CaseStudy: Extensive Media Relations Effort Makes Wreath Campaign at Arlington National Cemetery a Success


Organization: Wreaths Across America


Critical to Wreaths Across America’s campaign was national media coverage. The organization reached a media zenith with page 1 story in The Washington Post.
Image courtesy of Kemp Goldberg Partners

Twenty years ago, Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine, found himself with a surplus of wreaths toward the end of the holiday season. Recalling a fond boyhood experience at Arlington National Cemetery, Worcester realized he had an opportunity to honor U.S. veterans and arranged for the wreaths to be placed at Arlington in a section that had been receiving fewer visitors with each passing year.

This low-key tribute, performed each year on Dec. 10, continued without much fanfare until 2005, when a photo of the stones at Arlington, adorned with wreaths and covered in snow, circulated on the Internet and received national attention. By 2007 the Worcester family had formed the nonprofit Wreaths Across America (WAA), and has since been working to expand the placement of wreaths in the U.S. and beyond.

In 2011, for the 20th anniversary of Worcester Wreath’s efforts, PR agency Kemp Goldberg Partners was contracted to execute a four-month strategic communications plan give a serious boost to that expansion.

With a primary focus on the Arlington location and the convoy deployed from Maine to deliver the wreaths, the combined six-person communications team developed a robust PR campaign to increase brand awareness locally and support nationwide efforts to boost WAA fundraising.

Specifically, the team sought to field enough donations to increase the number of wreaths placed at Arlington from 24,000 in 2010 to at least 90,000 in 2011.

MEDIA RELATIONS TACTICS

With only a three-month window leading up to Dec. 10, 2011, the team developed and executed a media relations focused PR plan that included:

Eight press announcements leading up to the Arlington event, including sponsor releases. Amber Caron, senior account executive at KGP, says the first press release announced WAA’s intent to cover more than triple the number of gravestones that had been covered the year before, and to clear up any misconceptions about both WAA and the Worcester Wreath Company.

▶ A “media clutter buster” was used to pitch key national media in a unique way. Instead of just relying on e-mail blasts to the media, the team worked with KGP’s creative staff to design a direct mail piece that highlighted key WAA messaging about its mission to remember fallen heroes and honor those who serve, and why that outlet should cover the event. Distributed to 50 national media outlets, the mail pieces helped get WAA’s foot in the door, says Caron.

▶ A suite of communications materials, consisting of key messages/talking points, FAQs, a fact sheet, media advisory and press release templates and an updated boiler plate, were created for WAA’s efforts in Arlington. As they got closer to the event, the team targeted the D.C.-area media with the materials, and encouraged national feature writers and local newscasts to come to Arlington to cover the event.

KGP researched and developed extensive media lists for WAA. These lists included national and regional contacts within mainstream media and those from industry verticals and potential sponsors.

The team also developed sponsorship press releases. These highlighted the contributions of companies like FedEx, Wal-Mart, Jersey Mike’s, Estes Trucking, Qualcomm and Oakhurst Dairy. “Our major sponsors had never gotten a lot of recognition for their donations, and our goal was let those organizations know WAA was thankful for their help, and to publicize their contribution,” says Jill Dube, community marketing manager for KGP.

A media toolkit was developed for “Arlington Ambassadors”—which ranged from boy scouts groups to military organizations—who raise money across the country for the efforts at Arlington. The kit, consisting of press release templates, media advisories and key message documents, helped spread a consistent message, clarifying the organization’s mission and brand. “It was the first time the WAA let stakeholders across the country know that the it had a consistent, national message they wanted to spread everywhere,” says Caron.

The team managed inbound media inquiries and proactively pitched local and national media, coordinating interviews with Karen Worcester, the WAA’s executive director, and other spokespeople. “Karen speaks passionately and gets the value of media,” says Caron. “But in interviews, you only have so much time to get your ideal sound bite and your message across, so we prepared the big takeaways and talking points for all media interviews that day,” says Caron.

The creation of a radio PSA touting the wreath effort. The PSA was distributed to local, regional and national outlets (see sidebar for more on radio PSAs).

Regional digital coverage along the convoy route to Arlington. A week before the Dec. 10 event, 11 tractor-trailers carrying 90,000 wreaths left Maine on the 700-mile trip to Arlington National Cemetery. The convoy was broadcast as a streaming video with interviews with veterans, Gold Star Mothers and active military as it stopped in towns along the way.

Comprehensive social media coverage. While the WAA’s key demographic is 45-65-year-olds that had WWII veteran parents, Tobin Slaven, director of media and communications for WAA, says that, rather surprisingly, this audience has formed a passionate and active social media community. To reach their supporters who couldn’t make it to Arlington on Dec. 10, they took the message to social media—Twitter and Facebook (see Facebook growth in the graphic)—to highlight the convoy and create general awareness of the wreaths campaign.

On Twitter, Dube reached out to key politicians, military organizations and potential sponsors that were in WAA’s wheelhouse and may not have even known about the wreaths program.

“It was a natural fit to use social media to share our stories to a larger audience,” says Dube, who notes that in social media, you have to find a balance between educating and telling stories, and asking for donations.

PUSH-PULL

Caron says the most challenging aspect of the campaign was prioritizing what they could do well in the time allotted.

“As a PR pro, there is always much more than press releases and media outreach—you get pulled into event logistics aspects that aren’t part of your typical day, but that’s all part of the PR job,” says Caron.

Slaven says the fragmentation of media channels has made WAA’s PR efforts increasingly difficult. “With the crowd spread out on Twitter, Pinterest or Facebook, there doesn’t seem to be one single way to reach them,” says Slaven. “We try to be selective and cater to the ones that we think matter for our tribe of supporters.” In the campaign, WAA not only reached its tribe, it captured the nation:

• KGP’s effort resulted in the highest volume of media coverage the organization has ever received—including more than 200 local, regional and national stories.

• Thirty members of the media were on site on Dec. 10, representing nearly 19 local, military and national outlets. Interviews were conducted with ABC News, CNN, Pentagon Channel, Maine Today Media, Associated Press, NPR and The Washington Post (see image).

• Thanks to fundraising efforts that were boosted by the coverage leading up to the event, the total number of wreaths distributed across the country and overseas grew from 219,000 in 2010 to 325,000 in 2011.

For 2012, WAA’s goal is to make the campaign more personal by highlighting the past, present and future veterans and broadcasting their personal stories. “Every day we lose WWII veterans, and there is a wealth of knowledge in their experiences and we want to capture,” says Slaven—something all PR pros can appreciate as storytellers. PRN

CONTACT:

Amber Caron, acaron@kempgoldberg.com; Jill Dube, Jdube@kempgoldberg.com; Tobin Slaven, tobin@dreamlocal.com; Bill Goodwill, bill@goodwillcommunications.com.




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