Sunday, June 22, 2008

PR Lessons from the Starship Farragut

What can the Starship Farragut teach us about creativity in communications?

That’s the question we posed to Mark Hildebrand, the producer and director of award winning fan films based on the 1960s Star Trek television series created by Gene Roddenberry. (For more on Starship Farragut, visit

Hildebrand visited Strategic Communications Group’s (Strategic) office as part of our professional development program. Past speakers had included journalists, industry analysts, publishers and corporate marketing executives. Right in line with what you would expect at a public relations consultancy.

Our request for a presentation from a film director is symptomatic of a dramatic shift in the industry. Public relations content has traditionally been constructed to educate and engage an organization’s key stakeholders. It presents a perspective, opinion or corporate story, and then encourages dialogue and debate.Yet, a third "e" should be added to the measurement benchmarks for public relations -- entertainment. The ability to capture and hold an audience's attention in unique and innovative ways is now a must for any communications program.

That was the insight Strategic’s staff anticipated from Hildebrand’s presentation. We weren’t disappointed. On a shoe string budget, he collaborated with a group of talented (yet unknown) actors to create a movie true to Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek and, in the process, garnered a following among die-hard fans of the original series.

Hildebrand’s suggestions on how to create compelling and entertaining content serve as a primer for public relations and marketing professionals challenged to promote their companies in traditional PR and social media channels. Here are a few of his thoughts:

Sit in the audience’s chair. Content must always be evaluated from the perspective of the intended recipient. Hildebrand explained you want to challenge the audience, yet at the conclusion leave them fulfilled (rather than confused).

Create a dilemma. When following the problem/solution format, it’s critical to use anecdotes to demonstrate how the characters depicted in the content learn, thereby delivering an educating experience for the audience.

Change pace with emotional contrast. Deliver the unexpected and you’ll keep an audience’s attention. Hildebrand cited Starship Farragut’s use of humor in certain fight scenes. The same principle can apply in public relations by introducing an unexpected writing style. Strategic client Tellabs excels at this through a creative approach to their press release writing (

Embrace creative tension. While Hildebrand retains final creative say in his productions, he openly engages with actors and the other professionals on the set for their opinions about how to best capture a scene. The best result often comes from the resulting disagreements and discussion.

Rely on the passion. Starship Farragut is truly a labor of love for Hildebrand, the actors and production staff. It’s self-funded and, due to licensing requirements, they distribute the films at no cost via the Internet. Companies who inspire a comparable passion from their employees typically produce memorable and entertaining content.


Clive Young said...

The rise of Star Trek fan films like Starship Farragut is also a wonderful example of loosening the reigns on one’s IP in order to reap the marketing benefits.

Rather than suing fan filmmakers into financial oblivion, Paramount, which owns Star Trek, has generally looked the other way, allowing these enterprising hobbyists to do their thing without fear of reprisals.

As a result, the franchise has gained continual exposure even though its last official TV series went off the air in 2005; since then, these fan flicks have had a quantifiable impact: One fan series, Star Trek: Phase II, has been downloaded 30 MILLION times. For Paramount's marketing department, that’s a great ROI for doing absolutely nothing.

I talk about this and other ways that fan films are changing marketing in my upcoming book, Homemade Hollywood: Fans Behind The Camera (Continuum Books, Sept. 2008), which traces the history and future of this underground film movement. If you're just curious about fan films in general, however, you're always welcome to check out my fan film blog, (where I plan to blog about your post).

Marc Hausman said...

@Clive - great point about how Paramount clearly benefits from the passion of Star Trek fans. Leveraging customers as brand ambassadors is also well proven in the world of consumer products. Consider the ROI Harley-Davidson has experienced from empowering its customers.