CAMPAIGNS Event PR - Freedom rides on Greyhound PR bus

Client: Greyhound Lines (Dallas)

PR Team: Burson-Marsteller (Washington, DC)

Campaign: "Greyhound Freedom Rides"

Time Frame: February-May 2001

Budget: About $200,000

They were called the Freedom Riders. In 1961, 13 civil-rights activists

courageously boarded buses bound for Montgomery, AL, uncertain they'd

return. Along the way, they faced the naked hate of racist mob


They were attacked and beaten, and the Greyhound bus they rode was even

firebombed. But they endured, persevering as their numbers swelled to

over 300.

As an original Freedom Rider, John Lewis was set upon by a mob, and

struck in the head with a wooden crate as he watched a white friend get

knocked unconscious, his teeth fractured and three vertebrae cracked.

Now a Georgia congressman, Lewis recently helped spearhead a

commemoration marking the 40th anniversary of the watershed event.


In late 2000, Lewis and Greyhound CEO Craig Lentzsch announced plans for

the event. Lentzsch made commemorating the Freedom Riders a


After the Greyhound bus was firebombed during the original ride, it took

a personal plea from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to persuade the

company to send another bus to continue the journey.

"The PR strategy was to turn what could have been a negative connotation

for Greyhound into something positive and full of pride," says Lynn

Brown, VP of corporate communications at Greyhound Lines.

Early this year, Greyhound committed to becoming lead sponsor of the

commemoration. However, even with Greyhound on board, a slew of other

sponsors was still needed to help cover the costs of retracing part of

the original route via Greyhound bus, with events in Georgia, Alabama,

and Washington, DC.

Greyhound and Burson-Marsteller worked to create a comprehensive media

relations plan and hammer out the logistics for the events. Eight of the

original 13 Freedom Riders - including Lewis - were tracked down, and

they agreed to participate. The goal was to make real news through

having an interactive, educational effort.

"We had to plan and execute three days of events in five cities in a

short time, including details such as security on the buses, pulling

Greyhounds out of the fleet, and contacting and arranging for the

Freedom Riders to attend all the events, some of whom had special

needs," explains Brown.


Kickoff for the anniversary took place on May 10 in Washington, with a

news conference and dinner. US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta

offered the keynote remarks, followed by speeches from Rep. Eleanor

Holmes Norton (D-DC) and William Yeomans, the acting Assistant Attorney

General for Civil Rights.

Burson provided a documentary on the Freedom Riders, and pitched

national, regional, and local media for the events for two weeks, and

also provided on-the-bus support at each locale. On May 12, Lewis,

Lentzsch, and the Freedom Riders held a news conference in front of a

vintage 1954 Greyhound Scenicruiser bus at Paschal's restaurant in

Atlanta, a known gathering place for Martin Luther King Jr. and other

civil-rights leaders.

"Our first efforts were to begin pitching about a month out with

background documents to help reporters understand exactly when the

events took place, why they were important, and how they expedited

desegregation in interstate transportation facilities," says Brown.

Four key media audiences were targeted: reporters who cover civil

rights, political/regional reporters who cover Congress and Lewis,

African-American media, and transportation reporters who cover


Several current Greyhound employees also were included in the



Despite seeking publicity during a news cycle anticipating the execution

of Timothy McVeigh, the commemoration was covered by all the major

networks (some of which rode the bus) and CNN. The event also received

coverage on major wire services, radio, and in major metropolitan



Other civil-rights organizations have held their own commemorations of

the Freedom Riders, and future events are planned, especially for the

50th anniversary in 2011.

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