Confessions of a Circus Publicist

This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the final performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey at the Nassau Coliseum. It was a beautiful, and emotional, tribute to the 146-year tradition of America’s longest-standing entertainment institution, culminating in a challenge from Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson to the capacity crowd to “always let the circus live within us.”

This morning, I walked into my office and, after a quick glance at the 24 x 36 poster heralding Gunther Gebel Williams’ 1982 appearance at the Chicago Amphitheatre, my eyes landed on the placard on my desk that reads “Impossible, you say? Nothing is impossible when you work for the circus.” A gift from a Ringling Bros. clown, the placard reminded me, despite the tears welling up in my eyes, just how incredibly blessed I have been to spend 35 years of my career publicizing The Greatest Show On Earth. I also found myself reflecting upon the life lessons three-and-a-half decades as a Ringling Bros. publicist have taught me, including:

Think big. When you walk in the footsteps of legendary promoter P.T. Barnum, going big is non-negotiable. I’ve created elephant-sized Chicago style hot dogs for Ringling Bros.’ performing pachyderms, staged the world’s largest juggling flash mob, and engaged the services of a stilt-walking clown to set back the time on Macy’s iconic State Street clock. In today’s PR environment of paid content and five-figure satellite media tours (admittedly valuable tools in our arsenal), it’s nevertheless empowering to take a step back and remember how far a dash of strategic creativity can take us.

Easily one of the most successful PR initiatives in which I’ve ever been involved was the free public giveaway of pachyderm poo, “the super circus fertilizer.” The brainchild of my former business partner Trisha Miller, and then-partner Joan Solomon, the annual giveaway generated lines around the block of local gardeners eager to stock up on the circus’ uniquely potent miracle-grow. It was also, to the best of my recollection, the only annually-recurring stunt about which media would start calling weeks before it was even announced. Not only did the promotion of pachyderm poo subtly reinforce the excellent care and diet Ringling Bros. provided its four-legged charges, it was probably the lowest-cost campaign I’ve ever executed. After all, the sole commodity was available in endless supply.

Take calculated risks. Circus performers continually push the limits of human achievement. If a triple somersault on the flying trapeze is impressive, go for the quad. A five-man pyramid on the high wire? Seven speeding motorcycles whirling around a steel globe, inches apart? Let’s add more. While I’ve never seen a circus performer shy away from the inherent risks of taking his or her act to the next level, they are by no means impetuous. Tireless practice and preparation, meticulous checking of rigging and unwavering adherence to safety protocols are mainstays in the rarified strata of the world’s most celebrated daredevils.

There’s a lot we can learn from these heralded heroes about calculated risk-taking. We, too, can recognize that there’s nothing more dangerous, or detrimental to the growth and ongoing viability of a brand, than complacency. But that next steps must be strategically planned, based on a solid understanding of our clients’ goals, emerging opportunities, and competitive challenges. Perhaps we might be well served to incorporate the acronym WWNWD into our strategic decision-making process.  What would Nik Wallenda do?

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve had the amazing privilege of witnessing more than my fair share of extraordinary circus performances – astounding animal acts, gravity-defying aerialists, human cannonballs, mind-boggling contortionists, teeterboard titans…But almost invariably, my favorite part of the circus, year after year, has been the finale spectacle. That incredible, colorful moment when all of those exceptionally-talented performers flood the arena floor in a be-spangled blaze of confetti-filled glory.

That carefully-choreographed cohesiveness is the audience’s glimpse into the reality of life behind the scenes of the world’s largest travelling city. When the house lights come up, and the crowds have cleared, the arena floor comes alive with a different, organic type of buzz – Chinese acrobats teaching a ringmaster’s daughter to do a back-flip; clowns showing a Bulgarian teeterboard artist how to juggle; dancers working a new recruit from Brazil into a production number.

If it’s too much to expect that cross-borders spirit of collaboration to serve as a viable model for world peace, it can at least provide a template for inter-office team work. We too will always do our best work when we respect each other’s talents and unique contributions, and grow as professionals, coaching and learning from our colleagues.

Camels spit. Tiger piss stinks. And elephants are easily the most magnificent creatures on the face of the planet. Of everything for which I have to be thankful in my three-and-a-half decades with The Greatest Show On Earth, perhaps none exceeds the up-close exposure to the majestic four-legged stars of the circus. I truly believe Ringling Bros. has done as much to foster public appreciation of the awe-inspiring beauty, strength and intelligence of the animals with whom we share our planet as any organization, ever. While I will always respect the right to dissenting views regarding the presentation of performing animals in circuses, I will never accept the misrepresentation of facts to cast dispersions on a group of professionals I know for a fact to be among the most dedicated and hardest-working guardians of their charges, anywhere.

Don’t take anything for granted. If you had told me on Jan. 14, 2017, I’d wake up the following morning to learn that America’s living treasure – the 146-year-old legacy that had been so much a part of my professional and personal identity since day one of my career – would be closing, I certainly wouldn’t have believed you. Let this historic moment serve as yet one more reminder to each of us to appreciate every moment of the amazing experiences placed in our lives, and to never pass up an opportunity to hug the people we love.