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A Little Fund Makes a Big Media Splash

Kate Lee has the kind of press clippings most PR people would kill for. In less than a year, Lee has been quoted by publications coast-to-coast and appeared on television and radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. Business Week, USA Today, Washington Post, San Jose Mercury News, New York Times, and Atlanta Journal Constitution are just a few of the publications that Lee’s name has appeared in.

What Lee has accomplished and the lessons she has learned are things any public relations person can draw upon. And to understand why Lee has gotten so much press, you have to understand her story.

Lee was a veteran employee at WorldCom, the telecommunications firm that became embroiled in the nation’s biggest corporate scandal to date. Laid off like thousands of others, Lee found herself left out in the cold by her company; owed severance but with no recourse thanks to the intricacies of bankruptcy. It’s a position no one would ever want to be in, but it’s one that people are increasingly finding themselves in.

But Lee wasn’t going to stand by and suffer. A network of laid off employees began to communicate via email and eventually, the people formed a non-profit organization called The ExWorldCom 5100 Assistance Fund. The group’s aim was to help a group of 5,100 WorldCom employees, as well as others, who were laid off and left out in the cold. What started as a support group though quickly grew into a powerhouse and media favorite when it came to covering the WorldCom story.

“It was like a giant snowman rolling down the hill,” Lee says from her home in Atlanta. “It just snowballed.”

The snowball didn’t start with a media pitch or a press release however; it began with a reaction.

“There was a reporter in Atlanta who was covering the WorldCom story and didn’t address the fact that while the company was based in Mississippi, it was incorporated in Georgia. I pointed it out to her and it led to a little bit of a relationship. The paper wanted to do a follow-up on what happens to the people who are left unemployed by the scandal,” Lee says.

That story, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, helped the fund get the public awareness it needed. Soon, Lee was taking calls from reporters all over the country. But Lee had never dealt with the media and it took some time for her to get comfortable.

“I think the hardest part for me was building my sound bites — knowing how to express my outrage but also get the point across. I needed to figure out the thirty words to get it done.”

Getting it done wasn’t that easy. The WorldCom story was a full-blown corporate scandal with as many angles as there are stars in the sky. Keeping a reporter focused on the fund’s angle was Lee’s primary goal.

“We were a small cog in a bigger story. You see the media’s need to balance a story and you need to know what’s going to get past the reporter’s editors. I learned to ask, ‘What aspect of the story are you covering?'”

With the fund’s angle being to help people, Lee knew she could go the “woe is me” route sometimes.

“On a personal level, [all the reporters were] interested in the story. But I think there’s a personal compassion that has to be balanced by newsworthiness.”

Lee says she wanted to make sure she got information about the fund “high-up in the story, above the fold.” She did this by tailoring her comments to meet each reporter’s needs.

The extensive media coverage the fund received helped in other ways. Lee and her group used the media to pressure politicians into donating Political Action Committee money to the fund that WorldCom employees had donated to the politicians. The pressure worked with a number of politicians and political groups.

“The media exposure made it possible for us to go to these people and say, ‘You don’t want this money.'”

The exposure also brought help from unlikely sources such as the Atlanta Thrashers, a National Hockey League team.

“A person from the Thrashers read about us and called us. They do special ticket sales for community groups [where the Thrashers donate a portion of ticket sales to the group].”

After working with the Thrashers, the fund contacted the Washington Capitals, another NHL team. The Capitals had a similar program and agreed to work with the fund, which led to some interesting press.

“That’s when you wrote about us,” Lee says, laughing.

Indeed, I wrote a story about the fund, not to mention quoting Lee in a previous story about how laid off WorldCom employees were dealing with the company’s problems. The story helped the fund get more exposure, but also came at a time when its presence in the media was beginning to wane.

“The hard part came when the bankruptcy process began to get stale, but we still needed to get media attention.”

To do this, the fund has stayed active in promoting itself via its website and trying to get the people they’ve helped, over 175 of them, to get their stories in the media.

“There is a group of people in Ohio who are doing a charity bowling thing for the fund. I told them to make sure the local reporters know about it and to get the newspapers out there taking pictures.”

Lee, who is still active with the fund but has found new employment, says she has learned a lot from experience dealing with the media.

“One thing that has surprised me is the need to educate not only reporters, but readers. There was a story where someone was quoted in an effort to balance our statements. He was talking about pension funds and stuff like that — how we weren’t going to recoup our losses. But the fund was about stopgap, last ditch efforts to keep former employees from being evicted. It wasn’t about rebuilding wealth. I know reporters sometimes don’t have the luxury of time to balance the story, so we had to educate them better about what we’re about.”

Some of the lessons Lee learned are right out of PR 101.

“Sometimes I’d read the stories and say, ‘Did I really say that?’ I learned to think ahead before taking a call. I also learned that ‘off the record’ never really means ‘off the record.'”

And while Lee is moving on, the one-year anniversary of WorldCom’s scandal is fast-approaching. So you may be seeing her name in the media again soon. Even if you don’t, Lee has had fun being in the media glare.

“It’s been very rewarding. I’ve met a lot of great people. Would I do it again? I guess so. Would I do it better next time? I hope so.”

I’m not sure anyone could do any better. Bravo.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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