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Earned Media: How A Double-leg Amputee Inspired The Nation

Earned Media: How a double-leg amputee inspired the nation

On February 7, 2018, Rudy Garcia-Tolson became the first double-leg amputee to complete the Empire State Building Run-Up. In other words, Garcia-Tolson made his way up 86 flights of stairs in just 29 minutes- an enormous physical undertaking by any standards. Celebrity physician and spokesperson for Turkish Airlines Dr. Oz was waiting at the finish line with at least one camera poised for action.

Garcia-Tolson had been sharing moments from his training on social media in the days leading up to the race. Images of his lithe figure running up steps in preparation for those 1,576 steps circulated the web. Accompanying these photos were not only his words of encouragement toward his young audience, but also repeated mention of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. CAF provides support for disabled athletes and veterans to enable them to use physical exercise as a means of personal empowerment. They provide anything from prosthetic legs to racing chairs, and it was on their account that Garcia-Tolson ran up the third tallest building in New York City. 

Months of preparation from all parties culminated in one poignant moment: Rudy Garcia-Tolson stepped over the finish line and, in the space of a few heartbeats, inspired generations of disabled athletes. Reporters and journalists rushed to cover his story, and it brokered heavy media coverage from leading news sources, as well as bloggers and social media users. By all accounts, Garcia-Tolson and his fundraising for CAF were a complete success. Yet was it by chance that it should be so? Hardly. Fortune favors the prepared, and behind the glamour was a small (but agile) team led by Marketing Director Laura Wolf Stein. Invisible to the public eye, they were nonetheless present to fan the flames of what was to be an enormously public and inspirational feat.

At 11 pm, as Garcia-Tolson was flying over the last, back-breaking steps, Laura was documenting his journey. As he neared the finish line, she grabbed Dr. Oz and exclaimed, “you need to go to the finish line- the first ever double above-the-knee amputee is about to cross it!” Dr. Oz complied. Laura snapped the picture of him and a beaming Garcia-Tolson. Twenty-four hours later, NBC Nightly News called in pursuit of the footage they saw on Twitter. Laura recounted the story from our recording studio four months later, as a guest on Advanced Marketing Strategies’ The Show Runner Marketing podcast.

“You don’t know who is watching,” she said. “And you don’t know what other opportunities are going to come. NBC Nightly News is grabbing that story and wants to launch it through their platforms, because they have someone whose job it is to search social media for compelling stories that are breaking through. It’s helping us get more earned media. It’s helping us communicate the impact in a creative way.” Earned media refers to uncontrolled publicity generated by third party platforms. The convergence of social media has become a willing and natural vehicle for unpaid, uncontrolled publicity. Laura and CAF could hardly have predicted the outcome of the race. They were not expecting the call from NBC, and they certainly could not have guessed at the direction or scope of impact. Again: fortune favors the prepared.  

Happenstance is the lifeblood of earned media. At Advanced Marketing Strategies, we believe in a robust PR calendar with plenty of local events, live media appearances, and press releases to generate opportunities for earned media. “How can we help our client’s name become part of the news and information” is the motto that informs our branding strategy. Something that Laura understands incredibly well is this flexible mentality of preparation for happenstance. Create the conditions for others to take an interest in your client’s involvement. Whether it be CAF and Rudy Garcia-Tolson racing up the Empire State Building, or AMS and Mossy Nissan participating in the Padres Pedal the Cause, be cognizant of unexpected opportunities for media coverage.

Mossy Niisan - Pedal The Cause

In the backdrop of Garcia-Tolson’s spotlight, CAF was taking to social media as the major driving force of their digital campaigns. Yet long before Garcia-Tolson and the Empire State Building Run-up appeared on their radar, CAF and Laura had figured out that the most advantageous way for them to approach social media was to focus not on their own organization, but on the athletes they were championing. “The first function it [social media] serves for us, is to keep our community engaged.”

This approach means that they use their resources to promote and celebrate their clients’ cause and allow their clients to generate earned media to promote them in turn. “Sharing their struggles, sharing their accomplishments is a great way for our supporters to see the impact of the dollars that we raise. It really helps with earned media,” Laura laughed. That was why she was at the top of the Empire State Building on a blustery February night with her iPhone out.


More on the Show Runner Marketing Podcast:

The Show Runner Marketing Podcast was born of Kathy Cunningham’s dedication to recognizing female leadership in communications. The Show Runner Network is a space that is dynamic and inclusive, where women have a platform to share their experiences and learn from each other. Each episode is a vehicle for inspiration, combining to create a network of influential industry executives. These are leaders of their respective field who just happen to be female, and Show Runner seeks to highlight their stories to celebrate and normalize the presence of women in executive roles.

“Interviewing successful business women like Laura is inspirational for me and I learn so much from each guest. Mentoring comes from different places and my hope is that the Show Runner Podcast Network provides a way for more people to access mentoring and advice at their fingertips. And I think it’s a nice way to start the day with intention and positivity.”

-Kathy Cunningham, Founder & President of Advanced Marketing Strategies and Host of the Show Runner Network marketing podcast.

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