The national outrage over Trayvon Martin's death started with an email pitch to Reuters and spread like wildfire. An unarmed teenager with only a bag of Skittles and an iced tea in his possession was shot to death, and the police made no arrest even though they knew the identity of the shooter.
That email came from Ryan Julison, president of Julison Communications, a small Windermere, FL-based agency. Two days before emailing the news organization on March 7, the attorney for Martin's parents asked Julison to work on the case pro bono.
“The case was dead in the water at that point,” he said.
Julison had worked with attorney Natalie Jackson in the past on two other cases. “I really trusted him; he likes to do things the way I like,” she said. “I like to try to do what the family wants, and [Julison] believes in that."
Previously, press coverage was negligible, amounting to little more than newspaper blurbs or brief mentions on TV newscasts. Following the Reuters' piece, other national outlets like CBS News picked up the story. Julison said his strategy was to garner national attention to generate local media interest for a press conference the family wanted to hold.
He forwarded links to national stories to local media outlets and “it got their attention, and they started looking at the story,” he said.
From there, Julison and the attorneys made sure Martin's family was open to as many interviews as possible. The pace was so fast that Julison never got a chance to put together a website with background information on the case, something he said he might have done differently in retrospect. In one three-day period, there were 1,400 pending media requests from around the world.
“It became about how we get the biggest reach in the time we have,” he said of dealing with the volume of requests.
Julison said he focused the communications strategy on three central messages: an unarmed teenager killed by an armed man; the quest for justice; and how to avoid a similar situation in the future.
One PR component Julison had not planned for was the “Million Hoodie March” held in New York last month. The event coincided with an appearance by Martin's parents on NBC's Today morning show. Participation in the rally jumped from 500 people to 15,000 after the Martins agreed to attend, and it was covered by hundreds of media outlets. “It was basically just luck,” Julison said.
Meanwhile, the city of Sanford, FL, has put its own communications strategy in place to rebuild trust on a local and national level for its police force.
Last week, 44 days after Martin's death, George Zimmerman was arrested for his role in the incident. As the family prepares for the trial, they will likely comment very little during the proceedings, Julison said.
However, they could eventually launch an effort to amend the state's “Stand Your Ground” law, which was originally invoked by Zimmerman's legal team to explain the shooting. The family could promote an amendment that would not allow someone pursing another individual to invoke the law. However, discussions about this are still in the early stages, Julison said.
Terri-Nichelle Bradley, chief strategist at Playground Public Relations, was critical of some of Julison's work for Martin's family.
“This family had no idea they would be cast into such a public spotlight, and they clearly weren't properly prepared for all of the attention that was thrust upon them,” she said. “In my opinion, there were definitely some significant missteps.”
She cited two particular incidents. The first was Martin's mother stating she thought the shooting was an accident, only to clarify her thoughts later. The second was the family filing for trademarks on Trayvon Martin's name.
“My first reaction as a crisis-management professional was to cringe when I heard this, as I am sure many in the general public did,” Bradley said. “The whole trademark issue clearly became a distraction and gave outsiders and detractors an opportunity to question the family's motives and reframe the conversation for a couple of days.”