• Erin Molloy

His Royal Highness, Don Cherry

“Let’s save that for the 70th anniversary.”

A joke I would often say to my co-workers when a new task was added to our mile long to do list as we planned for a weeklong 60th anniversary celebration.

This celebration was for Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto where I worked as Communications Advisor.

Well, guess what? Somehow, the 70th anniversary is here and I honestly can’t believe that it has been 10 years since I lived that week and joked that joke. I realized this a few days ago while in my basement going through boxes in an attempt to organize for my new home office. It was like going through a time capsule as I uncovered papers, assignments, books and handouts from my Bachelor of Public Relations at Mount Saint Vincent University, projects I worked on as a co-op student, and a thousand little reminders from tasks of jobs past.

The organizing I was supposed to be doing wasn’t quite as productive as I planned because I spent time reading everything. Before I began reading, I assumed I would correct, edit and criticize my work (I can’t help myself - it’s just who I am!) but, to my surprise, that wasn’t the case. I was actually pretty impressed with what I was able to produce early on in my career. It is an exercise I’d recommend to anyone. Look at your old stuff -- it can do wonders for reflecting on your growth but also give you a new sense of confidence in a funny way as you tell yourself “if I was capable of that then, I must be pretty good now, right?”

I spent extra time looking at the material I kept from the 60th anniversary. I definitely appreciate and think fondly on all the experience I have to date, but this project occupies a special corner of my heart and mind. I truly believe it is what kickstarted my career into high gear. It taught me a lot about myself, my profession and leadership. It gave me my love of event management. It also confirmed that the devil is most certainly in the details.

I thought I’d make my walk down memory lane as useful to you as possible by showing you examples of why event management is a function of public relations practice (and vice versa). It can be, as it was for me in planning the 60th anniversary, a marathon in: strategic planning, media relations, stakeholder engagement, internal communications, creative production and, the always powerful, to do list.

Sunnybrook was experiencing significant growth and success in terms of its size, its highly specialized healthcare, and breakthrough research. Going into the hospital’s 60th year in existence, we knew the anniversary was the perfect time to celebrate everything that was happening in the present, what was in store for the future and most importantly, the fascinating history. The hospital was created back in 1948 in response to a gap in healthcare services focused on the care of our country’s most vulnerable war veterans. The hospital continues to stay true to its roots as the home of the largest veterans' care facility in Canada, offering long term and complex care to 500 veterans, along with seven other primary care programs making it the world renowned, teaching, research and care centre it is today. So many people and groups were involved in writing Sunnybrook’s story, and it was time to retell it in a strategic way.

Here are some important takeaways I learned in managing a fun, memorable and successful 60th anniversary that brought together so many wonderful people I will never forget - the sweet souls I met in the veterans residence, to the touching stories from patients of Sunnybrook, all the inspiring healthcare professionals, and, of course, Don Cherry, Ron MacLean and His Royal Highness, The Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.

HRH, Prince Edward, on the receiving line during Royal Visit to Sunnybrook's Veterans Residence. Photo credit: Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, June 2008.

Start with why

Determine whether or not an event is an effective way to reach your goals. What is it you’re trying to achieve? Could it be done as effectively or more efficiently by not doing an event (a cost-benefit analysis helps here - events are a lot of work that take a significant amount of human resources, money and time). Weigh all your options and consider whether or not your vision can be pulled off with the resources you have. It’s also helpful to ask yourself if the event you have in mind is unique enough to achieve the engagement and attendance you want. In this case, an anniversary is a special occasion, and how are special occasions normally celebrated? With some kind of event, of course.

Have enough time

Special events are labour intensive with so many moving parts and fine details that all of a sudden become a part of your day on top of what you already do. If this isn’t for you, I would recommend hiring someone who can take care of the planning for you or at least some of it.

The great thing about event planning for an event planning nerd like me is you can do a definite work back schedule. If your event has to happen on a certain day, then you can clearly see what it is you’re working with.

