed a series of tactics.  These included: establishing a news bureau to create events and promotions, and to distribute a continuous stream of announcements to draw attention to the Freedom Center and its official dedication.

Examples included  press releases regarding donations from major corporations and individuals to the economic impact the Freedom Center would have on the city and region.  Events and promotions included the consecration of the Slave Pen; a national call to nominate freedom heroes of the past and present; membership promotions in conjunction with local media; a special coupon mailer booklet in conjunction with Proctor and Gamble, the lead sponsor of the Freedom Center, and a signature drive to demonstrate support for the Freedom Center, in conjunction with Kroger Company, the largest supermarket company and a major supporter, setting up briefings in New York between Freedom Center personnel and editors and publishers of major magazines and newspapers, as well as general managers and news directors at electronic media outlets, initiating regional desk-side interviews with key media in the major regional markets of Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Lexington, Louisville, and appropriate parts of Canada, which played an important role in the Underground Railroad, developing a series of story angles to capitalize on the wide breadth of interest regarding the Freedom Center, from education and business to the history of the Underground Railroad, technology, and travel, localizing the story of the Underground Railroad for key major media markets across the country, working with the Ohio Tourism Board on FAM tours and briefings, instituting message and media training sessions for key Freedom Center personnel, creating “hard hat” tours with the architects and exhibit designer for national architecture journalists, establishing a media preview day to coincide with the “soft opening” of the Freedom Center, three weeks before the official dedication.  This day included tours and interviews with key personnel.

During the weekend of Aug. 21-23, some 300 media from all over the country descended upon the Freedom Center.  A comprehensive program of events was held for their interest, including tours; educational briefings on different aspects of the Freedom Center, including fundraising and architecture; a cocktail reception to meet and interact with key personnel; a riverboat cruise on the Ohio River with civic and political leaders, who discussed the historical significance of the river to the Underground Railroad, and a book signing with authors of a definitive history of the Underground Railroad (the book is a joint publication of the Freedom Center and the Smithsonian). 

A major fundraising gala was held the night before the official dedication.  It was highlighted by a red carpet reception featuring celebrities and dignitaries who support the Freedom Center, including Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett, Courtney B. Vance, Oscar Robertson, and Lynn Swann, as well as top Ohio and Cincinnati elected officials.  The August 23 official dedication was a day-long affair culminating with a public program featuring First Lady Laura Bush.

The nation’s newest monument to freedom had tremendous news value among all media, leading to significant awareness of the Freedom Center in the months leading up to its official dedication, and helping drive attendance well beyond expectations in its first month of operation.  In terms of the latter, the national and regional public relations campaigns helped drive attendance to more than 30,000 visitors a month in the first few months.  In addition, nearly 20,000 people attended the official dedication.  As to the former, DKC and Northlich have generated well over 250 million media impressions since the campaign was inaugurated.  

Among the most prominent, stories have appeared in or aired on:  The New York Times (twice), Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post,  Miami Herald, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Cincinnati Enquirer (multiple times), Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Indianapolis Star newspapers; Time, People, Parade, USA Weekend, and Ebony magazines; ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight,” CBS’ “Early Show,” CNN, BET, CBC, BBC, and C-Span; NPR’s “All Things Considered” and Voice of America, and the AP, Reuters, Knight-Ridder, Gannett, and UPI news wires. 

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