TTU's BusinessMedia Center achieves success, visibility with Ollie Otter campaign

A furry, 7-feet-tall otter is poised to make an impact on the safety of our nation like no other mascot since Smokey Bear, thanks to Tennessee Tech University's BusinessMedia Center and partners.

Ollie Otter, who has championed seatbelt and booster seat usage to Tennessee school children in the past year, may live in an orange, roadside barrel, but he's proving to be the most visible champion for child safety in the state.

"This program epitomizes the best of an innovative private-public partnership that has directly impacted more than 55,000 Tennessee students in its very first year," said Governor's Highway Safety Office Director Kendell Poole.   "They were able to give programs in 149 schools encompassing 2,284 classrooms in all 95 counties."

Launched by the Tennessee Road Builders Association and supported by the Governor's Highway Safety Office, Ollie was the brainchild of Carol Coleman, president of the TRBA Auxiliary. After losing three close family members to traffic accidents, Coleman responded to one of her grandchildren's observations that "seatbelts aren't cool" by creating Ollie Otter to promote awareness.

Great idea -- but how would she get the message out to the audience that needed to hear it most? She needed a marketing team, web site, newsletter, promotion materials, volunteers...and a big furry costume.

That's when she turned to the BusinessMedia Center, which had the knowledge, experience and leverage she needed to get Ollie into children's schools and into their hearts. The center's most recognizable work has been marketing the Regents Online Degree Program and Gov. Phil Bredesen's Imagination Library Program with Dolly Parton.

"Promoting Ollie uses everything we've learned in the past 20 years about creating statewide campaigns," said Kevin Liska, TTU BusinessMedia Center director. "We've leveraged technology to market Ollie to all 95 counties. It's a good example of business technology at work."

So Liska, program coordinator Julie Brewer and the BusinessMedia Team got to work. The idea was to support Ollie's visits to schools with an interactive web site so children can keep in touch with Ollie, giving the silent mascot a powerful voice. Children are encouraged to send in artwork and have by the hundreds.

The center created bookmarks, measuring boards, newsletters and other promotional materials. But more importantly, the team found a way to coordinate volunteers across the state by promoting a free, two-hour public service course through the Regents Online Continuing Education program. Here, teams of volunteers learn how to take one of the eight Ollie costumes now available and create events at local schools that promote the message.

"We realized early on that safe driving and seatbelts was not just a message for teenagers," said Liska. "We thought about how to make safety so habit-forming that it's not an issue when they get to high school.

"It's fun, high-energy and really basic," said Liska. "Ollie's usually in front of hundreds of screaming kids."

TRBA President Rab Summers said, "One of the best things TRBA did was partner early on with Tennessee Tech. Their use of the Internet to rapidly involve teachers, parents, students, and volunteers was amazing to see."

Tennessee's booster seat law stipulates that children under 4'9" and younger than 9 years old must use a booster seat. Before Ollie comes to class, only about 15 percent of students are aware of these rules.

"After Ollie visits, there's a tremendous increase in awareness of the law," said Liska.

Children ages 4-7 who use booster seats are 59 percent less likely to be injured in a car crash than children who are restrained only by a seatbelt, according to a study by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Ollie's future includes training more than 1,000 volunteers in the next year and reaching more than 180,000 students.   And the stage is set for Ollie to become a national figure. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association awarded the campaign its 2007 Roadway Workzone Safety Awareness Award.

"Without the BusinessMedia Center, this would have never happened," said Coleman. "I had a vision, but they had the resources to make it a reality."

To learn more about Ollie, visit www.seatbeltvolunteer.org .