Re: Focus | UF Solar Decathlon Europe

Refocus_FLoridaLogoIn summer 2010, competitors gathered in Madrid, Spain, for the first Solar Decathlon Europe, a competition in which 17 universities from around the globe fully designed and constructed solar-powered homes to promote research and innovation in solar energy. Each home incorporated dynamic design principles in order to promote sustainable technologies. Once shipped to the competition site, the entries were judged based on 10 categories: architecture, engineering and construction, solar systems, electrical energy balance, comfort conditions, appliances, communications and social awareness, industrialization and market viability, innovation and sustainability.

The University of Florida was one of only two U.S. schools selected to compete in the prestigious competition. The Decathlon allowed students to gain experience in planning and executing the entire project from the ground up, as well as gaining the experience of emerging technologies, which were both vital to their future careers and the future of the environment. Further, through the exhibition and media coverage of the homes, each team had the power to positively influence broad audiences in its respective country.

Through the construction of the Project RE:FOCUS house, the UF team aimed to demonstrate the viability of designing and constructing “green” houses without sacrificing basic comfort or financial security. Therefore, the key messages of the public relations effort included sustainability education and communication about the viability of alternative living options.

As this was the inaugural year for Solar Decathlon Europe, Project RE:FOCUS implemented the campaign with a clean slate. The objective of the communications team was to raise awareness of Project RE:FOCUS among key local, national and international audiences and encourage them to take action to live more sustainable lifestyles. The media objective was to raise awareness regarding the project and the technologies used in the house through local and national media outlets.

Strategies and Tactics
The program implementation launched on February 25, 2010 with a news release announcing Project RE:FOCUS to the community, while stirring up interest for activities in the upcoming weeks.

On the ground: Guerilla marketing tactics were implemented through the mobilization of students involved in the project and students involved in on-campus “green” organizations. Unconventional marketing techniques were used to draw attention to the campaign. The entire quarter-mile stretch of the 34th Street wall was painted and a giant representation of a carbon footprint was placed in Turlington Plaza (the most foot-heavy place on campus). The next day, a trail of smaller footprints led to an interactive information expo designed to engage students with the technologies of the house.

In the media: Beginning with pitching which led to coverage in print, broadcast and web outlets, both locally and nationally. Specific key audiences were addressed through targeting of trade publications.

On the Web: An existing Facebook fan page was modified to be used for external communication of key messaging and construction updates. Additionally, a second Facebook fan page was generated to correspond with the “Make a Change, Not a Footprint” social media campaign. Once launched, this page was used for visitors to post links to videos and pictures of their personal sustainability efforts as well as suggestions for others to use. Further, two separate Twitter accounts were used for both Project RE:FOCUS and “Make a Change, Not a Footprint” to primarily reach “green” organizations and students. Specifically, for the “Make a Change, Not a Footprint” campaign, the Twitter served as still another place for people to post pictures, videos and information and interact with likeminded individuals. The posting process on all mediums was supplemented with the use of a YouTube channel and Flickr page. In order to tie the social media campaign into the rest of the campaign, each aspect of it links back to the Web site, which provides a place to donate to the project.

Internal Organization: Because of the broad reach of the project, the University of Florida team had difficulty collaborating in an organized manner at the outset. As part of the communications plan, our team created systems to connect all 125 students involved, as well as opportunities for networking. This was established through several internal events, meetings and organizational charts.

While in Madrid: Three team members spent three weeks in Madrid to implement communications efforts for the 10-day competition. This included media pitching in Spain and the U.S., which resulted in English and Spanish coverage in outlets such as Radio Nacional Espana (second largest radio audience in the world), USA Today and Cadena Ser radio. Furthermore, associates led public tours of the home and presented the communications campaign to Solar Decathlon Europe jurors. The communications team also coordinated with Solar Decathlon professionals to schedule interviews, achieve placement in international media and set up visits for the U.S. ambassador and prince of Spain. Finally, UF was selected as one of three schools to have a student deliver a speech at the opening and closing ceremonies. One of Alpha PRoductions’ associates delivered the speeches, effectively representing the team and the U.S. to hundreds of media outlets worldwide.

The measurement of the previously mentioned objectives took several forms. For one, the 1st place communications award served as a testament to the success of the project. In the words of jurors, the UF campaign was, by far, the strongest communications entry based on strong messaging and implementation. Furthermore, our viral e-mail efforts landed UF the prize for Public Choice on the Web. Online, figures for unique visitors to the website, blogs and social networks were analyzed to evaluate impact. Among traditional media, circulation numbers and audience demographics were evaluated.