In June of 2001, a scant three months before the twin towers fell, a 3,100 square foot modular home was towed into New York Harbor on a barge, where crowds lined up to tour the home. The event was covered by hundreds of news outlets across the globe, including an interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show.
The entire event was perhaps the greatest PR campaign ever conceived to shine the spotlight on offsite construction. The event was called Jan’s House of Hope, and the fact that it is still remembered 20 years later is a testament to the vision of the promoter and to the power of public relations as a marketing strategy.
The Story Behind Jan’s House of Hope
Jerry Rouleau was the mastermind behind Jan’s House of Hope. As a well-known marketing consultant specializing in the systems-built housing industry, Jerry had a true passion for modular homes. After suffering the loss of his wife, Jan, to cancer in 1999, Jerry wanted to do something to her honor, something meaningful. His first step was to create a non-profit, The American Cancer Awareness Foundation. His second step was to create an event to raise money for that foundation.
The idea to put a house on a barge and charge people to view it was a bit “out there,” reflects his son, Scott Rouleau. “Our first thought was that it was time for dad to be put in a straight jacket!” Jerry saw what others didn’t, though, and soon the project gained ground. First, the home design firm, Design Basics, volunteered to design the home. Other vendors and suppliers quickly came on board with donations of funds and materials.
The home was assembled by a volunteer group of builders from the New Hampshire Homebuilders Association in just 2 ½ days on a 60’ x 150’ barge. It was completely landscaped, including a Ford Explorer, donated by Ford Motor Co., parked in the driveway. Home magazine supplied the decorations and La-Z-Boy provided much of the furnishings for the home. At each of the seven ports of call, local hospices sold tickets to tour the home, raising money for families dealing with the realities of cancer. The home, car, and all the furnishings were auctioned at the last port of call in Virginia.
The Power of Public Relations
The event was featured in magazines and newspapers across the world. Scott Rouleau followed his father into the PR business and now runs Rouleau Communication with his wife, Amber. “People wanted to get involved,” said Scott reflecting on the impact that Jan’s House of Hope had. “We had these amazing partnerships with Pella, Jenn-Air, and so many others. The publicity was just enormous! We were on 100 TV stations and in 200 newspapers.”
The event raised a total of over $10 million, $3 million of that in cash. Every penny collected was dispersed in $500 increments to families that were dealing with the hard costs of cancer. That went on for several years. However, the real value of the event went far beyond the cash donations.
“The value of the media exposure for modular homes alone was close to $15 million,” says Rouleau. “And that was before the Internet. Imagine if we did that today!”
News coverage at the time drew attention to the durability of modular construction, noting that modular was chosen for its structural integrity and fast installation. It was also reported that at the end of the promotion, even after going out to sea five times, the house needed absolutely no repairs. The only sign of wear was three tiny nail pops!
The real power of PR, though, is that it gives you third-party credibility. Advertising is you talking about yourself. PR is other people talking about you. Testimonials are great, but when those come from trusted media sources, they are golden. Good press carries weight and can be reused for years.
Creating Your Public Relations Event
You don’t have to raise tens of millions of dollars to get press coverage for your business. In fact, you may already be doing something that would get the attention of the press if they just knew about it. Consider some things that factory-built housing already addresses that could be featured in your local news outlets:
Affordable/Attainable Homes – That’s big news today when home prices are escalating and affordable housing continues to be a critical issue.
Energy/Innovation – Manufactured and modular homes are built to be more energy-efficient. Building in a factory is also a greener way to build. That fact alone is newsworthy, as this article in The Washington Post attests to, or this one from Pebble Magazine. If you have a plan that breaks with tradition, let the media know; they are eager to cover it.
As Jan’s House of Hope illustrated, you can partner with other local leaders to collaborate together on an issue of local importance. A manufacturer in Wisconsin held a special catered VIP open house as a fundraiser for a local hospital. Others have organized food or clothing drives for local charities. While not groundbreaking, these get media attention and can give your image a boost for your civil awareness.
PR is free advertising. But its value is generally calculated as five times the return that you’d get from paid advertising. Jan’s House of Hope is still being remembered 20 years later. Your next event could give you similar, sustainable stature.
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