Top of the Mark: National Geographic Channel’s 'The Gospel of Judas’

How does a network go about marketing a show to the media and public that can’t be pitched ahead of time; the content of which is so controversial that it threatens to overshadow the program; and with partner organizations that are all moving in different directions?

That’s the conundrum National Geographic Channel ran into when it was trying to promote The Gospel of Judas. The only known copy of the controversial gospel was introduced to the public during a National Geographic Channel press conference on April 6, 2006 — three days before the show’s premiere.

The press conference detailed virtually the same information as the show and a strict embargo prohibited Nat Geo from pitching the program to critics beforehand. Moreover, the gospel’s discovery challenged conventional religious thinking and tradition, making it a major news story around the world.

“This campaign wasn’t necessarily unique in what we did,” Nat Geo executive vice president of marketing and digital media Steven Schiffman said. “But it was unique in that we had such a short lead time. Normally, with a public relations campaign, we would start months in advance of when a show debuts. But we had less than a month to do this one.”

Nat Geo has had some of the same constraints with past campaigns, said network senior vice president of communications Russell Howard. “But this was on steroids. There was 10 times the interest, 10 times the complexity and a huge lack of time to put it all together. It was complex and fragmented, but it confirmed some critical, but basic principles we do every day.”

In addition to promoting the show, Nat Geo also wanted to support other related products and organizations. In order to make sure every aspect of the project was given sufficient publicity, Nat Geo cut deals with media organizations giving them additional footage of the show in return for promotional coverage of the books, magazines and other partners. Nat Geo gave press kits and DVDs with burned-in restrictions to all press conference attendees and shipped more than 300 DVDs to reporters covering the story remotely, Howard said.

As well as taking a lead role in coordinating access to spokespeople and assets, Schiffman, Howard and their teams conducted a satellite media tour and controlled the extra footage and tune-in graphics. At the same time, Nat Geo hosted a media tour in Washington, D.C., and New York City in the days following the announcement.

“The significance of this discovery gave us an opportunity to expand our target audience beyond traditional television reporters, to include religious writers, science writers [the show included scientific detail of authenticating the document], [national and local] broadcast outlets, radio and Web sites and blogs. This was a rare event that crossed media boundaries and became front-page news around the world,” Schiffman said.

The story of the discovery of the previously unknown gospel was front-page news, and much of the coverage included mentions of the show, Howard said. Specific exposure for the program was substantial, including simultaneous segments on The Today Show and Good Morning America, both with tune-in details including full-screen graphics.

The Gospel of Judas was one of the highest-rated premieres in Nat Geo history, while the books became New York Times bestsellers. This campaign represents the discipline of integrated communications at its finest.