The month of May will see a sunset on an iconic American performance in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Like many in the middle, I have mixed feelings around the circumstances of its demise. It does seem to me as if a small piece of tradition will be lost forever.
As a kid, my parents took me to the show, and I still remember the branded whiz-bang flashlight they purchased for me – a rare indulgence. As an adult, I’ve continued the tradition many times over with nieces and nephews and finally, my daughter, who I’ve taken to the show twice, though I worry she wasn’t old enough to remember.
Given my focus on B2B marketing and PR, I usually get a double-take from clients if I disclose that I once did PR for the circus during its tour in Washington, DC. But there should be no mistake the circus is a business and it was also all at once, one of the most challenging and fun PR assignments I’ve ever had.
Working for a brand with such deep roots in PR history wasn’t lost on me then – and certainly isn’t lost me now. Though it has been many years, here are a few of the most interesting anecdotes I recall from our endeavors to keep the circus in the news while it was in town.
1) Elephants Marching
The only thing more amazing than seeing a pachyderm up close is to be part of a procession of dozen or so elephants marching through the capital of the free world. The final few miles to the historic DC Armory, where the show would be held for a week or so, was done on foot. The elephants were in full dress and didn’t disappoint the many local news station cameras that came out to film the event.
A week or two later, when the circus moved across the Potomac River to the Patriot Center at George Mason University, we ran the same play with similar effects. Even though that march was done around midnight – if I recall correctly it was an issue with permitting – there were still a couple of cameras out to catch b-roll for the news programs the next day.
2) Snakes on Capitol Hill
Feld Entertainment, which produced the circus, had the lobbying resources to secure a room in the Rayburn House Office building. We drove rented vans to shuttle a few clowns, acrobats and the snake man – with two snakes – to do a little sideshow for the U.S. Congress.
As I recall one of the snakes was quite large, a rather striking albino Burmese python, that was perhaps 12-15 feet long.
The timing couldn’t have been better. A session broke and U.S. Representatives, many staffers, and a whole bunch of kids showed up for the shindig.
The kids were fascinated by the snakes, and the snake man didn’t disappoint with a chat that would check blocks in both entertainment and reptilian education. The kids were invited to touch the snakes, including the python, which just chilling out on the floor and sending out the occasional flick of its tongue.
At one point a kid was sitting on the floor with the snake. A news photographer showed up and snake man arranged the snake so it looked like it was (loosely) wrapped around the kid. The next day, that photo was on the cover of Roll Call.
I’ve gotten a couple clients and a former employer into the Wall Street Journal over my career, and that photo in Roll Call is right up there with them in my book. Planning, luck, timing — a photo that defies expectations — that’s media relations.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe the child was ever in any danger. The snake man was very knowledgeable and the snake, large as it was, was quite docile and had a long history of doing events like this one.
3) Snakes do Drive Time Radio
Now we knew the circus had lots of visual opportunities for still and motion cameras. What we learned along the way was that it also had the potential for broadcast radio as well.
So, in the wee hours in the morning, we drove from downtown DC to the area radio stations in Gaithersburg, Md. for drive time morning radio. I forget now which stations precisely we landed, but I seem to remember one was a popular DC rock station.
Inside the building, the station had several recording studios on either side of a handicap accessible ramp that led up to the managerial offices. The snake man laid the python stretched out on the ramp, where it just hung out as it did before while he took the smaller constrictor into the studio.
He chatted up those DJs – a guy and a gal – for several hours. They laughed, they cried, they dared each other to hold the snake… and best of all they talked about the circus. It was amazing.
The party lasted from about 5:00 a.m. until about 8:00 a.m. in the morning when the leadership started to arrive for work. To this day, I’m not sure who she was, but it was pretty clear she was in charge. And she almost had a heart attack when she walked through the door and saw that enormous snake laying on the ramp that leads to her office.
Once she got over her fear, she got mad. Very mad. I can still see her wagging her finger and making it clear to everyone in the building that snake was between her and her office and it better be moved and right-quick.
Even the snake man was all “yes, ma’am” this and “yes, ma’am” that as he hurried to quickly, but gently, put the snake back into its carrier box. To this day it makes me chuckle just thinking about it.
Later that day, I got call backs from several producers at other drive time morning shows.
4) Immigration and Naturalization Ceremony
Many of the circus performers were immigrants from former Eastern bloc countries and the circus would sponsor their citizenship. We took a half-dozen or so performers to what was then, prior to the massive reorganization under DHS, still called the U.S. Customs and Immigration Office.
