Big Picture

When Old is New – “Barnstorming” as the “New” Social Media?

Dr. William Putsis

A great deal of media attention these days, after our post-pandemic “lockup,” has centered on what many people refer to as “revenge” travel – traveling because “we can.” To wit, rising prices on virtually all aspects of travel combined with congestion at our airports has garnered much of the recent media attention. However, a recent post-pandemic business trend has emerged, one that has escaped much of the media attention, yet it is alive and well.

We often think of how we allocate a mix of “traditional” and “social” media to get the word out on our products services and offerings. However, what is often missed in this process is yet another very effective tool from bygone eras – the use of on-the-ground “barnstorming” tactics that can be both cost-effective and inspiring.

Lessons in History

As is often the case, history serves as a prescient reminder of business that works. Back in the late 1940’s, President Harry S. Truman set out from Washington on a twelve-day cross-country political barnstorming trip. It looked likely – before this “barnstorming” tour set out – that he would lose the election handily. However, Truman’s team knew how to generate buzz. On the “Truman Special,” a 17-car train that left from Washington’s Union Station to traverse the country, there were 56 newspaper and magazine reporters, eight radio reporters, five photographers, along with representatives of the Western Union company and Signal Corps personnel with cryptographic equipment and radio on board.

The media coverage of the tour was, as the result and as you’d imagine, significant. Interestingly, it was on board this train where Truman became known as “Give ‘em Hell Harry: as the train began its journey across the United States, Truman shouted out to his running mate, “We’re going to give ‘em hell” just as the train was leaving Union Station.In the end, the 12-day trip by rail made 231 stops and, as we all know, Harry S. Truman was elected as the 33rd President of the United States, a victory that is often called the greatest comeback in U.S political history. In fact, it was aboard this train that the famous Chicago Tribute copy prematurely calling the election in favor of Truman’s rival, Thomas Dewey.

This approach was by no means unique to this election. Using the trails, roads or rails of our country has a long-standing tradition. Indeed, this is often the way presidential elections were won or lost before radio, television and the Internet. Today, in the wake of expansive social media, much of the use of “barnstorming” tactics, i.e., traveling the country for a cause, mission, or objective has been lost. Until recently.

Two current examples of this are the Task Force Tribute, a Veteran’s cause put on by Project Relo, and We Supply America. One, Task Force Tribute, is a non-profit endeavor aimed at building a “living memorial” for all of the military members who have lost their lives since 9/11. The other, We Supply America, attempts to bring attention to “the noble calling of distribution,” all the small, hard-working family owned distribution businesses across the United States.

  1. Task Force Tribute
    Task Force Tribute is a veteran inspired journey of remembrance, honoring the 7,054 military members lost during combat operations since 9/11. One mile will be traveled for each service member lost. As the joint service team embarks upon a journey that will cross America, it will collect and memorialize the stories so many of our military members, veterans and fellow Americans hold dear – those of loss, success and the many struggles and triumphs that remind us that Americans have far more in common than we have differences.

    While others will lead the efforts to build physical monuments, the ambition of Task Force Tribute is to construct a living memorial; instead of bricks and steel, the monument that will be built with the stories and perspectives from veterans and their families that will evolve and grow as people contribute and memorialize their experiences. This is expected to repeat itself annually.

    On August 21, 2022, this joint service team will embark on a send-off by the Michigan National guard in Lansing Michigan featuring Governor Gretchen Whitmer, members of her staff as well state legislators. From here, it will cross the United States making planned and unplanned stops. We will rest and complete our journey on September 11th in Washington DC.

  2. We Supply America
    In a very different initiative, one focusing on hard working everyday Americans, We Supply America has just set out across the United States for a 2nd year in a large motor home, traveling from distributor to distributor. In their words, the objective is to shed the light on the professionals who keep America supplied:

    “In a world of social distancing, remote working, personal challenges, and business disruption, there are businesses with their committed, passionate, and caring professionals who kept America supplied. The pandemic shined a light on the imperative nature of supply. That light is The Noble Calling of Distribution.”

    While distribution has only seen the spotlight recently for bottlenecks and logjams, in many ways, the road to our tables – literally – are through these independent, family owned and run businesses. In its first year, the tour covered 35 states and a total of 16,599 miles, visiting 35 distributors, produced 8 short films and generating buzz across the country.

Media Coverage and Effectiveness

As you might imagine, both initiatives have served as catalysts for broader media coverage:

Task Force Tribute has generated significant media coverage in both traditional and social outlets. For example, Task Force Tribute’s main sponsor is the telecommunications conglomerate, Sinclair Broadcast Group. Boasting many hundreds of channels and stations across 86 U.S. markets the company should ensure that the ‘good news’ message of Project RELO gets maximum exposure and attention. Adding to the coverage, several companies, spearheaded by Accenture, are contributing marketing and communication assets and expertise to amplify and feed all those that pick up the story and message.

We Supply America has successfully broken through the marketing noise that its channel faces.  With the pandemic it seems that every organization has found the ability to offer webinars and even author white papers, yet the messages get lost in a non-differentiated way.  As a result of the campaigns bold positioning, disruptive messaging, and championing cause, the We Supply America platform breaks through generating hundreds of thousands of social media impressions, consistent trade journal reporting, thought leadership articles, as well as local media.

Lessons for Business

These two tours are not the only such initiatives of course, but they do highlight the fact that such approaches can be quite effective as accompaniments to “traditional” outlets and social media, as noted above. We often think of how we allocate a mix of “traditional” and “social” media to get the word out on our products services and offerings. However, what is often missed in this process is yet another very effective tool from bygone eras – the use of on-the-ground “barnstorming” tactics that can be both cost-effective and inspiring.

Consider these as you build your entire media plan:

  • Consider incorporating barnstorming tactics to complement traditional media and jump start social.
  • Use it to generate buzz and connect to other media outlets to generate “free coverage” that is a “win-win” for both your organization and those on the tour.
  • Recognize that partnerships matter – you need to bring in and organize on the grass roots, local level. These grass roots connection will often become your most loyal supporters for long periods of time.
  • Include these approaches in your toolkit to incentive customers and constituents to be aligned with your interests.
  • Have fun – the one thing in common with all of these initiatives are that they generate excitement at every turn. Use this to your advantage.

What is old is often new again – “barnstorming” is alive and well in this post-pandemic world.


Written by Dr. William Putsis.
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Dr. William Putsis
Dr. William Putsis is a Professor of Marketing, Economics and Business Strategy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and a Faculty Fellow for Executive Programs at Yale University. He is also president and CEO of Chestnut Hill Associates, a strategy consulting firm offering a suite of online executive development courses. His new book is The Carrot and the Stick: Leveraging Strategic Control for Growth (Rotman-UTP Publishing, Feb. 3, 2020).


Dr. William Putsis is an external advisory board member for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.