Getting The 606 off the ground.

Since opening in June 2015, The 606 – Chicago’s 2.7-mile park and elevated trail system – has won accolades, awards and the love of visitors for its innovative take on adaptive reuse and alternative transportation. But until you open a major park, how do you spark interest in a place no one can visit? How do you entice reporters to write about it when they repeatedly respond “Call me when it’s finished?” In the final three years of this decade-long project, Marj Halperin Consulting (MHC) was brought on board by the project’s lead private partner, The Trust for Public Land, to do just that: raise the profile of the rails-to-trails project and introduce it to the general public and local communities. MHC was charged with raising the media profile of the park and trail system as it was being designed, to launch and manage a name change, to ensure open, transparent communications throughout the 1.5-year construction phase, and to generate excitement and attendance for the grand opening.

Knowing key messages and target audiences as well as which reporters to approach for each potential story are the building blocks of a high-profile PR effort. As we do with all our clients, MHC took The Trust for Public Land team through our Message Mapping process to take advantage of the client’s smart community perspectives that helped identify the key attributes and assets of this project to build the right messaging. We matched these to our extensive reporter relationships, especially crucial in the early phases of our engagement, when the park was little-known and opening day so far away.

The 606 is surrounded by four densely populated and economically and ethnically diverse communities – Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park and Logan Square. Construction would cause short-term hassles and neighbors needed to know the latest. So, we identified hyper-local media and social media outlets that could speak directly to these four communities and deliver the most relevant news — especially during construction – while stressing how the long-term benefits would outweigh the short term inconveniences. And we creatively developed public events and media angles to keep up a steady patter of news during construction, winning placements ranging from columnist tour stories to coverage of on-going fundraising efforts.

We had to educate the media – explaining how a never-before-experienced, elevated, nearly three-mile long park would dramatically impact the lifestyles of 80,000 neighbors within a ten-minute walk. We chose key messages that stressed the park would not only provide green space to park-poor communities, but would transform the abandoned rail line that had been a barrier into a community connector. There was also concern that the project could ‘peak’ too early. While maintaining buzz about the project was essential to awareness and securing the project’s private donations, driving too much advance interest long before opening day could prompt frustration, rather than excitement. This was especially challenging given the fluid nature of the construction schedule; in fact, one of our biggest challenges was breaking the news about a six-month delay of opening day, due to a severe and prolonged winter. We used this as an opportunity to gain new coverage of the park’s exciting project features and achieved widespread coverage that emphasized understanding of the delay, without criticism of it.

Equally challenging was managing the project name. When we joined the team, the entire project was referred to as The Bloomingdale Trail, and our client was debating a potential name change. “Bloomingdale” reminded more people of the downstate Illinois college town, rather than identifying the Trail’s location, along one of the least-well-known street names in the city. Also, potential sponsors raised objection to the unintentional department store reference. Even “Trail” was problematic, as the project also includes several ground-level parks. We urged the change and shepherded the process successfully, thanks to a melding of skills with our client’s expertise, leading to a comprehensive community, government and media relations campaign to sell the new name. While initial responses to The 606 name were decidedly mixed, it is widely embraced today as the official project name, while The Bloomingdale Trail continues to identify the project centerpiece—a compromise solution MHC developed.

The name change was one of many pieces built into quarterly media plans throughout the project, mapping out timing of story placements and topics. As the project neared completion, we ramped up our pitches, expanded our media lists and targeted our most supportive media contacts to go full speed ahead in advance of the summer 2015 opening.

These included:
• A remarkable four positively glowing columns from Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture and design critic, including the
front page of the Sunday, May 31, 2015 editions.
• The first-ever live drone shot during a Chicago TV newscast, focused on The 606 and reported by Paul Meincke of WLS-TV, an ABC affiliate and
Chicago’s highest-rated station. 
• Coverage by virtually every major Chicago media outlet—print, radio, TV and online—of our three major events:
o Our official announcement on April 20, 2015 that The 606 would open 6/06;
o The official media preview with Mayor Emanuel and The Trust for Public Land’s Chicago Region Director, Beth White, on June 2,2015;
o Opening weekend festivities on June 5-7, 2015.
• Positive international press coverage from Australia to South Korea to the UK and many points in-between.
• Coverage in mainstream news outlets and also a wide variety of trade publications, from arts journals and green space conservation publications to
engineering and landscaping outlets.

MHC’s deep media relationships and careful media planning allowed us to successfully navigate the media hurdles that come with any massive public works project, as well as capitalize on the project’s success to both promote The 606 brand and raise the profile of our client, The Trust for Public Land in the Chicago area.

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