Media Relations: Soldiers play a key role in DS/USA push to up events profile

For five years, Schwartz Communications has worked with Disabled Sports USA (DS/ USA), a national nonprofit organization that offers sports-rehab programs to anyone with a permanent physical disability.

For five years, Schwartz Communications has worked with Disabled Sports USA (DS/ USA), a national nonprofit organization that offers sports-rehab programs to anyone with a permanent physical disability.

The technology and life sciences PR firm has helped promote various DS/USA events, including The Hartford Ski Spectacular. Each year, Schwartz has helped drive participation and attract sponsors. The latter was particularly important last year, as charitable donations were down while the economy continued to struggle.

Strategy

Schwartz decided to focus on driving pre-event and on-site media coverage with the local Colorado papers and news affiliates, while taking the story to a national level by sharing the participants' individual stories and rehabilitation through sports and recreation. Each year, DS/ USA invites special guests, typically disabled survivors of national and global conflicts. For December's ski event, DS/USA invited a dozen American soldiers who were injured in Iraq.

"We really focused on the US soldiers," says Schwartz VP Tara Dugan. "It was the first time they had any exposure to the media since coming back from Iraq. It was such a timely topic and so personal for them."

"The most important goal of a DS/USA event is to spread the word to the general public about abilities of people with disabilities and let those with disabilities know there are programs for them," adds Kirk Bauer, DS/ USA's executive director.

The soldiers' stories and their presence at the ski event would provide strong media appeal, says Dugan, which would in turn help attract people to the event.

Tactics

Dugan and her colleagues at Schwartz wanted to drive local attendance, so they focused on local and regional newspapers, as well as local broadcast media, one month before the event. They then turned their attention to national papers and broadcasts, as well as wire-service media, such as the AP, the week of the event in mid-December.

"We knew the soldiers' stories were going to be so compelling and heart-warming," explains Dugan, adding that the soldiers were so popular that Schwartz and DS/USA were almost turning away journalists, letting them know the soldiers would also be present at summer events.

Media stories focused on the soldiers' individual stories, as well as their rehab through sports and recreation. Schwartz secured significant coverage, including broadcast segments in more than 35 markets. Several taped and live segments appeared on CNN and CBS News, which reached an audience of 5 million viewers.

Results

Thanks to the heavy media coverage, the number of participants at the ski event increased by 33% over the previous year. Bauer heard from a Red Cross volunteer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, that the buzz about DS/ USA was spreading around the hospital, and that more soldiers were interested in the organization's programs.

And the heavy media coverage helped solidify sponsor support for the 17th annual Ski Spectacular coming up in December. Insurance company The Hartford announced its renewed sponsorship of the Ski Spectacular and ongoing events, such as this year's upcoming SummerFest in Long Beach, CA. Apparently, The Hartford had previously announced it was pulling its sponsorship to go to the US Olympic Committee and US Paralympics programs. But the media coverage and increased participation and attendance led the firm to reconsider and recommit to its relationship with DS/USA.

"Schwartz did a very good job of explaining what we do and highlighting the participants' personal stories," says Bauer. "They did all the hard work necessary to get the media to pay attention to this kind of event."

Future

The soldiers and other Ski Spectacular participants are still receiving media coverage a few months after the event. And Schwartz will be working with DS/USA leading up to and during the SummerFest event.

PR team: Disabled Sports USA (Rockville, MD) and Schwartz Communications (San Francisco)

Campaign: The Hartford Ski Spectacular

Time frame: November through December 2003

Budget: Pro bono (approximately $30,000)

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