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
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
"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.