When Tom Hanks does free PR for you

This week, the PR team at Ancestry.com put on a clinic on how to make news without breaking the bank.

They revealed genealogical research that shows Tom Hanks is related to Fred Rogers. Of course, this was carefully timed to coincide with the premiere of the movie in which Hanks plays Mr. Rogers.

Sure, you’re nodding, that’s great when you have Tom Hanks working for your brand.

But don’t jump to that conclusion so quickly – I don’t have firsthand knowledge of this particular case, but I’m positive that Ancestry hasn’t paid Hanks a dime. Here’s how I can be so sure.

Ancestry has been using this playbook for almost 10 years. They first hit it big when they announced in 2010 – ahead of one of the Twilight vampire romance movies – that star Robert Pattinson is related to the real-life inspiration for Dracula.

And then most years since, they rinse and repeat. They scan the horizon for movies and TV shows that will be a big deal, then investigate the lineage of the stars and see if there are any fun connections.

Their hunches don’t always pan out. For example, when the Hunger Games movies were big, they wondered if star Jennifer Lawrence was related to Josh Hutcherson, who plays her quasi-love interest in the films, because both actors were born in the same state. Alas, no connection emerged. Instead, they discovered she’s related to Jeremy Renner, who co-starred with her in American Hustle.

And when I hosted Ancestry’s VP of Comms as our guest expert for one of my Inner Circle trainings, she told us that no money changes hands on these celebrity stories. Because these folks are legally classified as “public figures,” brands are permitted to talk about them without any contract.

Think about it – this strategy is very much a win-win for both the brand and the celebrities. There is now ANOTHER round of stories implicitly touting A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood right when that coverage has the best chance to help boost ticket sales.

On this story, the Ancestry team applied the proven strategy and then really took the execution to the next level. In the past they’d simply pitch the news out and pop-culture-starved media would run with it.

This time, they apparently worked out an exclusive with Access Hollywood, where the TV show would get to break the news to Hanks himself on the red carpet. The resulting video is such good content that CNN, WaPo, Today.com, and loads more are covering it, even though the news is “already out there.”

The takeaway for you? Maybe you won’t find a way to repeatedly tie your brand to celebrities for free. But you can and should be constantly scanning and brainstorming for ways to create your own news.

Creativity > Budget.

This article was originally published on November 21, 2019

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