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January 30, 2012

Remote Event Becomes Compelling PR in 'El Cap' Summit Campaign By Schwartz Communications

By Jim Bucci

Stephen Wampler had an audacious goal. He wanted to climb Yosemite National Park's El Capitan Mountain — a mountain twice as high as the Empire State Building. Born with cerebral palsy and wheelchair-bound, Wampler's climb would help raise $2 million for his foundation that provides summer camp options for kids with physical disabilities. Embarking on such an arduous and dangerous journey would also serve as an inspirational challenge to disabled children worldwide — no goal is too tall.

Before Wampler could climb, he needed to learn how to climb and solve his fear of heights.

After spending one year training at Coronado Climbing Center, learning how to use a system of ropes to climb, Wampler became the first person with cerebral palsy to reach the summit of "El Cap" in September of 2010. Though his nemesis — fear of heights — crept in halfway up the climb, Wampler persisted to the top, pulling himself up 20,000 times in six days — the equivalent of doing 20,000 pull-ups. Wampler hauled himself up the mountain four to six inches at a time, doing pull-up after pull-up in the bright Yosemite sun.

After completing his journey, Wampler promptly "retired" from climbing—El Capitan to be his first and only mountain.

Approached by ESET, a San Diego-based Internet security company and corporate sponsor of the climb, Schwartz Communications came aboard to construct a PR strategy to support Wampler's climb and fundraising campaign.

Schwartz decided to focus on Steve's fundraising and personal tie to the foundation and summer camp as the hook for the story.

The Strategy: Bring the mountain to the media via social media. Schwartz knew the media had limited resources to send reporters, photographers, producers and camera crews to remote areas like Yosemite to cover the event and accomplishments such as Wampler's were submitted to the media as story leads on a routine basis. The PR team needed to find an angle to set Wampler apart and make him accessible in a location found attractive due to its isolation from the rest of the world.

Schwartz hired a satellite truck and crew to conduct a media tour out of Yosemite National Park 36 hours after Wampler descended from the mountain. This would allow the spread of Wampler's story throughout the country and world, cutting through the limitations of geography.

During the climb, Wampler also recorded and uploaded daily video diaries to engage with his Facebook and Twitter followers. A documentary film crew chronicling the climb sent 5-7 second sound bites a few days into the climb to be fed out on various social media platforms. In addition, Schwartz also distributed regular Facebook updates and Tweets on Wampler's progress through the ESET and Wampler Foundation social media pages.

"When we sat down to plan media coverage for Steve's climb, we knew that social media would be a critical element for us," explains Matt Grant, director of media strategy at Schwartz Communications. "A documentary crew would also be filming his climb for an upcoming film and Steve would be providing daily updates through Facebook and YouTube."

It also helped that the campaign's star had an engaging manner that brought viewers into his world.

"His personality comes across in the videos," offers Grant. "He's inspirational and infectious. It was important that people saw that and once they did, they wanted to support him, investing in Stephen Wampler."

The Challenge: Drum up media coverage when few media outlets would be traveling to distant Yosemite. For Schwartz, the biggest challenge was how to attract media coverage since few media outlets were willing to make the trek to the remote Yosemite National Park.

"With the budgets as they are these days, reporters aren't able to make it out to cover the same stories as before," says Andrea Hawley, account supervisor at Schwartz Communications.

While pre-climb interviews with Wampler and his wife, Elizabeth received strong interest from the start, it became difficult to compel people outside of Wampler's hometown of San Diego to publish a story in advance of the climb. The interviews did not do the story justice either. To believe and truly understand what Wampler would be doing and going through to reach the top, you had to see.

Once Schwartz viewed the video updates from Wampler on the mountain during the first day, they knew if journalists watched the footage, they would be compelled to tell his story.

"The visual element was the big driving factor for us," explains Hawley. "You can tell someone that Steve would be doing the equivalent to 20,000 pullups to get to the top, but they don't really understand that until you show them the video clips of what he's doing."

As Wampler made his way up El Capitan, a final hurdle presented itself, one that threatened Schwartz's plan of providing regular video updates from the mountain.

"Prior to the climb, we thought Steve would be able to use his iPhone to video and provide updates, but the battery ran out during the climb," explains Hawley. "The documentary film crew ended up doing a lot of the work to transport the footage back down to the base for us to use."

The Results: Wampler's climb attracts top-tier coverage, including an in-depth feature story on ABC's "World News with Diane Sawyer". Schwartz secured stories on Fox News Online, CNN Sports, Outside Magazine, The Associated Press, as well as more than 110 other local broadcast stories around the country, with 17 stories appearing in top 10 markets.

ABC's "World News with Diane Sawyer" also filmed several in-depth features on Wampler's climb, including a profile during their "American Heart" series. Viewers have watched the seven videos uploaded to YouTube and Facebook more than 20,000 times.

Secrets of Success: Read on as Matt Grant and Andrea Hawley offer more tips and explain why this campaign won Silver in "Best Special Event/Stunt" at the 2011 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations & Publicity.

  • Provide the media everything they need. "Make it easy for the media," she says. "Go out of your way to get the reporter anything they could possibly want or need, including video and graphics to help tell the story. You need to go the extra mile to make them want to cover your story."
  • Highlight a story angle that captivates the viewer. "Tell a story that moves people and makes them engage personally," he explains. "Provide a reason to care on a human level and to connect on a personal level to the story. Ask what other reason there is to tell your story and then explain it."
  • If your campaign hits a snag, do not waste time worrying—move on to Plan B. "Campaigns never go as planned, but figure out your next best option and make it work," she says. "Do not spend cycles thinking about what you might be missing or you wish you had. For example, the iPhone we were going to use for video diaries died on the first day so we had to leverage footage from the documentary crew, which was brought to the base daily."
  • Do not be afraid to take a leap. "Think big and take calculated risks," she offers. "There's not a lot of money these days for companies to commit, but we committed to the satellite media tour in a remote area, which was expensive. It was a big risk and a gamble. You should not be scared to fail, to think creatively or big because your idea might not work out."
  • Work with what you have. "Leverage all your resources, especially digital content and social media channels," she says.

Winner's Profile: Based in Waltham, Massachusetts, Schwartz Communications specializes in PR for high-tech, medical device, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. In addition to its Waltham headquarters, Schwartz has offices in San Francisco, London and Stockholm.

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