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July 30, 2009

Cause-Related PR Effort Reignites Support for 9/11 Workers with Football Star's Cross Country Walk

By Frank Zeccola

Forty thousand. That's the number of 9/11 Ground Zero rescue and recovery workers who could still be suffering as a result of their heroism.

And as the economy weakened in early 2007, donations for 9/11-related causes slowed down. Many people and companies around the nation had already made 9/11 donations, and supporters of these causes feared people had moved on.

It was six years after 9/11, yet tens of thousands of Ground Zero rescue and recovery workers were still suffering as a result of their service in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. And the medical and social crisis was only worsening.

Few outside of the New York area understood the extent of the crisis. Most saw it as a New York problem, not realizing that responders from all 50 states were in the ailing population in need. A CNN-Sports Illustrated report estimated that 40,000 firefighters, police, EMS and volunteers have been affected by the inhalation of toxic contaminants from the buildings. Many have contracted lung disease and even cancer. Worse, some don't have health insurance.

One football legend wanted to reenergize support for these heroes. Retired New York Giants defensive end George Martin set a goal of raising $10 million for Ground Zero workers.

He would do this by walking across the country.

Carmel, New York-based PR firm Winuk Communications, Inc. partnered with Martin and his team on the campaign, called "a Journey for 9/11."

Martin would walk more than 3,000 miles across the country over a period of nine months in an ongoing charitable mission. "George was really touched and troubled when he found out how many people were suffering and not getting any support," says Winuk Communications President Jay S. Winuk. "He feels that we as Americans have a responsibility to help."

George Martin Former NFL Player

The challenge: Reignite awareness, support and donations for ailing 9/11 workers— in an unsteady economy six years after the attacks. As the agency representing "a Journey for 9/11," Winuk's first goal was to "raise awareness about the plight of rescue and recovery workers who responded to Ground Zero and are seriously ill," Winuk says. "PR can play a major role in spreading the word. We also aimed to help George raise funds to contribute to their medical treatment."

Winuk puts the campaign in context: "Shortly after 9/11, the whole country chipped in" to support rescue workers, he says. "Supplies were flown in. Everyone found a way to help."

However: "Most people were not aware that the problem has continued in recent years."

Another challenge: "Now many years removed from his playing days, George Martin was not as well known outside of New York. He certainly had some high-profile national publicity as a Super Bowl winning captain of a New York-based team, and had a long and distinguished playing career. But as he embarked on the Journey, his profile was naturally somewhat lower in most of the U.S."

The agenda was clear: "We did everything we could to make sure he was the biggest story in town as he moved across the country."

The strategy: National positioning, multiple media events at key stops and invitations to reporters to join the walk. "We learned early on that we needed to position this as a national issue in order to have the communities along the route think it was important," Winuk says. "We had to stress that it's not just a New York problem or a New York story. Responders from all 50 states were ill—and insurance and government programs are not covering all of their medical challenges. A lot of people throughout the country developed lifelong ailments as a direct result of service to Ground Zero."

They launched the campaign with a media event on New York's George Washington Bridge, where Martin began his walk. Then, they staged several events at key stops along the way.

George Martin Former NFL Player

"We wanted to make it fresh everywhere we went," Winuk says. "We made sure to go through Washington DC, for example, which is obviously an issues-oriented city and was affected by the attacks. We staged a press conference on Capitol Hill. We also went through Oklahoma City. There's a kinship between the people affected by the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City and those affected by what happened at Ground Zero. And we went through Phoenix and staged a major event at the nation's largest firefighter museum."

In addition: "Journey scheduled breaks so George could go to schools and churches, have lunch with firefighters at the firehouse and attend key-to-the-city ceremonies. The walk took him longer than he planned because we scheduled so many stops to engage the communities along the way."

Winuk also invited reporters to come along for the ride: "One of the keys to success in this campaign was bringing the media along with us to experience what it's like to walk 22 miles a day. That's almost the equivalent of a marathon a day. It's one thing to report about this from a distance. But it's entirely different to spend three days or so walking and going through the campaign."

Martin's road team videotaped and took digital photos at every step. "We arranged for two direct forms of media documentation," Winuk says. "In some cases, we worked with national outlets that provided us with cameras. For example, ESPN and FOX gave George cameras. Then, we arranged for media to come out and travel with him. ESPN came out several times. The New York Post came out on the road, as did a lot of other media. Not all of them wanted to come to the big events. Some just wanted to see him walk through the Heartland."

The agency arranged more than 750 media interviews for Martin. "George really knew his stuff in terms of talking to the media," Winuk says. "But we did some coaching in terms of addressing medical issues, the impact of the terrorist attacks on the country and what was going on in Washington. There was some message development and delivery training. Since George was continuously on the road for months on end, it was naturally a challenge for him to stay current on all these issues. So some of the subject matter was new territory for him. But he's a quick study, and he did an exceptional job absorbing and delivering it all with sincere passion."

