Imagine that one of your employees heroically jumps onto the subway tracks and saves a man’s life.
He lifts the fallen man onto the platform, then scrambles to safety just before a train roars through. Best of all, a bystander records it all on his phone.
Yes, the publicity potential is huge. Yet if you don’t play it right, you could end up without a single mention. The New York electrical and natural gas utility Con Edison offers a lesson in adroitly handling just such a gift from the PR gods.
“I wanted everyone to report it as ‘a Con Edison worker jumps onto the track to save another person’ instead of ‘a man jumps onto the tracks,'” says Philip O’Brien, assistant director of media relations.
O’Brien earned such mentions many times over. A slew of local and national TV picked up the story, including ABC, Fox News (“subway hero”), CNN (“I did what I had to do”), The Huffington Post (“a real-life Superman moment”) and many others.
The hero, con Edison engineer Jonathan Kulig, was interviewed on the morning shows (a “Good Day New York” presenter wondered on behalf of her daughter whether he was single and eligible). An appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” is in the works.
“Jonathan works for the local utility, Con Edison, and he wasn’t even late for work,” Inside Edition enthused.
Here are a few of the steps to help make such PR bounty rain from the heavens:
1. Seed your soil.
With 14,000 employees, Con Edison workers do a surprising amount of good. This can range from lending a helping hand when elderly residents fall to the heroics of two linemen who saved a woman and her baby from a car fire.
Trouble is, there isn’t always video evidence. O’Brien spreads the word internally: If you have an idea for video or have captured some good shots, please let the media department know.
The system worked in Kulig’s case. He rescued the fall victim on a Saturday as he was heading to a night shift. A bystander from Seattle recorded Kulig’s heroics, and the Con Edison engineer asked the visitor to send him the digital footage.
Kulig shared the video with his boss, and O’Brien received it Monday morning.
“I looked at it, and I knew immediately from a television background that this was great video,” O’Brien says.
VIDEO: Hear from Con Edison communicators—and Kulig himself—how they got control of this story to push the company message:
2. Check for loose ends.
O’Brien immediately contacted the employee and questioned him to get the story and make sure there were no “loose ends”—or complications that could come back to bite you.
Any PR pro can surmise what that means. If your employee had just staggered onto the tracks after an evening downing vodka shots (Kulig had not ), you might want to rethink your publicity push.
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3. Control the video.
Though that nice young man from Seattle had sent Kulig the video, the Con Edison hero didn’t know the sender’s name. All he had was the phone number.
O’Brien called the amateur videographer and asked for permission to use the video. He then requested an email verifying that. Speed was of the essence. If the Seattleite had shared the video on social media, it could have gone viral with the “man jumps on track” message, denying Con Edison any credit.
By about 11 a.m. that Monday, O’Brien was ready to pull the trigger. “I then sent that to every television station in New York,” O’Brien says.
4. Try this magic word in the subject line.
O’Brien’s subject line was nothing fancy, just, “Great video.”
“You don’t need anything more,” says the former TV executive producer and managing editor. “They’re going to open it and say, ‘Holy cow. We gotta do this.'”
Within 20 minutes, he was flooded with calls: “Can we talk to the guy? Can we talk to the guy?”
5. Coach your employee.
Kulig looks unrehearsed and easy-going in the interviews. That doesn’t mean, though, that he waltzed in unprepared for Con Edison’s 4 p.m. media availability that day. (O’Brien scheduled that time because “I knew this would be good for the fives—the 5 o’clock shows,” O’Brien says.)
Con Edison communicators anticipated the questions and warned the hero not to speculate.
When reporters asked, “Was this guy drunk?” and, “Did you smell liquor on him?” Kulig replied, “I smelled the trash that was in the track bed on the guy.”
The last thing you want is a lawsuit from a victim who fell because of a stroke or a seizure and is smeared as a boozer.
Says O’Brien: “If I know what the reporter is going to do or ask, I’m ahead of it.”
6. Emphasis your expertise.
The video showed one man’s bravery. How could they broaden the good vibes for the organization?
Turns out Con Edison trains employees to work in dangerous places, and Kulig had taken a safety course when he worked on the subway. This was important because to rescue the fallen man on the other side, he had to cross two subway tracks—and the high-voltage rails that power the trains.
Kulig knew where not to step. His actions were brave but not reckless. “I happened to have at least enough training to know what to avoid,” Kulig said in one interview.
“He’s not a cowboy,” O’Brien says. “He knew he could do it.”
7. Know your market and their audience.
People elsewhere tend to ask, “Where did you find the courage?” New Yorkers? They wanted to know, “What are you, nuts?” O’Brien says.
As a longtime television journalist, O’Brien anticipated angles that could work. For example, he knew that one TV host had gone to the same high school as the hero. Personal connections like that can grease the skids for an interview.