I have many stories from my time with the Canadian Red Cross in Canada and outside Canada, but I thought I would start with a fun/funny one. This happened at the Houston Astrodome in September 2005. These days, I don’t see a lot of room or need for elaborate media events like this one. I’m a fan of organic methods like community building and relationship communications. However this was a great example of win-win-win media relations. Helping a couple in need, great story for reporters, and a good news story for disaster-weary news consumers. Oh, and I got to boss around Evander Holyfield, so there’s that.
Evander Holyfield & The Red Cross Wedding
It’s happened to every communication team on a big story. Reporters and satellite trucks have been camped out for days, but nothing major has changed. The media are all hunting for something good, something new, something big. It’s that point when things can go very, very wrong for a communications team trying to stay on message.
The communications group for the Red Cross at the Astrodome, the largest post-Hurricane Katrina shelter, wanted to offer up a good news story. Something that would bring the media together, and would hopefully steer off any unnecessarily critical stories at a time when the response to the hurricane was actually substantially improving. The biggest names in national media had converged at the Astrodome, and we’d been managing their needs for several weeks.
The team came up with the most improbable story of all. A wedding. Right in the middle of the Astrodome shelter. Rebecca and Joseph Smothers had planned to marry in New Orleans, but those plans literally washed away.
The Red Cross’s ad hoc “Wedding Event Team” found a volunteer organizer, who secured a dress, even a pastor. One of our communications staff was even going to sing and play guitar. Rebecca was a few minutes away from walking down the aisle, and every single reporter we’d invited, from local to regional to national had to shown up. It was a media relations home run. That is, until I saw a big scrum of cameras surrounding someone I couldn’t quite see shuffle in the door of the stadium just minutes before the ceremony was set to start. Who could it be? I honestly thought the 50 or so reporters attending the wedding were all the media we had in the area.
I caught a glimpse of the visitor. Evander. Holyfield. The legendary boxer had surprised the evacuees with an unannounced goodwill visit, and he was surrounded by the national sports media. The man is a hero, especially in Texas. I could see the reporters we’d assembled for the wedding were now torn between abandoning our wedding story to cover the The Champ’s visit instead. What to do? What COULD I do? I could see I had about 30 seconds to figure something out or lose all my media.
Canadian Red Cross TKO
I walked up to Holyfield, used my best reporter skills to elbow my way to the middle of the scrum, and said, “Hi Champ. We’re um, about to throw a wedding here. Would you do us the honour of giving away the bride?”
To say he looked at me like I was a loon is an extreme understatement. I prayed Rebecca would permit a celebrity to suddenly be in her wedding. But she was a fight fan and totally thrilled, and Holyfield said yes, and none of the media had to choose which story they had to cover because both became one.
It was the first (and I believe only) time a Red Cross media event has received a write up in Sports Illustrated, which might be my proudest, if weirdest, media clipping.
You own the event. Don’t just let it unravel if something unexpected happens. Moral of the media relations story: You own the event. Don’t just let it unravel if something unexpected happens, make immediate changes to turn the unexpected (a snowstorm, a last minute cancellation, a surprise boxing hero) into an advantage.
Or, in the words of Holyfield himself,
“If you quit every time things don’t go your way, you’ll be quitting all your life.” -Evander Holyfield