Case Study: Martin Luther King, Jr. Dedication — Yolanda H. Caraway

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Yolanda Caraway is a change agent and entrepreneur. Having worked with several leading U.S. companies, she has helped provide solutions to complex problems. She has a hands-on approach by working directly with clients to solve problems and she provides guidance when in crisis.

Yolanda, tell us about an event or incident from your career which stands out.

“I’ll give you one quick case study of an event we worked on. It was the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on the Mall, in Washington DC.

“So, a little overview — I was hired as a subcontractor to work with Susan Davis International (SDI) on managing the press logistics and generating coverage of the King Memorial which included 4-days of activities leading up to the dedication. The needed to build it. Our focus was on outreach to the Black media while SDI handled the rest. Yet, as faced with many unexpected challenges, there was much more overlap and shared responsibilities than any of us ever expected. More than 200,000 people were expected on the Mall for the dedication and there were more than five open press events over the expected four days. After the media was initially notified about credentials, we had received more than 2,000 requests.

“We faced numerous challenges, including heightened interest in the event from all media, particularly multicultural and international media. Another challenge was how to narrow down the large number of requests to adequately accommodate key international, national and local media from all outlets including online, print, and broadcast with many outlets having both social media reps and traditional media — in a very limited press space. Now, everyone who has a smartphone, wants a credential. So you can imagine what that was like. The final challenge was the weather. DC had an earthquake at the beginning of the August dedication date and Hurricane Irene was to join us by the end of the week. We were forced to rely heavily on social media to both slow down the rumors and to keep people informed about was actually happening. Since we were working out of the convention center, we relied heavily on the Foundation website as a factual source of information by posting updates about any cancellation and changes.

“The first event, which was to be held at the National Building Museum, had to be moved to the convention center in less than 24 hours. The Washington National Cathedral, where the faith service was going to be held that Saturday, was damaged by the earthquake and had to be moved as well.

“We held two press conferences with the National Park Service as the weather worsened. The decision to cancel the August 28 dedication was made at least two days early at a quickly staged press conference, (1) for the overall safety of people who might want to attend; (2) to avoid others from traveling to Washington; and (3) give the contractors time to remove the 77,000 seats on the Mall. Keep in mind, while the final decision was made by the Foundation, we had to coordinate with the White House, the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior and the Office of the Mayor, as well as the credentialed media. Fortunately, social media does help positive messages spread quickly, too.

“We conducted all the planned activities through Saturday morning, which included the faith service. It was moved from the Washington Cathedral to the Shrine of the Basilica, same service, slightly different media accommodations which we were able to overcome. The event remained a pool TV broadcast but other credentialed press was given access. We had about 30 in attendance on that stormy day.

“Then the actual dedication was moved to October 16. The major advantage of changing the date was the opportunity to really tighten up the media credentialing process. We took the massive number of requests and determined who would get what type of credential and kept it to a minimum of three per outlet. With far less space than originally planned for and a much smaller event, we reduced the number of credentials to about 300 in total and a tight pool in the section where the President spoke. Since we didn’t honor any previous credentials, we spread credential pick-up over three days including early Saturday on site for those we missed the earlier media walk thru.

“The tight pool did include an Black media outlet along with one wire service, photographer, and TV camera. In essence, we had two media areas, one for the main stage and one for the smaller Memorial stage. Since the pre-program started at 8:00 am, we did all media interviews between 8:00 to 9:00 am for all the luminaries. The other advantage we had the second time, was that there was much more room for satellite trucks and more time for them to set up.

“Finally, we picked up one additional task that we didn’t have previously. We pretty much wrote the 2 1/2-hour program script and many of the remarks. We took the task because — remember my earlier point about telling a good story — we wanted to guarantee that the immediate audience on the Mall and the millions watching didn’t get bored.

“A week out, we felt the planned two-hour program, which was originally scripted by SDI, was simply too many talking heads. Since it was going to be aired live, and we wanted positive coverage, we had to tell a compelling story about civil rights that connected with those who marched with Dr. King, as well as those who knew very little about him. We wanted to connect to the past, while also looking forward to the future. We outlined a dream script that few thought we could produce in under a week. It ensured that the program was much more diverse; remember the civil rights activists in the forefront were mostly Black men. We also wanted to include young people and women. We created a program that told a story using diverse voices, mixed with music from then and now, and two generations, before ending with the President speaking.

“The day of, was a beautiful day. Most of the 15+ speakers kept to their 3 minutes. The coverage was extremely positive from the millions of international, national and local media impressions we received. The story was told the way we wanted it and the one negative aspect surrounding the Dedication, voiced by Maya Angelou about the quote paraphrase, was not mentioned, because we put it to rest a week before the event. Finally, countless bloggers continue to write the story about ‘dedicating the dream’.

“The faces of those working in PR, the faces of the journalists we pitch and the audiences we reach out to are changing. So are the PR approaches. People of color and marginalized communities appeal to social media — perhaps because there are no barriers and everyone can engage.

“Multicultural marketing is here to stay as the world and the way we connect with each other changes. Since the beginning, I have been committed to addressing diversity-related issues that are impactful to a diverse marketplace and society. I will continue to rally the importance of multicultural marketing.”

Thank you, Yolanda, this was truly an event to remember.

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