Why two execs from rival PR firms teamed up to create #MoreThanMean

Two former colleagues from FleishmanHillard wanted to show the world the harassment women in sports media face online. To say they struck a nerve would be an understatement.

Julie DiCaro (l) talks about her experiences with Adam Woullard.
Julie DiCaro (l) talks about her experiences with Adam Woullard.

CHICAGO: Executives from rival PR agencies FleishmanHillard and Weber Shandwick are the masterminds behind the #MoreThanMean campaign that swept the nation last week by shining a light on the harassment faced by female sports reporters.

The campaign was launched via the podcast Just Not Sports, a side project formed six months ago by Weber SVP Brad Burke and Fleishman VP Adam Woullard. The pair met in 2010 when they were both working at Fleishman. Although Burke switched agencies two years later, they remained close and their respective bosses and firms have been "very supportive and encouraging" of Just Not Sports.

"Our weekly podcast focuses on the idiosyncrasies of the sports world; we talk to athletes about things they do away from the game," said Burke. "But we also have a lot of sports reporters come on our show, so in the process of looking up guests, we go to their social channels to see what they are into."

While perusing the social media channels of potential guests, Burke and Woullard noted the nasty comments female sports reporters in particular received from online trolls. Woullard said the comments were "more than mean – they were forms of harassment."

#MoreThanMean was born, with the goal of putting a spotlight on the issue.

Burke and Woullard decided that the most powerful way to get their message across would be to create a video with "everyday guys" reading aloud the mean tweets female sportscasters receive online, but to their faces. They secured Julie DiCaro from CBS’ 670 The Score and ESPN.com’s Sarah Spain to participate.

Burke said he had never worked with DiCaro or Spain and was surprised at how quickly they agreed to take part, especially considering bullies would likely target them more often once the video was posted.

In the video, the men reading the tweets almost can’t get the words out as they repeat violent insults the women have received online. Some of the darker tweets say things like, "I hope you get raped again" or "I hope your boyfriend beats you."

DiCaro and Spain, however, maintained their "poise and grace under fire," which can be seen in the video, Burke said.

"We live in a culture where ‘mean tweets’ are seen as funny and self-deprecating because of the popular Jimmy Kimmel sketches, which we have no problem with," said Burke. "By forcing guys to read the words out loud to the women to their faces, we felt like we could show a lot of people that these words still have power – a point often lost on a computer screen where you can just scroll right past them."

Yet for the women on the receiving end of the comments, it is difficult to "just scroll past," Burke added. Woullard noted that many people did not even know this was an issue.

"Since [the campaign’s launch], we have heard from people who are saying male sports reporters get [harassed] as well," said Woullard. "The difference is, male sports reporters are criticized for their opinions or on-air personalities, whereas women are criticized and receive this harassment just for being women in sports. Neither situation is right."

DiCaro, for instance, has to regularly block at least five trolls who create new Twitter handles to harass her, Woullard said.

When it came to launching the campaign, Burke and Woullard had a very "casual" outreach strategy planned. Both were on business trips. Burke said he uploaded the #MoreThanMean campaign video to Just Not Sports’ YouTube page on Monday night from a hotel room in Orlando, Florida.

Just Not Sports also released a long-form podcast that included an interview with DiCaro and Andrea Hangst, a writer for the website Sports on Earth, as another campaign element.

"[Hangst] talked more in-depth in the podcast about how she doesn’t want to incur the wrath of trolls, so she self-censors sometimes what she will and won’t talk about as an NFL beat writer," said Burke.

The next morning, they placed the video on Just Not Sports’ Facebook and Twitter pages and started promoting it with the #MoreThanMean hashtag. At that point, Woullard and Burke began reaching out to industry contacts. Colleagues from Fleishman and Weber also helped them get word out.

However, as Burke and Woullard were pitching, they started getting pitched themselves by media outlets.

"I had two emails – one to Fast Company, one to Bleacher Report – ready to go," said Woullard. "But before I could hit send, I had emails from my contacts there. That’s how fast this moved."

Burke said he quickly realized the campaign was going viral. So his strategy became less about proactive outreach, as the focus moved to fielding media requests from the likes of ABC, CBS, and The New York Times. The campaign quickly began to garner global interest, with inquiries coming in not just from major U.S. outlets, but press in India, Australia, South America, and Europe.

"The thing that sustained the conversation was the willingness of [DiCaro] and [Spain] to drop what they were doing and have a conversation with whoever reached out to them," said Woullard.

To date, the video has received 3.5 million views on Facebook and 3.2 million views on YouTube. Additionally, the post has reached more than 10 million people on Facebook. The campaign had zero paid support.

Celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Kris Jenner, Jared Leto, and U.S. Women's National Soccer Team goalie Hope Solo also supported the campaign on social media.

Other female sportscasters such as ESPN’s Erin Andrews and USA Today’s Christine Brennan joined the conversation with their own stories.

"ESPN journalists Bomani Jones and Mike Golic and CBS’ Josh Elliott have also since come forward on air to say to their female colleagues, ‘I didn’t realize this was this bad for you,’" said Burke.

To keep the conversation going, Just Not Sports will release a follow-up podcast, featuring the hosts digesting what happened and why, this week. Brennan will be a guest on the episode, which can be accessed via iTunes.

Woullard noted that online harassment of women is an issue that extends beyond female sports reporters, so he is encouraging others to extend the conversation to other industries.

"The reason this video worked is because you saw the eyes opening among the level-headed guys who were made painfully aware of the types of abuse and harassment people are taking," said Burke. "The goal was to wake up the people who see it and don’t react to it or are numb to it."

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