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Public Relations on Wheels

Combining science and showmanship, imagination and idealism, the General Motors Parade of Progress is designed to promote better understanding of all American industry -- its accomplishments and significance to people everywhere.

The following was taken from the March, 1954 publication "Public Relations Journal". The author of the article was Robert S. Johnson, a member of GM's PR staff in Detroit. His credentials read: "... he has been in newspaper and PR work since 1938. He was formerly associated with "The Wisconsin State Journal," Rochester "Times-Union," and the AP Buffalo and Albany bureaus. During World War II he was in Navy PR and air intelligence, on shore and aboard carriers. He also spent years in Eastman Kodak's PR department.

YOU MAY ALREADY have seen the big red-and-silver Parade caravan rolling along the highways.
    Perhaps you also have watched the Parade in action -- at a show site in one of the communities it has visited this year. If so, you know that the Parade is aimed straight at "the grass roots."
    The approach: direct, personal -- and dramatic.
    The philosophy: Here's how it was recently summed up by GM's president, Harlow H. Curtice:

GM President, Harlow Curtice shakes the hand of Parade Director John Ryan.


      "We want to help folks see, specifically, how research, engineering, and American progress are solidly linked together.
    "And we want, too, to inspire young people -- the youngsters with eyes on the future, the inventors, the scientists, engineers, and leaders of tomorrow.
    "In short we hope to present, through this Parade of Progress, a picture of America on the move toward better lives for all of us."

    The Parade of Progress is thus a free, traveling exhibition. It is probably the largest show of its kind ever undertaken. It carries its own 1,250-seat Aer-O-Dome "big top" and will be on tour indefinitely.
    Along with the Parade's basically inspirational theme, the project naturally is expected to influence people favorably toward General Motors as a leading company devoted to making "more and better things for more people." Essentially, however, this is an industrial story.
    The entire project, an investment of several million dollars, is directed by the GM Public Relations Staff, under Paul Garrett, vice president. He has amplified the PR thinking behind the Parade's glitter and glamour in these words:
    "The 55 young men now starting across the country (as the staff that operates the caravan) are to become Ambassadors-at-Large not only for General Motors but for our American way of achieving economic progress. These trained young men will bring a dramatic story of American industry to towns in all parts of the land.
    "We want our audiences to understand how this progress has been achieved -- in other words, the role played by science, by research, by engineering -- backed up by an economic and political system that over the long run has given people freedom to think, create, and compete, and has rewarded those who make better products and help people live better."
    With that goal, the "caravan of science" will criss-cross the entire country, and perhaps visit a few of our neighboring countries. It will stop for stands of from a few days to perhaps two weeks in hundreds of the nation's communities.
    The New Parade began to roll in April, 1953. First came rehearsals in Lexington and Frankfort, Ky. Then came a world premiere in Dayton, Ohio, for press-radio-TV and civic leaders, followed by a highly successful public showing that attracted more than 92,000 people. Since then, the Parade has moved on to other cities in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. In the fall, the Parade headed south.
    Charles F. Kettering, famous scientist, and former GM research chief, who sparked the idea for the original Parade of Progress, describes the Parade's travels thus:
    "This is not a selling campaign. We are not trying to sell anything but our country to our citizens."
    The Parade has taken science and industry out of the laboratory and factory and put them on the stage. It explains the challenges -- and its audience is people throughout the land.
    It is public relations on wheels.
    What are the public relations problems and techniques in such a project?
    The original Parade took to the road in 1936 in Lakeland, Fla. It was far from today's streamlined version, but its purpose was identical. During the six years to December, 1941, the caravan played to audiences of more than 12 million people in 251 cities.
    In 1940, the original show was expanded and improved. The Parade's first orthodox "big top" -- jokingly labeled a "Queen of Sheba tent" by Kettering -- was replaced with a unique show place -- the Aer-O-Dome tent, designed by GM people. The Aer-O-Dome, now one of the features of the Parade, has an aluminum framework on the outside. From this frame hangs a silver-colored, fireproof, plastic-and-canvas skin. Thus there are no poles, no wires to block your view as you watch the state presentation.
    After Pearl Harbor the Parade went into storage. But last year, GM officials decided the time had come to put a new Parade on the highways. For in recent years great new developments in science and industry have stirred the popular imagination -- television, radar, jet power.
    44 vehicles, including 12 Futurliners, or special exhibit vans. Each Futurliner is 33 feet long and has 16-foot sides that open to form exhibit areas or stages. In addition to the "liners," there are 14 trucks and 18 cars.
    The Aer-O-Dome tent, in which a 40-minute stage show of science is presented six to eight times a day, seven days a week, while the Parade is in town.
    A Theme Center, or combination entrance point and information area.
    The men who operate the parade are mostly college trained or with special technical knowledge acquired in industry and the armed services. These young men are at once lectures, "roustabouts," and truck-drivers. They stage the shows give the talks, set up the tent, and do all the work to keep the caravan on the move. They have been carefully selected, and are a part of the GM public relations department.
    As you can see, from a professional public relations viewpoint, the parade has a number of interesting aspects:
    First, there are the techniques of advancing the show, putting it on, and following it up.
    Second, there are the usual problems of any such enterprise -- except that this is an educational project with unusual public relations overtones.
    Third, there is the public reaction. This is the key point.
    To begin, let's see how the way is paved for the parade

