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Best PR Campaign | NORAD Santa Tracker PR Program | DeWinter Marketing & PR

Best PR Campaign: NORAD Santa Tracker PR Program

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The recent holiday season of 2021 provides an opportunity to cover the best PR campaign that’s been running for decades and is still going strong: the NORAD Santa Tracker PR Program. This highly successful PR program has generated worldwide goodwill for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) – located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a bi-national United States and Canadian organization charged with the missions of aerospace warning and aerospace control for North America. Aerospace warning includes the monitoring of man-made objects in space, and the detection, validation, and warning of attack against North America whether by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles, through mutual support arrangements with other commands.

In this article, I’m highlighting how this highly successful PR campaign got its start, and the effective techniques that can be studied and deployed in your own businesses.

Best PR Campaign: How The NORAD Santa Tracker PR Program Got Its Start

Col. Harry Shoup | Founder of NORAD Santa Tracker Program
Col. Harry Shoup, Founder of the NORAD Santa Tracker Program

The NORAD Santa Tracker Program got its start in 1955 after a Colorado Springs newspaper published a hotline for children to call Santa, misprinted the phone number, and accidentally published the secret phone hotline of the Continental Air Defense Command (CADC) – now known as NORAD. No surprise, that special hotline rang through a red phone – and only a 4-star general at the Pentagon and Colonel Harry Shoup at the CADC had the number.

One day in early December 1955, that red hotline phone rang, and when Col. Shoup picked up the phone, a child’s voice asked: “Is this Santa Claus?”

Col. Shoup thought it was an inappropriate prank phone call, and was annoyed and upset. But once the child on the line started crying, Col. Shoup realized it was not a prank phone call.

First, he calmed the child, and played along, saying: “Ho, ho, ho. Have you been a good boy this year?” And then he asked to speak to the child’s mother. When the mother got on the call, Col. Shoup asked her how they got the secret phone number. The mother replied that the phone number had been published in the Colorado Springs newspaper, so children could call and talk to Santa.

Once Col. Shoup realized what had happened, he assigned some service members to answer the calls, and the service members pretended to be Santa. On Christmas Eve that year, service members working in the command center posted a big picture of Santa’s sleigh with 8 reindeer flying over the North Pole on Christmas Eve.

When the colonel saw the image on the wall and asked about it, staff members said they posted it for fun, and that they would be happy to take the picture down if he wished.

Colonel Shoup thought for a moment, and then said, “No, leave it up.” Then he called a local radio station and said:

“This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center. We have identified an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.”

After that initial call to the media, radio stations started calling the center every hour asking, “Where is Santa now?

Best PR Campaign: NORAD Santa Tracker PR Program Expands With Volunteers and A Website That Tracks Santa on Christmas Eve

Volunteers at NORAD Santa Tracker Program
Roughly 1,500 volunteers staff the NORAD Santa Tracker Program at Christmas time

After that initial year, NORAD’s Santa Tracker PR Program is still going strong 50+ years later. Every Christmas season, roughly 1,500 volunteers man the phones at NORAD’s headquarters – taking calls from children all over the globe. The volunteers field more than 100,000 calls and emails from children worldwide each year.

Since Canada is part of NORAD, Canadian NORAD also announces that they are providing Santa with Canadian fighter jet escorts as he and his reindeer fly from the North Pole.

Best PR Campaign: Strategies Include Public Outreach, Website & Social Media


NORAD Santa Tracker Program

As website technology advanced and improved over the years, NORAD developed an interactive Santa Tracker website which provides a graphic of Santa, the reindeer, and the sleigh traveling across the globe on Christmas Eve. The interactive website also shows a “gifts delivered tally,” with site visitors from 200 countries and territories each year. Live updates about Santa’s progress on Christmas Even also are provided in multiple languages.

Social media strategies include a NORAD Tracks Santa Facebook page (which has more than 2 million “likes”) and its Twitter account has more than 150,000 followers.

Best PR Campaign: NORAD Santa Tracker Program Was Born Out Of A Mistake & Turned Into An Opportunity

When you think about it, an air defense military program that’s tracking possible attacks is intimidating stuff. But the brilliant PR move by Col. Shoup created a program for kids that’s appreciated worldwide – and makes the organization more friendly and approachable.

The colonel could have shut down the program and forced the newspaper to publish a retraction and “don’t call us.” Instead, he engaged with media and ultimately, the public – and this powerful, heart-warming PR program is likely to be a hit with children and families worldwide for decades to come.

Need PR programs developed to engage your prospects? Contact DeWinter Marketing & PR!

Courtney DeWinter is the president & founder of Denver-based DeWinter Marketing & PR in Denver, Colorado. She is a marketing & PR consultant with 25+ years of experience in branding, marketing, public relations, websites & journalism.

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