Guerilla Influence

Editor’s Note : This column, Leadership By Wandering Around, is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and recreation leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. The author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask leaders to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences.

It seems everybody wants to get into the parks and recreation business. Here in Peachtree City, Ga., we’re seeing more and more competition from several sources offering similar programming. This has also led to an epiphany--we need to get a whole lot better at marketing and public relations in order to keep the pace.

Churches, schools, day cares, non-profit organizations, private companies and other area recreation departments are all competing for the same public we are trying to serve. In many cases, they’re also competing for the same contract program instructors.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In some cases, other entities offering similar programming on the fringes of our service area helps relieve pressure on facilities and staff so we can focus on our primary customers. Also, if we see someone else flooding the market with a certain kind of programming, we can focus on offering programs they’re not.

But this can also adversely affect our revenue stream and in today’s “pay to play” environment that’s not a good thing. Pay to play means the people using services pay for them, which helps offset expenses. This in turn reduces the load on the average taxpayers who may not use the services as much, or at all.

This may not be a new phenomenon to every parks and rec operation, but it’s probably one that affects different departments at varying intensities, depending on local conditions.

Throw In A Guerilla Or Two

I’ve been in the parks and recreation business for about 11 years, coming from a 20-year career as a United States Marine, where I was a combat correspondent (print journalist and photojournalist) for the first half and a public affairs officer the second ten years. My last tour was in a combined public affairs and marketing office that covered the Marine Corps’s Southeastern recruiting operations.

I learned a lot there about how marketing and public affairs can work hand in hand and become a “force multiplier” to support the needs of the service. Essentially, marketing is putting out information about the service to convince people to “buy,” or in the military case, enlist. Public relations is putting out day-to-day information about what the service does for recipients, i.e., why is a strong Marine Corps vital to the national security.

While each area has a distinct purpose, the two can combine and support each other in certain environments. The captain who was in charge of marketing and I got to be good friends and we decided it would be beneficial to create a combined Public Affairs and Marketing operation.

It was very successful and along the way we began implementing what Jay Conrad Levinson describes as “guerilla marketing” techniques in his 1984 book of the same title. These are techniques that combine marketing and public affairs elements to obtain either free or greatly reduced promotions of programs. The techniques are very low budget, relying on time, energy and imagination instead of big marketing budgets.

I believe these tactics can be used effectively in the PRB arena.

Here are some of Levinson’s ideas that I’ve used successfully:

· Know your customers. Like guerilla fighters, urban guerilla marketers are close to their audience. Ask questions. You can find out more from a few program users than you can by hiring an expensive consultant to do the same thing. Find out what they like, don’t like, would change about a particular area or program. And listen. Then be sure to follow up--service after the sale is often missing in action. Make sure your whole team is on board with this customer service attitude.

· Determine which audience needs what information. If you are announcing new programs for toddlers, find out where toddlers’ moms and dads hang out. If the local library has toddler reading programs that would be a great place to hand out flyers or put up a large poster about the new programs. Or see if a local toy store or kids’ clothing stores mind if you put out flyers.

· For general programming of course, local papers are the greatest source of “free advertising” in the form of sending news releases. But there are methods to enhance your chances. If none of your staff has been trained in writing news releases or taking good pictures, it might be worth the investment to find training, send one or two people and let them train others. If you send well-written articles and good pictures, editors will love you for it and your material will get printed.

· Develop an e-mail distribution list of the media you want to send to and use it. Most papers today can accept digital articles and photos. This gives you a quick way to get information out. If you’re not sure what the media needs, a personal visit is in order. In fact, personally visiting media periodically will also go a long way in making your material appear in print.

· Use “fusion marketing,” which is essentially using an event that is already going to draw a crowd as a venue to promote other programs. For example, if you have a Spring Yard and Garden event attended by thousands of local residents, use the fact that you have that many of your audience in one place. Set up a booth with flyers, brochures and other information about programs you’re pushing and use the opportunity to have people fill out a short survey--have giveaway items for them if they do the survey.

· Many municipal and county engineering or Information Technology (IT) departments have large format “plotters,” which are inkjet printers used to print out the big construction plans. But they can also print out big color posters very inexpensively. We worked out an arrangment with our IT department to buy them paper and ink. We design our posters for programs or special events in Microsoft Publisher, e-mail it to IT and they print it. Then we’ve worked out arrangements with local (high traffic area) merchants to display them. This is excellent free advertising.

The key to guerilla marketing is to use what you already have or can get free to promote your programs. These are just a few ideas. So what are some great marking ideas that you’ve successfully used? Got any ideas you can share? Call or e-mail me or the magazine and we’ll get them out to the field.

Randy Gaddo is the director of Parks, Recreation and Library Services in Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached via e-mail at dls@peachtree-city.orgThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call (770) 631-2542.