Life is a carnival: PR best practices at the fair

September 12, 2017

Ahhh, there’s nothing quite like the sights, sounds, and smells of a local fair! For more than a million people, the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) is an annual tradition that overwhelms our senses and brings out our inner child. For kids, “The Ex” is the last hurrah before summer’s end, signaling the return to school.

I have fond memories of the CNE from my childhood, and as an adult, I return to the fairgrounds for my annual dose of nostalgia and sensory overload. On top of my personal love of The Ex, the PR professional in me takes a keen interest in the media stories about the CNE that are packaged each year to create excitement.

Now that the 2017 CNE has wrapped, let’s look back at some of the ways The Ex demonstrated communications best practices, across a diverse range of communications approaches, while also considering potential avenues for innovation.

1. Perpetual Canada 150

Steeped in history, the CNE was founded in 1879, as a “showcase of the nation.” Canada 150 saw no shortage of hat-tips courtesy of numerous brands this year, and our country’s sesquicentennial was honoured in a variety of creative ways at the CNE, and promoted via media. There was a giant Canada 150-themed origami diorama celebrating our provinces’ famous landscapes and landmarks. Canada’s indigenous communities got a special nod with a stunning Unity Pole created by Ojibway artist Kris Nahrgang. And you better believe that the illuminated CNE sign included a giant maple leaf as an homage to Canada’s milestone birthday. This year’s media stories related to the CNE show that art and installations related to Canada 150 are still solid media fodder – so how can you expand on patriotic perfection?

Perhaps a strategy focused around CSR could have been introduced in recognition of Canada 150 as well. In 2017, our Environics Communications CanTrust Index found that not-for-profits continue to be the most trusted sector (57 per cent of Canadians trust them to do what is right for Canada, Canadians and our society). The CNE’s website does mention the CNE Foundation, but there could be the potential to both leverage these philanthropic efforts, as well as build on them through an integrated communications program. For example, to celebrate #Canada150, TD Bank’s #TDCommonGround initiative set out to invest in the future of community green spaces by revitalizing over 150 of them across the country. By harnessing the goodwill of a CSR initiative tied to Canada 150, the CNE could have enhanced its reputation as do-gooders in the community.

2. Safety through trust

In the wake of brutal terror attacks in Barcelona, the CNE beefed up its security on the fairgrounds and ensured patrons knew that every effort was being made to ensure their safety through public statements. The CNE also issued a warning to ticket buyers, urging them to avoid purchasing passes through unauthorized discount websites. Anticipating public concern? Check. Proactively addressing potential issues? Check, check. Clear statements and communications to reassure its patrons? You get the idea. But could the CNE have added more to the mix?

While the CNE should be commended for its many proactive statements related to guest safety, they could also consider offering media briefings or social media videos on safety initiatives, even hosted by the CEO. Through this more personalized approach, the CNE could build rapport with media and fairgoers, and potentially foster greater trust when the public hears the latest news from a familiar face. Granted, it’s not the same as hearing good news from a friend, but it’s chummier than a statement.

3. The noms

Every year, foodies flock to the CNE to try the latest culinary “disruptor.” Who could forget the appetizing creations of CNEs gone by? Cronut burgers. Deep fried Mars bars. Chocolate covered bacon. This year’s must-try lists of hyper-caloric instant coronaries are drool (and click)-worthy fare and have normalized an annual pilgrimage to the Food Building. But what about the people or organizations behind the food at The Ex? 

Despite the evergreen, media-friendly food stories, why not bolster existing coverage with media exclusives featuring any number of the dozens of Canadian chefs featured at the fair? Or focus on local or sustainably grown ingredients on offer at the Midway? Or perhaps introduce and profile food waste reduction efforts?

In the lead-up to The Ex and during the fair, it’s nearly impossible for us to escape news and information about the event. And while it’s certainly easy to respect what the CNE’s team has done with a diverse strategy to get its messages out, there is always room to drive continual improvement before next summer.