PR Aids Grief-Stricken Parents, Rallies the Public Around a Missing College Student—With Bittersweet Results

Client: Dan & Gil Harrington

Agency: Levick Strategic Comms

Timeframe: Oct, 2009 - Present

Dan and Gil Harrington visit Copley Bridge in Charlottesville, Va., the site where their daughter Morgan (inset) was last seen alive.
Photo courtesy of Levick Strategic Communications

On Oct. 17, 2009, every parent’s nightmare became a reality for Dan and Gil Harrington. Their 20-year-old daughter Morgan had gone to a Metallica concert in Charlottesville, Va., and did not return home.

The next day would mark the start of an ordeal for the Harringtons that to many would seem unbearable. Morgan, a student at Virginia Tech, was outgoing and popular, and the Harringtons were well-respected in their hometown of Roanoke Valley, where Dan is a doctor and Gil a nurse. Almost immediately after the couple met with Charlottesville police on Monday, Oct. 19, interest in the case spread. The media firestorm had begun.

“That day when we spoke to the police, they recommended that we not say anything to the press,” says Dan Harrington. “We said, ‘Absolutely not!’ We wanted to go on camera and plead to get Morgan back. The only way we could help Morgan was to ask the public for help.”


Consequently, over the next week the Harringtons said yes to every media request. But as the second week unfolded, says Dan, the couple just couldn’t keep up that pace. At wits’ end in exhaustion and grief, Harrington looked for guidance. He thought of Ed Smart in Salt Lake City, the father of Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped and eventually found alive nine months later. “The Smart family had shown so much dignity during their ordeal,” says Dan. “Gil and I were intent on dealing with our daughter’s disappearance in a similar way.”

He called Ed Smart, and found out that with a large extended family, the Smarts were able to handle the press and the much of the pressures internally. Dan felt they needed outside help. He called on the PR staffers at the hospital at which he worked for advice. A referral led the family to Levick Strategic Communications, based in Washington, D.C. Dan arranged a call with the agency.

“We could hear Dr. Harrington’s voice breaking as he was telling us the story,” says Gene Grabowski, senior VP at Levick, who was on the call with VP Jason Maloni. At one point in the conversation, Dan asked what kind of fee Levick would charge for the work. “Jason and I are both parents,” says Grabowski. “We told Dr. Harrington we would do the work pro bono.”

While well known in crisis communications, Levick Strategic Communications had never taken on work concerning a missing person. Within 24 hours though, they had a strategic plan mapped out.


To assist in the search for missing student Morgan Harrington, Levick Strategic Communications set up an integrated social network to create awareness and drive leads within the community. At the center was, which attracted 660,000 visitors in the first few weeks. Levick’s adeptness in building the community is illustrated by site activity on Jan. 26-27, 2010 when a report surfaced that Morgan’s body had been found, causing a visit spike of some 40,000 people.   Source: Levick Strategic Communications/Google Analytics

Levick’s plan was twofold: to serve as a gatekeeper for media requests for the Harringtons, and to use digital and social media platforms to inspire community activism and shape traditional media reporting. Specifically, the social media objectives included:

• Generate leads as to Morgan’s whereabouts.

• Maintain long-term community and media interest in the story.

• Mobilize search volunteers.

• Provide a venue for supporters to share messages of comfort and concern.

The effort had somewhat of a head start. A Web site,, and a Facebook page were launched by individuals in the community within a few days of Morgan’s disappearance.

When Levick came on board, the individuals who had started the online platforms allowed the agency to administer both. “The community was responding online without supervision and coordination,” says Patrick Kerley, Levick’s senior digital strategist. So Levick bolstered the two destinations with reorganization and redesigns, and added other digital vehicles to the mix. Here’s what was done for each social media platform:

â–¶ Web Site:, the campaign’s primary Web presence, included information about the search, avenues by which the public could provide tips and information that would assist search volunteers. The site integrated social media efforts and created a hub for activity for The Harrington Family Blog (see below).

â–¶ Blogosphere: There were two objectives for the blog: to give personal insights into Morgan, and to provide Gil with an outlet for her emotions. That outgoing blog effort was augmented by outreach to hundreds of blogs in specific interest groups—missing persons, Virginia Tech and University of Virginia sites, and Metallica fan sites—to build awareness online.