    This job falls to the Parade's advance men, GM public relations regional managers, and a Parade committee of Local GM people. The Parade has four advance men. Each works a city at a time. His chores: newspaper, radio-TV coverage, promotion via advertising and signs, lot selection, hotel reservations, routing, and so on.
    Working closely with him in each town is the GM regional PR manager, of whom there are 11 in the country. The regional manager knows his area well. And he helps the advance man with the hundred-and-one physical and personnel arrangements that have to be made.
    Each advance man has a 69-page manual, to guide him. It has sections, for example, on news, advertising, and what to do on each visit to town. These duties range from getting garage accommodations to providing for police escorts.
    About two weeks before the caravan arrives, the advance man begins his intensive news and advertising program. To aid the advance man in his news work, the public relations staff in Detroit prepared such materials as a story kit, a picture file, and movies. These give the advance man information that he can use "as is" or fit to the locality.
    The advance man constantly keeps the press, radio, and TV informed on Parade attendance, human interest and spot news stories. He gives Press Handbooks, 39 printed pages, to all staffers needing them. Using his picture file, the advance man also supplies editors with advance glossy prints or mats. He has movie material for service clubs and TV.
    Advertising -- for newspaper, radio, and television -- is largely handled through an agency, but the advance man keeps in touch will all media.
    In addition to his work with the press, the advance man enlists the cooperation of all GM dealers in the community. This has proven to be extremely helpful.
    GM plants also have helped greatly. Most of the cities visited this year have had GM plants. Why this route? First, to give GM folks a chance to see the Parade early; second, to help develop public relations thinking throughout the GM family -- including, of course, GM's dealers.
    An example of how this works: the plants send out personal invitations to every GM employee's family to attend the Parade. And dealers have joined in many kinds of Parade promotion: display ads, direct mail, posters, signs, show room displays. In all, therefore, the Parade is boomed as vigorously as possible -- as an educational but highly entertaining show for the whole family to see.

    Finally, the big day -- the show hits town. The Futurliners, gleaming in the sun (the advance man prays), roll slowly along the streets as crowds watch this new kind of caravan wind its way to the show lot.
    There, the work of setting up the Aer-O-Dome tent and preparing the exhibits in the Futurliners draws much attention -- from youngsters and grownups alike.
    Next comes the invitational "preview." This is held from 7-10 p.m. the day before the Parade opens to the public. Guests, from 1,500 to 3,000 in number usually, are the community's "thought leaders" and their families.
    Guests are first welcomed by a General Motors representative who is the top local GM executive. Then the mayor or other high local official usually speaks briefly. In the main talk of the evening, a GM executive from Detroit speaks of the Parade and its purposes. next, the stage show is presented.
    Now, let's look at some other public relations aspects of the Parade of Progress. Naturally, the personnel of the caravan are instructed to act well in their role as PR ambassadors. They must be gentlemen personally and good PR men officially -- in how they drive their bright red cars around town, in how they deal with hotel people, in all their relationships with Hometown.
    But probably the most important public relations problem is how the show itself is presented.
    Here the effort has been to keep the show on an institutional plane. Some exhibits, for example, deal with transportation in a board sense -- on the ground, in the air, at see. Others concern progress in life on a farm. Still others take up various aspects of modern engineering.
    GM people who have worked with the show for months point out, moreover, that "progress" is part of the Parade itself. Changes are made constantly. Acts are improved. Scripts are reworded. Signs and labels are modified. New exhibits are added, others removed.
    Always there is the challenge to make the show better.

    Now the payoff question: What has the public reaction been?
    In some cities, crowds have totaled more than the within-city-limits population -- a tribute to the drawing power through the trading area. In fact, in the first three months of operations, attendance topped half a million people. The total rose to almost 1,115,000 after the Parade finished its stand at the Michigan State Fair in Detroit in the fall and is now approaching the two million mark.
    Yes, crowds stand and listen intently to the young lecturers as they tell and show basic principles of physics and chemistry, under such titles as "Word of Science," and "Miracles of Heat and Cold."
    People chuckle, then guffaw, as "Old Scout" chugs and shakes. This car, a 1902 Oldsmobile, still runs merrily along, as it did in winning the first transcontinental race in 1905 in 44 days -- and the crowds love the whole line of patter that goes with the act!
    They stand fascinated, too, at "American Crossroads," a complex, animated sound exhibit that shows the country growing 50 years in 10 minutes.
    They marvel at a modern jet engine, cut apart so you can see how and why it works, while a young man explains it all.
    The Parade, it seems, is a smash hit. What's more, it is helping adult American appreciate the nation's great heritage, and is inspiring young America to build even greater for the future.

If you have any additional information about the history or whereabouts of additional Futurliners, we would like to hear from you. Our objective is to capture as much of the history of these vehicles as possible.

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