Everything I know about PR I learned in the circus

Topics: Media Relations, Public Relations


Reading Time: 3 minutes

By Amanda Horn, account coordinator

I did not take the traditional path to PR. In fact, I didn’t tread much of a traditional path to anywhere in my life. But as the old saying goes, I wouldn’t be who I am today without the path I’ve traveled to get here.

You’re probably not interested in reading the seedy details of my life, and I’m not particularly motivated to share them (that book will be written later, thanks, and you can buy a copy).  Today I’m sharing only the most relevant information: Before embarking on a professional PR career with The Abbi Agency, I spent the better part of a decade traveling around the country in a circus sideshow.  Relevant, you ask—how? Turns out everything I needed to know about PR I learned in the circus.

Let me clarify. This was not a 3-ring-kind of show. This was a do-it-yourself, homemade, low-tech operation. My friends and I took all of our theatrical and musical skills, threw in some fire, nails, juggling, puppets, shenanigans, general romp-n-revelry and…voila! A fun-filled show for folks of all ages.

Problem one: selling it. Our goal was to make enough money to get from point A to B (in barely operational, gas guzzling vehicles of course) so we could continuously perform for several months at a time.

Problem two: the magnitude. At certain points along the tour we’d have eight large vehicles and 40 people to feed. I found myself at the helm of this mess because no one else wanted the job. Somebody had to be in charge if we were going to succeed, so I applied some of my left-brain skills to this circus-like cacophony and transformed it into an unforgettable must-see experience.

Without further adieu, may I present to you the PR takeaways I gained, guerrilla style:

  1. Get creative with your resources.  In the late 90’s, you couldn’t just pull up a website for venues. Heck, we didn’t even have a cell phone for the first two years of touring. In many ways, technology has made us lazy. We get impatient if we don’t find the contact we’re looking for with one click of the mouse. But to shine in this business, you need to craft stellar research skills that extend far beyond the screen in front of you. Don’t be afraid to dig deep and dirty your clown nose.
  2. Use your network. Who do you know that can connect you with that station in Denver? Have you ever been to Cincinnati? What clubs might be a good fit for our event? That’s exactly how I booked our first shows. This industry is about relating, so get to it. Pull out that heap of business cards you’ve stuffed in a drawer and reintroduce yourself to some of those strangers.
  3. The fifth “P”: persistence.  In school, we’re taught the four “p’s” of strategic communications–position, purpose, people, place—but the road taught me persistence. I sent press kits to every possible venue along the tour route and followed up in earnest until I got the booking we needed.  When we landed in town, the clowns rolled out the tall bikes, I donned my stilts and we put flyers in peoples’ hands to get them to the show. ‘Nuff said.
  4. Timing is everything. We have the end of the world to thank for catapulting our troupe to success.  The year was 1999 and we capitalized on the doomsday Y2K scare, branding ourselves as the circus you’d most want to see when the end of world was nigh. It worked.  Though you can’t always get so lucky, applying a little creative calendaring can turn your ordinary campaign into a well-positioned time bomb.
  5. Fake it ‘til you make it. I had no idea how to book a show, but I knew what I wanted to see when I went to one. So I crafted the message around that image. I wrote a passionate pitch letter and designed our press kits—which had to be literally cut, pasted and snail-mailed, thank you very much—to reflect more than a show. It conjured images of childhood fantasy.  We may not always know how to get what we want for our clients, but if we envision the goal we can begin to direct our way there.

People often ask me if I miss my crazy circus life. I look at them and think, “What do you mean, miss it? I’m in PR. Every day’s a circus!”

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