The type of event you are holding will dictate the amount of time you need. For the 60th anniversary, which was in June 2008, I started the planning in November 2007 and believe me, we needed every hour of that timeline to pull off a week of events. From collecting old photos in the hospital's archive to ensuring every detail of the Royal Visit was accounted for to creating a video to ensuring invites for the community event were distributed, there was a lot to manage. I have also left out about a billion other details but sometimes each element of the event has its own collection of moving parts making a work back schedule even more important.

It would be ideal (if appropriate) to give yourself enough time to create hype for your event as you lead-up to it even before all details are solidified, which could entail creative save-the-dates and/or a teaser campaign. We did this by creating a 60th anniversary wall calendar that was launched in January and available for the taking in several areas throughout the hospital. We included historical photos and stories in each newsletter that was issued as we built up for the anniversary and created an interactive timeline for our website that extended from 1948 to 2008 highlighting hospital, community and healthcare milestones.

Snippet from Sunnybrook News (hospital newsletter) leading up to anniversary.

Define your audiences and stakeholders

Think about who it is exactly you want to be involved in and/or attend your event. You may have a general sense but try to break down the audiences as specifically as you can to truly ensure you are getting in front of them. This will help in deciding what channels are needed to promote your event and help you think outside the “traditional advertising" box. To save on resources, think about who is already connected to you and how they can help in spreading your message. Are there distribution lists and/or newsletters out there that go directly to your targets? Always start with who you know and leverage those relationships, then work your way outside of that. For example, there may be industry associations or advocacy groups that align with your event or your organizational mandate. Starting from the inside and moving outwards will save money and resources sometimes unnecessarily spent on paid advertising.

For the anniversary, we defined our audiences (in a nutshell) as internal (board, staff, physicians and volunteers); community (members of the public with vested interest in Sunnybrook, previous event attendees and those on our mailing list); veteran residents and their families; major donors; all levels of government; past physicians, staff, and volunteers. We went old school and snail mailed invitations to external guests for certain events. A Royal Visit is a formal affair so custom printed invitations were necessary. Postcard invitations were sent to our targets for the community event, which was a proven effective method, and we also promoted it on our website, in our newsletter (Sunnybrook News), and via email through our community distribution list. The week also included a staff event (at all three campuses), and was communicated through our internal e-newsletter, intranet homepage, posters, and the hospital's printed newsletters.

Choose a theme

Whether your event is a gala, conference, fundraiser, AGM, professional development, team-building, or media event, as examples, there should be a common theme or focus. This will help in creating the branding, messaging, speakers, entertainment, catering, attire, and all the experiential elements and details that should be included in your event. The theme should have a clear connection to your organization and the goals of your event. It has to make sense to your audiences and make them feel like they can't miss it. We wanted the 60th anniversary to have its own branding but with a clear tie-in to Sunnybrook. We took elements from the hospital’s brand but with a focus on 60 years. With the tagline of “rich past, exciting future,” we ensured that each event throughout the week represented this.

The staff event was a birthday party theme across every detail. We showed a commemoration video that included music, photos, clips, messaging and people that together told the story of Sunnybrook's 60 year history. The best part of the video for me, along with going through some pretty cool old photos, was the chance to have dealings with Don Cherry and Ron MacLean. It’s no secret that “Grapes” is a huge supporter of veterans, so all it took was one phone call asking him to include a message in our anniversary video. He jumped on board right away and was super engaged. I’ll never forget picking up the phone only to hear his voice on the other end. Mr. MacLean and Mr. Cherry spared no expense in producing their message - filming it from the Coach's Corner studio.

Sidenote: Working in Toronto is an amazing experience for any communications professional - you have access to individuals and organizations that may not be as easy to reach from other parts of the country. It’s also the home of major media headquarters, so I always felt fortunate to take frequent media calls from national outlets of CBC, CTV, Global and the Globe and Mail.

The next event was focused on the broader community. We often organized speakers series that featured a panel of Sunnybrook healthcare professionals presenting on a specific health topic. These were always well attended by the community so we knew we should leverage this to highlight our 60th. We decided on the topic of Aging Gracefully as it had direct ties to the past but also looked to the future.

