What the Circus Can Teach Communicators and Corporations About Demonstrating Value in Our Communities

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Drew Piers

23 February

Before it ended a 146-year run and folded its tent for good last year, the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus actually called the Sunshine State its home. The so-called “Greatest Show on Earth” spent many winters in Sarasota County, where the jugglers, trapeze artists, elephants, and everyone else could relax and recharge before hitting the road again. My dad was actually part of the crew for a brief time, serving as one of the artisans who hand-painted the signs, props, and rail cars.

This annual influx of hundreds of people brought millions of dollars worth of revenue to the local community and small businesses within the area. However, perhaps not realizing the full extent of the economic activity this enterprise brought to the city, local officials in the 1980s wanted to levy a $25,000 tax on the circus to cover additional expenses related to fire and police services.

Instead of issuing a press release or taking out an ad to show what a bad idea this would be, Ringling Brothers’ top executive (who also served as ringmaster) had a different, and brilliant, idea: For the two months the circus was in Southwest Florida, he paid all his employees in cash …with $2 bills.

In the pre-debit card era, this unorthodox strategy flooded the local economy with the uncommon bills, showing people just how much money the circus brought to the region. In just a few weeks, people were seeing $2 bills everywhere from grocery stores to restaurants and even beach shops.

It is critically important for companies to continually demonstrate the value they bring to their communities. This is particularly vital for those industries that, like the circus, may attract their share of both accolades and criticisms.

For instance, most people may not think of mining or manufacturing when they envision the postcard image of Florida, but those industries employ thousands of people and generate millions of dollars in economic activity every year. Without an intentional and effective communications strategy to showcase that benefit, the average person may not realize the tremendous positive impact of companies in their own backyard.

Here are a few creative approaches a company can take to show its impact, particularly for the people in its own community:

  1. Put a human face on your company
    It’s difficult for people to develop an emotional attachment to a large company, but putting a human face on your story – perhaps someone who works for the company or benefits from the products it develops – can help show just how much the industry means to so many. Even a charismatic executive can convey the meaning and impact of the work they do to those who may be unfamiliar with what actually happens within the company.
  2. Show how much economic value you bring to the local community
    Many companies pay millions of dollars in federal, state, and local taxes, which go to fund essential community services like schools, libraries, public safety, and parks. Local residents don’t have to take these tax dollars out of their own pockets, but they certainly see the direct value in their daily lives. Showing how much the company contributes – and not just with a graph buried in the back of an annual report – can be an easy but powerful way to show the community how much the company cares.
  3. Embody an attitude of corporate social responsibility
    Investing in a charity or two of importance to the local community or one that aligns with the company’s vision and values is a great way to tangibly demonstrate commitment and compassion. More than just making a significant financial contribution, companies should strive to take an active and visible role in furthering the mission of the organization – and should encourage employees at all levels to get involved, too.

Every company depends on the community in which it’s located – and the community depends on the contributions made by the company. While an organization’s profile may not reach Ringling Brothers’ “big top” status, these strategies can help companies remain top of mind and strengthen their bonds with the community.

Drew Piers, APR is a partner and director of campaigns at Sachs Media Group.