Executives at Golin/Harris International learned that aerospace giant Boeing was considering Chicago as one of three possible locations for its new headquarters the same way everyone else—including city officials—did: they heard it on the news, after Boeing took the unusual step of calling a press conference to announce the candidates.

On Wednesday March 21, Boeing chief executive Phil Condit announced that the company would be leaving Seattle, its headquarters since 1916, and reducing the size of its headquarters staff from its current 1,000 to about 500. He also announced the three cities Boeing was considering: Chicago, Dallas, and Denver.

Condit’s announcement galvanized city officials in all three cities, but it may have had its most dramatic impact in Chicago, which had lost several corporate headquarters in recent years and which had been the subject of a Business Week cover story about what the magazine called “Chicago Blues.” Attracting Boeing to Chicago wouldn’t offset the jobs that were lost as a result of recent moves—there were no manufacturing facilities—but it would provide prestige: Boeing is the world’s biggest aircraft maker and nation’s largest exporter.

The announcement also had an impact at Golin/Harris, the largest public relations firm headquartered in the Windy City, where a team of senior executives immediately began brainstorming ways they could help the city make its case.

With local rival Edelman Public Relations Worldwide already working with the state’s economic development agency, Golin called City Hall and told the chief of staff that it had the means to help Chicago persuade Boeing of the city’s merits. The following morning, a team from Golin met with Mayor Richard Daley, his chief and his economic development advisor.

“We had brainstormed overnight,” says Golin executive vice president Scott Farrell, who led the agency’s effort. Like many others, the Golin team had spent hours poring over the Boeing press release, looking for clues. But the press release was vague, saying only that “Boeing is seeking to locate its new headquarters in a culturally diverse city that: offers ready access to global markets, provides a strong pro-business environment, and allows easy access to major Boeing operations and customers.” The company itself was not giving out any further hints about what it might take to win its affections.

“We had come up with a list of about 10 things they should be thinking about,” says Farrell. “The first thing we told them was that the effort to attract Boeing to Chicago had to be run like a campaign. We also advised them that the campaign had to focus on the soft benefits of coming to Chicago. We knew Boeing would be looking carefully at the data, because Boeing is an engineering company, it’s very data-driven. We wanted to communicate the things that wouldn’t show up in that analysis: the culture, the arts, the lifestyle, the diversity.”

The Golin team also advised the Mayor to make the most of the fact that Chicago had made the short list, regardless of whether it eventually won out.

Says Farrell, “We told the mayor that win, lose, or draw we had to show the community that this mayor had done everything possible to bring Boeing to Chicago. We had suffered a black eye last fall because of the Business Week story, so it was very important to use this as an opportunity to showcase all that Chicago has to offer and to show what the city is doing to attract blue-chip corporations.”

The next day Golin received a call from the mayor’s office. It had been selected from among dozens of firms offering their assistance to provide public relations counsel to the city as it made its pitch to Boeing. Although the assignment was pro bono—the city would cover Golin’s expenses, nothing more—it was a tremendous, high profile opportunity. The firm got to work with Mayor Daley, Illinois governor George Ryan, the State Department of Commerce & Community Affairs, and World Business Chicago, a group of the city’s business leaders.

The conventional wisdom was that Dallas-Fort Worth was the frontrunner, thanks to a lower cost of living and the fact that there is no personal income tax in Texas. Dallas was also known to be particularly aggressive in attempting to attract new companies, while Chicago had seen an exodus of corporate headquarters, thanks to mergers such as the one that saw Ameritech become part of San Antonio-based SBC Corporation, and BP swallow up Amoco.

The Golin team included president Dave Gilbert, a member of the board of the city’s convention and tourism bureau, and Chicago office general manager Keith Burton, who had worked with Boeing at a previous company. Within days, they had come up with a theme for the campaign—“Chicago… Central to Your Business”—and a logo. It created a brochure targeted directly at Boeing executives, and set up a parallel website designed to let Boeing employees in Seattle know about the lifestyle benefits of a move to the Midwest.

The agency considered taking the campaign to Boeing’s hometown, but ultimately restricted its efforts to wooing company executives when they paid their scheduled visit to Chicago in mid-April.

“Boeing was very circumspect,” says Farrell. “Management was very clear about the fact that it did not want to be overtly marketed to. We had all kinds of ideas about            intercepting them on their way to work, with billboards and radio ads. But in the end, we concentrated on making sure that we had a strong, compelling message for Boeing executives when they came to Chicago.”

The firm also helped with the development of a Blue Ribbon Committee, consisting of local business, civic, academic and cultural leaders, co-chaired by Daley and Governor Ryan. It developed materials and speaking points for members of the committee, who hosted a press conference to talk about their personal commitment to bringing Boeing to Chicago.

Arthur Martinez, retired chairman of Sears Roebuck & Co. sent a letter to Condit, extolling the city’s virtues, and United Airlines chairman Jim Goodwin—one of Boeing’s largest customers—also weighed in. So did Northwestern University president Henry Bienen, who touted the fact that “we’ve got one of the strongest executive education schools in the country.”

Education was one of the themes of the Golin/Harris brochure, which provided a comprehensive list of the city’s attractions:

  • 46 museums and 2000 art galleries
  • 700 restaurants
  • 29 miles of shorelines
  • 551 public parks
  • 300 different ethnic populations
  • direct flights to 65 world business capitals
  • the third largest technology workforce in America

In addition to the public relations efforts extolling the “soft” issues, all three cities also came up with some cold hard cash to tempt the aerospace company. Dallas reportedly offered Boeing a 75 percent reduction in property taxes, and Illinois reportedly offered tax breaks worth up to $50 million over 20 years, while Denver’s incentive package was valued at about $18 million—a reflection of its determination not to get into a bidding war.

Boeing managed to maintain suspense over its decision until the very end. It pursued parallel tracks in all three cities, planning simultaneous newspaper ads, hiring PR firms in each city to handle the announcement, even negotiating leases with buildings in all three cities. When CEO Phil Condit took off from Seattle on Thursday May 10, his pilot even filed three flight plans—but Condit’s ultimate destination was Chicago’s Midway airport, and shortly after he touched down he joined with city officials to announce that Boeing’s new headquarters would be built downtown at 100 North Riverside Plaza in Chicago.

“We looked at three very exciting metropolitan areas in which to base our company. Each community had many positive attributes and would be a suitable location for a corporate headquarters. It was a very difficult decision and no single factor made the difference. In the end, we looked at all the data and made what we believe is the right choice for Boeing,” said Condit.

Boeing, with $51.3 billion in revenues last year, immediately became the largest public company headquartered in Illinois.
If Mayor Daley was excited, so too were executives at Golin/Harris. “We’re very proud to have been a part of the extraordinary effort to showcase this great city,” says agency CEO Rich Jernstedt. The “Chicago… Central to Your Business” campaign, meanwhile, may have life beyond the Boeing bidding war. The city is reportedly considering building its entire economic development effort around the theme developed by Golin.