As I mentioned before, at the core of Sunnybrook’s past are the veterans so we knew we wanted to have a special event focused on them. Well, as fate would have it, His Royal Highness and his wife, the Countess of Wessex, Sophie, were planning a Royal Visit to Toronto, which happened to be around the same time as our anniversary. We found a way to contact the Royals’ handler in Toronto and pitched the idea to him to have the Veterans Residence be one of their stops. They agreed (I make it sound easy, it wasn’t. There were many late nights spent making the perfect invitations and briefing binders to present to the Royals) and the visit was going to happen during our anniversary week. We invited all of the veterans, their families, the residence staff as well as other dignitaries, government officials and major supporters of the hospital. This was also the perfect event to invite media and garner some attention on the hospital's anniversary and our veterans. We tied in the future piece by unveiling a new section of the veterans garden and dedicating it to Prince Edward. While I could do a whole post on planning the Royal Visit, let’s just say it is the most detailed event scenario I have created to date. But in the end, it was wonderful.

HRH Prince Edward meeting veteran residents and their families during Royal Visit. Photo credit: Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, June 2008.

Think about EVERY detail

Your event branding, choice in venue, decor, food & beverage, entertainment, day of the week and time of day should represent your brand and the experience you are striving to create at every turn. For example, if you claim to be community-minded, include social enterprises as suppliers where you can and/or a charitable component. If you are environmentally-conscious, ensure you have a no-waste event by ditching the plastic cutlery for silverware, paper napkins for fabric and other material that can be reused and recycled.

Being a healthcare institution, it was important for us to ensure there were healthy menu options. Beyond these types of details, we made sure that each event was reflective of an anniversary by incorporating the old and the new. The staff celebration included elements reminiscent of a childhood birthday party. The decor was made up of huge wooden cutouts of presents, cakes, and clowns along with elaborate balloon arrangements everywhere. Interspersed through the birthday decorations were photos, old and new, blown up and displayed around the room. The CEO welcomed everyone and we showed our commemoration video, which was very well-received. Obviously, there was a giant cake with candles blown out by Sunnybrook's longest serving employee. And it wouldn’t be a birthday party without loot bags. Sunnybrook was on a mission of becoming a “greener” hospital so we opted for reusable grocery bags with the anniversary branding containing branded travel mugs, packets of poppy seeds for planting (a shout out to our veterans) and healthy snacks (and, of course, some treats).

Don’t forget to re-cap

Once your event is all said and done and you feel like you can breathe again, don’t move on from it just yet. Ensure everyone who should know is aware of its success - thank those who came for attending, show those who couldn’t attend what they missed, and report on the outcomes. This goes a long way in garnering support and engagement for the next time you plan an event for your organization. Make videos, photos, testimonials and interesting stories available publicly and through your own channels. In this day and age, if it’s appropriate, assign someone to live post and live stream your event using your most trusted and popular social media channel. People have many reasons for not being able to attend your event but it doesn’t mean they didn’t want to. For those who couldn’t attend the 60th anniversary celebrations, we delivered loot bags and cupcakes to hospital departments and ensured a link to the commemoration video was available on the hospital’s intranet. All the other events were also available to watch via live webcast and these videos were then uploaded to watch at any time. We issued a newsletter that solely focused on the anniversary with stories from the past and highlights from the week of events.

Staff anniversary celebrations recap

While I could talk about my experience with Sunnybrook’s 60th anniversary for days, and fill up about ten blog posts with everything I learned and everything we did to prepare, I will spare you for now.

I will leave you with this final gem, though:

My media relations prof (and a favourite of mine) gave our class a piece of advice that has always stayed with me - “don’t forget the extension cords.” What she meant by this was that people tend to get caught up in the “bigger” details of an event like attendance numbers, contacting media, creating the program, ensuring everything is printed and ready to go, and preparing your speakers. While all of these elements bring your event together, the “smaller” details cannot be dismissed and are just as important because without them, any event can be brought to its knees. You can have the most amazing set up in the world, but if you have no way to plug it in, it was all for nothing.

At Twine PR, we LOVE event strategy and management. Whether you need help with the initial brainstorming or bringing all the details together, we’d love to hear from you.

Happy SEVENTIETH Anniversary, Sunnybrook!

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