“Let’s trade PR war stories. What’s one of yours?”
That was a question posed to me last Friday at a lunch with a few of my fellow PIOs (Public Information Officers, for the uninitiated). Us communicators love to share war stories, and if you’ve ever been a reporter or on “the dark side” of PR, you should have some pretty good ones to offer up. And this time was no different.
A hero college student?
When it was my turn around the table, the answer was easy: Anthony Sadler. Sound familiar? It should, unless you were living under a rock in late August 2015. Anthony, along with his childhood friends, Spencer Stone and Alek Skalartos, thwarted a terrorist attack on a high-speed train in France. He also happened to be a student at Sacramento State, my brand-new employer.
I’ll never forget the day the news broke — Aug. 23, 2015. I was awoken at 5 a.m. by a call on my cell phone from Ashley Southall of the New York Times. I saw the 212 area code come up, and pushed the call to voicemail. Surely, whomever was calling me from New York at this ungodly hour (on a Saturday morning, no less!) must have the wrong number. But my curiosity got the best of me, and I had to check the message. And there it was — a message from Ashley, asking for me to confirm if Anthony Sadler, who had just helped stop a terrorist attack on a French train, was one of ours. I thought, surely she must be joking — a hero college student from OUR university? But then I Googled the news on my phone, and it was no joke.
I grabbed my laptop and cell phone, and immediately started e-mailing and texting my colleagues to try and confirm an answer. With less than two months on the job, and a brand-new college president to boot, this was a daunting task. And the calls kept coming. CBS News. NBC News. ABC News. CNN. LA Times. La Monde. Sacramento Bee. My phone was ringing off the hook, and I was caught in a full-on media firestorm.
By 9 a.m., we were able to confirm that, yes, he was our student, and we crafted a quick statement from our president that we blasted out to the media and posted to the web and social media. A portion of it even made the New York Times article. But as I soon found out, the firestorm was far from over.
Chasing the big “get”
The next week was a complete blur. For one, we taped a video message from our president, commending the heroes:
And the calls kept coming. Jimmy Kimmel Live! People magazine. Vanity Fair. Agence France-Presse. Even the Office of the Mayor of New York City! I must have taken at least 100 media calls over the course of that week. They all wanted to know: “When is Anthony coming back to the U.S.?” “Will he be returning to your university?” “Can we come to your campus when he returns?” The media were all fighting for the big “get” — an exclusive sit-down interview with one of the three heroes when they returned to the United States — and I suddenly became Anthony’s PR person. (Side Note for my PR friends— I also found it funny that I had spent an entire career in PR trying desperately to get these types of media outlets to call me back, and this time THEY were calling ME!)
Thankfully, after a few long days, a publicist stepped in to handle media requests for the train heroes, and I was happy to have someone to punt to so I could return to my day job. As far as the big “get,” “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” won that race.
The story continued throughout September 2015, culminating with the Hometown Heroes parade in Sacramento on 9/11. Here’s Sac State’s coverage of the parade, which focuses mostly on Anthony (he is our student, after all!):
At the request of the public, we also set-up a scholarship fund for him, and honored him at a home football game. Here he gave us a little #MadeAtSacState shoutout:
And it was that game that I finally got to meet Anthony in person. I knew so much about him and his family, that I felt like we had met already. Anthony was humble and gracious. I immediately felt protective over him, as he got swarmed by the local media. But he was able to hold his own, as you can see below:
Where are they now?
A-year-and-a-half later, I still get asked occasionally: “What happened to Anthony? Is he still on campus?” Well, I can tell you that he remains a student at Sac State, and we all hope to see him cross the graduation stage soon (however, he’s been a little busy writing a book, The 15:17 to Paris, which is now being made into a movie directed by none other than Clint Eastwood!). And his friend Spencer announced recently that he intends to enroll in Sac State in the fall. Now if we could just get Alek to join them, we’d have the hero trifecta at our University!
So there you have it — my biggest PR war story to date. I’m sure there will be other memorable ones, but being part of a such a positive international media sensation was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I won’t soon forget it.
If you are in the biz, please comment below with one of your war stories — I’d love to hear it!