â–¶ Facebook: As search efforts were ramped up, Facebook was instrumental in driving volunteer and media action both online and off, sharing updates, leveraging news coverage, encouraging people to post tips and providing a real-time outlet to correct any misinformation. Not only was there the “official” group, “Help Find Morgan Dana Harrington,” but several other groups were formed. “The key was to reach out to those groups,” says Kerley.

â–¶ Twitter: Levick utilized Twitter primarily as a re-messaging and amplification platform for activities and placements on other channels such as YouTube, Facebook and in the blogosphere.

â–¶ YouTube/Flickr: Relevant video content was uploaded on the campaign Web site to gain attention from the mainstream media. Major media outlets and shows such as CNN Headline News, Dr. Phil and Nancy Grace all took notice and conducted interviews with the Harrington family. Flickr became a resource for the media to obtain high-resolution images.


For the first few days, Levick staffers would meet with the Harringtons daily. Later, meetings were held on a weekly basis, with Levick providing information about media hits. Then, on Jan. 26, 2010, news broke that a Virginia farmer had found human remains on his property. They were soon identified as Morgan’s. Immediately the tone of the campaign changed. “Our focus then was less about alleviating the burdens of the family to what’s new about the case,” says Maloni.

“Levick did pull back on the campaign, and it was time for that to happen,” says Dan.


The initial effort resulted in big numbers, as the community rallied around finding Morgan. Those numbers include:

• More than 31,000 Facebook friends

• Nearly 1,000 Twitter followers

• 2,000 YouTube channel views

• 660,000-plus visitors to

• 121 print and digital articles published

• 1,150 broadcast mentions

Yet all of that, ultimately, was for naught.


Levick’s PR presence in the case wasn’t without controversy, spawning heated comments online. People questioned the Harringtons’ need for a PR agency, and others accused Levick of watering down facts involving Morgan’s disappearance—the presence of alcohol that night she went missing, for example. Dan doesn’t see it that way. “The goal was to have people see Morgan in a positive light,” he says. “We did have to manage those issues, but we also tried to be as transparent as we could.”

Dan reveals a darker side to the campaign’s online presence. “There were some crazy people posting on Facebook, and we had to remove their posts,” he says. In addition, after purchasing the site from its original creator in June 2010, Harrington closed its public forum the next month, because “people were arguing and bad-mouthing each other,” he says.


Despite the tragic outcome, life goes on for the Harrington family (which includes a son, Alex). They continue to contribute to and monitor the Web site, and both Gil and Dan write the occasional blog post. They now focus more on fundraising for causes that Morgan championed.

While there were conflicts at times with Levick—for example, the two parties clashed over public figures who wanted to speak out on behalf of Morgan—the family is grateful for the help. “Levick helped move Morgan’s story to the top of the page, at least for a time,” says Dan. More importantly, Levick’s work kept the pressure on law enforcement to solve the case, a strategy that Dan continues today.

For Levick and its core team of five that worked on the campaign, the effort was a sobering reminder that not all initiatives have positive outcomes. “This campaign was rewarding in a sense, but disappointing,” says Grabowski.

Rewarding, maybe. Yet the most tangible reward is the one posted on $150,000 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the death of Morgan Harrington. PRN


Dan Harrington,; Gene Grabowski,; Jason Maloni,; Patrick Kerley,


In supporting the search for Morgan Harrington, who went missing in Virginia in October 2009, Levick Strategic Communications would have interaction with the law enforcement authorities who were on the case. Here are some tips on working with law enforcement from Gene Grabowski, senior VP at Levick.

1. Be helpful not intrusive. The communications firm is not a part of the investigation. It’s a resource there for the family and to help where needed.

2. Make friends with the law enforcement branch’s communications liaison (who may be an officer or may be a civilian). It’s critical to have an open line of communication with the primary messenger for the investigating authority.

3. Demonstrate your value to law enforcement. In Morgan Harrington’s case, Levick amplified all communications messages from the Virginia State Police minutes after they were released. “This was a force multiplier and, ultimately, we feel our participation was greatly appreciated,” says Grabowski.