George Martin Former NFL Player

The Results: Huge national coverage—and millions of dollars in donations. "By accurately positioning this as a national issue, we were able to raise awareness and engage the media wherever we went," Winuk says.

The media highlights were incredible. "ABC World News with Charlie Gibson" aired three "Journey" features, first choosing George Martin as "Person of the Week," then as a "Person of the Year." They also reported from the finish line at the end of the walk. HBO Sports came on the road and aired a major feature on "Inside the NFL" numerous times.

Additional coverage included stories on CNN, FOX News, FOX Business Network, Sirius, CNBC, The AP, The New York Times, The New York Daily News, MSG Network, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Arizona Republic, Philanthropy World Magazine, Philanthropy Magazine and more.

"Much of the coverage was deep coverage," Winuk says. "It wasn't just sound bites. We scored numerous lengthy features. And radio loved talking to George from the road. He could do that while walking. George spent hours everyday on a cell phone."

By the end of the walk, "a Journey for 9/11" raised almost $3 million from individual and corporate donors toward its ongoing multimillion dollar goal—with all donated funds being matched in medical services by sponsoring hospitals.

"The endeavor was historic," Winuk says. "He's likely the first African American athlete to walk across the country for charity. Also, I don't know of any other walk across the country that got this kind of exposure and made a direct bottom-line impact. This is one of those cases where PR helped the bottom line and helped make a difference in the lives of thousands of people."

Winuk adds: "But the credit all goes to George. It was an astonishing accomplishment. He went through 27 pairs of sneaker and lost 41 pounds. To see him up at 4 a.m. stretching, then walking all day, then having dinner and doing phone interviews—and getting up and doing it again the next day—we were honored to play a role in supporting that."

The "Journey" Continues

The walk has ended, but Martin, his Journey team and Winuk continue the mission to raise $10 million for 9/11 workers. Winuk Communications has been retained by "a Journey for 9/11" to raise additional funds in post-walk support. Later this year, there will be the first annual commemorative walk from the George Washington Bridge to Giants Stadium.

This campaign is especially important to Winuk: "I'm also a 9/11 family member," he says. "My brother Glenn was an attorney and volunteer firefighter who raced toward the World Trade Center when the Towers were hit."

Glenn died when the Towers collapsed. "When I was first contacted by George to be considered to handle PR for this program, it really resonated. It's a great thing for me to do in my brother's honor: Help support responders who are now sick. There's great personal satisfaction in that. It was one of the greatest things to work on in all my years in PR. It was such a monumental professional challenge and I'm proud of the results we achieved."

Secrets for success: Read on as Winuk offers more tips and explains why this campaign won two Silvers—in Best General Consumer Campaign and Best Not-for-Profit/Association/Government Campaign—at the 2009 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations and Publicity:

1. Focus on long-term success: Build in media updates, multiple story angles and unfolding news events to extend the news cycle of your program over time. "Don't make your campaign a one-off event," he stresses. "Allow it to unfold over time. This campaign was more than ten months long. We recognized early that if we positioned it right, some of the media would want to come back and do follow-up stories to keep it fresh."

He adds: "We didn't rest on the 'sure bet' of a famous athlete walking across the country. We brought the media in with creative ways to make sure it got reported on. After an enormous launch, we had to keep finding ways to keep it fresh. Bringing the media out on the road was a way to do that. This way, even if The New York Times wrote about the launch, The New York Post could send a reporter on the road with a first-hand, exclusive experience that cannot be replicated."

2. Capitalize on the web and social media features to rev up interest and donations. "The Journey website was an important tool in this campaign," he says. "While it became a challenge for George to update from the road, given the nature of the undertaking, the Journey support team regularly posted new info for people to see. We regularly posted news releases at key geographic points George would reach, such as for the 2,500 mile mark. Journey also allowed users to track George through GPS. Thousands of people checked in with him everyday online. There's a tool that allowed you to ask, 'Where's George today?' And a map would come up that included fun and vibrant features showing you his location. From there, people could donate online. The media was very receptive to adding our web address to articles for contributions."

3. Balance celeb appeal with compelling issues-oriented facts and info to keep the "spotlight" on the cause. "A big challenge here was making sure the reporting didn't stay entirely focused on a celebrity walking across the country—without getting into the medical issues," he says. "That wouldn't have accomplished what we wanted to do. To overcome this challenge, we provided the compelling factual information about the medical crisis and engaged the hospitals treating and monitoring these patients. We worked hard to keep the focus and spotlight on the cause itself. We never lost sight of the overriding mission. My tip is to make sure you don't get caught up in spotlighting the event or the person. Keep the spotlight on the cause."

Winner's Profile:

Founded in 1994, Winuk Communications, Inc. is a full-service boutique public relations agency serving clients of every size, from entrepreneurial start-ups to large, multi-national corporations. The firm specializes in a wide array of communications services, including media relations; brand marketing; special event planning and execution; crisis, issues and strategic counseling; media and presentation training; comprehensive editorial and writing services; and research. www.winukpr.com

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