How one boutique PR shop won Cannes glory for a powerful PSA

Meet Dini von Mueffling Communications, the Flatiron PR firm with a handful of staffers that turned heads at Cannes for its work on Evan with BBDO.

A still from Evan by Sandy Hook Promise
A still from Evan by Sandy Hook Promise

In late 2015, Dini von Mueffling approached Sandy Hook Promise founder Nicole Hockley, inspired by a speech she made about gun-violence prevention.

"I went up to her afterwards and said, ‘Who’s doing your PR?’" von Mueffling recalls of the meeting. "And she said, ‘You’re looking at it.’"

That’s how the partnership between von Mueffling’s namesake boutique PR firm and Sandy Hook Promise began. The association led to the PSA Evan, created by BBDO for Sandy Hook Promise, which won two Gold and two Silver Lions at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

The campaign won Gold Lions in the Film and Entertainment categories and Silver Lions in Media and Cyber. Global ad powerhouses such as BBDO are used to awards like this, but the trophies launched Dini von Mueffling Communications onto Cannes winners lists for the first time.

When the campaign launched last December, von Mueffling put a couple of staffers from her boutique agency "on the account night and day" and received media requests from all over the world.

"[The attention level] is not that unusual," she says. "We represent lots of companies and clients that are pretty high-profile. Now we know what we can do."

Most notably, von Mueffling has worked with Monica Lewinsky for the past three years as she has returned to the public spotlight as an anti-bullying advocate. The firm has also supported health technology startup Blink Health.

Lindsey Cash, VP and account lead for Sandy Hook Promise at BBDO, describes the effort between her team and von Mueffling’s as a "very entrepreneurial-type mindset."

"We knew we had to do something really bold," she says. "We wanted it to be bold, actionable, and bring a sense of hopefulness to people, not leave them with hopelessness. We wanted to find a relatable story, a human story that everyone can connect with, and we went with the high school love story."

Evan tells the story of a budding high-school romance with a sinister twist. In the background, overshadowed by the drama of romance, another boy is showing signs of planning a shooting.

"As president, you set the tone of the judging process," says Pete Favat, Film Lions jury president and chief creative officer at Deutsch North America. "I said, ‘What we’re looking for are provocative, brave, and amazing stories.’ This film fit that."

The judges awarded Evan both because of its innovative film technique -- replaying the story to show a secondary plot happening in the background -- and because it fit their criteria as a message that changes the conversation.

"It brought on conversation that moves industry and culture forward," says Joanna Carver, Film Lions judge and executive creative director at Grey. "Every PSA for gun control is important, but [Evan] just went at it from an such an original way. It was a way of putting the onus on everyone without pointing a finger at everyone."

The PSA is an educational video, showing viewers what signs to look for before a school shooting. After the story unfolds, it restarts, putting the focus on the boy in the background who’s bullied, eating lunch alone, and watching videos about guns. It also promotes Sandy Hook Promise’s Know the Signs programs, which are free courses that train students, teachers, and parents on how to identify if someone needs help.

Evan was picked up by more than 250 media outlets and received more than 150 million views. It is by far the most-viewed video on Sandy Hook Promise’s YouTube channel.

"Its unusual for an ad like this to break into the mainstream; it’s typically something that stays within the media and ad industry," von Mueffling says.

What catapulted the spot into the public consciousness was von Mueffling landing a Good Morning America segment featuring the PSA and a one-on-one interview with Hockley about how to watch for signs of a potential shooter.

"The way that we launched it on GMA, millions of stay-at-home mothers saw this common sense education program," von Mueffling says. "We captured that audience with its launch."

After the interview, von Mueffling and BBDO contacted online influencers that the PSA might resonate with and asked them to share it on their social media channels. Cash says the two agencies spent little budget promoting the video.

Favat also praises the PSA because it doesn’t make the viewer feel guilty or responsible for not stopping gun violence.

"The worst thing you can do is make people feel guilt for things; it’s not a good method for people to engage," he explains. "Most PSAs utilize guilt as motive. Instead, this film has an education aspect: it teaches you how to spot telltale signs for violence that may happen, without making you feel guilt. It pushed humanity forward because it teaches us look for this behavior."

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