Pete and Nancy Frates remind us what really matters

PRWeek's 2015 Communicator of the Year reminds us of the power of human spirit and the enduring nature of storytelling.

Nancy Frates accepts the Communicator of the Year award on Pete's behalf.
Nancy Frates accepts the Communicator of the Year award on Pete's behalf.

I had the supreme honor of sitting next to Pete Frates’ mother Nancy at the 2015 PRWeek Awards in New York City last night.

Pete was named PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year, following on from Malala Yousafzai and Edie Windsor since we launched this initiative in 2013. To say he is a worthy person to follow in those illustrious footsteps is a massive understatement.

Diagnosed in March 2012 with the debilitating neurodegenerative condition ALS, Pete refused to wallow in self pity and immediately determined to "bring the disease to the attention of philanthropists such as Bill Gates" and "lead a movement to change the world." And boy, did he do that.

The result was the Ice Bucket Challenge, the most viral social media campaign ever, which has currently raised more than $220 million for the ALS Association and completely elevated awareness of this mysterious illness, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Indeed, Bill Gates and many other politicians, celebrities, sports and entertainment stars got involved as the phenomenon pretty much took over the web for the best part of a month last July and August.

Nancy told me the ALS organization has had presentations from the likes of Google and Facebook outlining the analytics of the campaign, and that "What is ALS?" was the most-searched-for term in the whole of 2014 – not "Ice Bucket Challenge" – proving that the activity had achieved its aim of raising awareness as well as cash.

If this campaign had been entered into the PRWeek Awards, and bear in mind it was essentially conducted by a group of family and friends with no professional support, I’m pretty sure it would have run away with one of the top gongs. It proves the incredible impact of engaging storytelling and the fierce viral power of social media to spread a message.

Pete was a communications major himself, but you could tell he had inherited some of his comms skills from his mother, who kept the packed house of awards revelers completely silent and in rapt attention during her moving and emotional acceptance speech, which is no mean feat as I myself can certainly attest to.

It put the whole evening in perspective and reminded us that there are greater things to worry about in life than whether we have won an award or not. I was pleased at the amount of people from all parts of the industry who came up to Nancy afterwards and offered their support and complimented her on her speech.

The ALS Association has actually hired someone away from PR agency Porter Novelli to help them maximize the impact of the money and attention the Ice Bucket Challenge has brought to it. And this is still crucially important. As Pete pointed out early in the campaign, Lou Gehrig’s disease came into the public domain 75 years ago, but very little progress has actually been made since then in finding a cure.

If last night and the PRWeek Communicator of the Year Award can do anything, I hope they can continue to keep diseases such as ALS in the public eye and move us closer toward discovering effective treatments.

As the evening drew to a close, Nancy showed me a picture on her cell phone of Pete in hospital on Thursday morning with his seven-month-old daughter lying next to him. Pete has lost many of his faculties and can no longer speak, but you could see the love in his eyes for his little girl. Nancy also texted him a picture of the Communicator of the Year award trophy and Pete pinged back "cool."

As I said, it reminded me that whatever trials and tribulations we may be facing in our daily lives, or whatever business goals and tributes we chase, a bit of perspective is not a bad thing either.

At PRWeek we are justifiably proud of our awards and the esteem in which they are held by you, our community of readers and stakeholders. And last night was absolutely an unashamed celebration of great campaigns, individuals, brands, and agency teams.

It was about the winners, but also the shortlisted entries and everyone who put forward submissions and made this the genuine best-of-the-best test - a celebration of the PR industry in totality.

But, just as importantly, it was also a tribute to the strength of human spirit in the face of adversity and the enduring power of storytelling so movingly demonstrated by Pete and Nancy Frates.

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