It was a dignified ceremony and an honor to see the performers – who were incredibly talented and worked very hard at their skill – to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I seem to remember having both print and broadcast media in attendance.
5) Clowning around at Walter Reed
Walter Reed is the premier medical facility in Washington, DC serving our veterans. The long war was still fairly new then, and the first of our country’s wounded were returning. We took the clowns to put on a show.
The clowns were truly funny, and in this more personal setting, was interesting to see their real personality’s shine through the white face paint and red clown noses. They were ‘clowns’ at heart too it seems. For the most part, the veterans came out and seemed to enjoy the performance.
There were, however, a few that didn’t want to be bothered. It wasn’t something I couldn’t identify with until several years later when I came home from my own tour overseas to visit a friend, who had been severely wounded by a sniper and was being treated in that same hospital. They told him he’d never walk again.
In hindsight that was a somber moment, but as a veteran, I think those clowns – and the circus did a great service.
As for my friend? He’s the CEO of a tech company now – married with three boys – and can probably run circles around me on the trail. He also runs a charity for veterans if you are feeling generous – and has done a lot to help children get medical attention and supplies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
6) Media gets in Free
A reporter from a regional paper responded to one my pitches asking if we’d offer complimentary tickets. This was one question I hadn’t considered – and wasn’t sure how my client would react. Make no mistake, as fun as the circus was, it was a business that managed expenses carefully.
But my concern proved unwarranted. The circus not only comped a ticket for the reporter – but several tickets for his whole family – and good seats at that. Of course!
There were no caveats attached. The rationale was simple: let him have a family experience just like any other family. If he chooses to report on it, great – and if he doesn’t then that was a good gamble.
The following Sunday, with a full week of the circus performances to go, Ringling Brothers, graced the front page of the largest regional newspaper serving the dense suburbs of Fredericksburg and Northern Virginia.
The story was glowing. It has several full-color pictures. My client – who was a pretty tough cookie in her own right – taped that one up near the makeshift executive offices in the DC Armory for all the vice presidents to see.
7) A Company Steeped in History
One of the things America loses with the demise of the circus is some of the interesting facts and history. For example, most people don’t realize the circus is one of the largest privately owned railroad companies in the U.S.
The circus moves by train. That drawing on that popular brand of graham cracker cookies? That’s not a creative illustration, that’s the real! There’s a red line and blue line each with about 50 cars each. How else would you transport a dozen elephants?
8) A Serious Crisis Communications Plan
The circus wasn’t all entertainment. For example, it took crisis communications very seriously. I don’t fault animal rights groups for arguing for their point of view – the First Amendment exists for a reason – but I do find fault with some of the tactics.
What sort of tactics? Calling the local police and saying a tiger was on the loose in the neighborhood.
Now the cops and the circus were both very prepared for these antics. In fact, I when the circus came to town I was handed a detailed playbook that had thought through – and listed an action plan – for a considerable number of likely scenarios.
As a still relatively young PR professional at the time, that level of crisis planning has had a profound influence on my thinking over the duration of my career.
Even so, it was perhaps, just a means to slow the inevitable. The overall movement, boosted by movies like Blackfish, brought reasonable questions about breeding animals in captivity – and training them purely for our entertainment. I believe that affected the circus too.
9) What about the Animals?
Invariably, whenever I recount stories of my one-time stint doing PR for the circus, I’m always asked about the treatment of animals. Were they abused?
I don’t think so. At least – barring isolated cases of bad actors – not as a matter of systemic failure. More importantly, I can say that knowing I got a pretty close up look at the circus. While there were places that even I as an outside PR rep wasn’t supposed to go, I still gained access.
You see, I was one just a few people walking around the circus in a suit. I learned pretty quickly if I walked like I had a purpose, no one blinked an eye if I wound up in a restricted area.
And so, I did, although I’d caveat it by noting, I was never snooping per se, I was just trying to get things done for the client and rather than walking all the way around the arena, I’d take a shortcut.
In the process, I got a behind the scenes look at things over the course of about two weeks or so. I didn’t see anything that would substantiate claims of abuse – I did see a lot of what I’d consider animal bonding with their trainers.
* * *
All good things come to an end and so the big top will drop one last time and forever. Feld Entertainment is broadcasting the final show, which will be broadcast live on Facebook and Ringling.com, will be held on Sunday, May 21, 2017, at 7:00 p.m.
It struck me as both savvy and class act to broadcast the final performance on the web. While it might be last performance of The Greatest Show on Earth, nothing on the web is every really gone.
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