On Feb. 28, 2009, Nick Schuyler and his friends – Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, free-agent NFL defensive lineman Corey Smith and former University of South Florida football teammate and best friend Will Bleakley – headed out to the Gulf of Mexico for a day-long fishing trip. When the group failed to return home by nightfall, an intensive search was initiated, and on March 2, the Coast Guard discovered the group’s capsized vessel 30 miles offshore, with Schuyler, the lone survivor, clinging to life.
Nick remained silent in the months following the event despite the aggressive media frenzy around his story. When questions, theories and speculation began to surface, French/West/Vaughan (FWV) was contacted by Nick’s family through an attorney. FWV agreed to provide pro-bono public relations, crisis communications, media outreach, messaging and other services that would protect and safeguard the name, reputation, and public image of Nick Schuyler, as well as set the record straight about the actual events and demonstrate how the four friends fought the elements, but not each other, in an attempt to stay alive.
FWV’s priorities were:
• Short-term: develop a crisis communications strategy to keep the media at bay and allow the survivor to continue his mental and physical recovery
• Long-term: protect Nick’s name and reputation from speculation and communicate the facts
• Long-term: protect Nick’s personal and financial interests stemming from the ordeal and pursue career opportunities on his behalf such as inspirational speaking, motivational lectures with charitable benefits, etc.
FWV knew Nick needed to set the record straight and get past inferences that he was somehow complicit in the deaths of his friends. However, if he agreed to a paid interview, he could be perceived as opportunistic. He couldn’t avoid all media requests because people would think he had something to hide and that could have been very detrimental to his reputation and career.
The victims’ families were first and foremost the target audience. Nick needed a platform to tell the story and honor his friends. The secondary target audience was mainstream media as Nick was besieged by outlets looking to break the story after the tragedy.
FWV recommended an interview with Bryant Gumbel of “HBO Real Sports.” There was no compensation, and telling the story through a trusted program would set the record straight. The extended interview aired on the August 18 season premiere.
FWV worked to assemble a team of partners to help Nick write a book about the experience. Dan Kelly was selected as literary agent to seek book opportunities. Dan’s brother, NFL great Jim Kelly had a deep understanding of what it’s like to lose someone very close, as his son Hunter suffered through a tragic illness at age eight. Jim became a dear friend to Nick on a number of levels, helping Nick open up and move forward with a book. Numerous publishing companies and writers were interviewed before negotiating contracts with the William Morrow Imprint Division of HarperCollins and NY Times writer Jere Longman, author of United 93.
FWV then helped organize the Nick Schuyler Foundation to be funded from book proceeds. Formed in loving memory of his friends, the Foundation is dedicated to promoting boater safety, preventing accidents and saving lives on the water by educating the public, providing resources and supporting various organizations including the U.S. Coast Guard.
The book Not Without Hope was released exactly one year after the tragic accident. FWV conducted intensive media training with Nick. Then, the agency worked with HarperCollins to set up a media tour for the book release, which included appearances on “Oprah,” CNN’s “Larry King Live,” “The Today Show,” “Jim Rome Show,” Fox News’ “On the Record with Greta VanSusteren,” USA Today and People magazine, among others. In addition, 38 national and regional market TV/radio interviews were booked for a satellite media tour, which sold-out in 90 minutes with a 43 station waiting list. SMT outlets included ESPN2, ABC News, and Westwood One.
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
On the morning of its release, Not Without Hope was #1,940 on Amazon’s best-seller list. By that evening it was #13 overall and #3 for autobiographies. HarperCollins believes it was the single biggest mover in literary history for a work of non-fiction in a single day. By the end of the week, it was #4 on the New York Times best-seller list.
The campaign and resulting media placements generated:
• Nearly 60 million impressions
• Over $12.2 million in PR Value
• A Sports Emmy nomination for “HBO Real Sports”
• Multiple offers for the rights to documentaries and films – an agreement has been signed between Nick Schuyler and Mark Wahlberg’s Closest to the Hole Productions, Inc. in connection with the financing, development and production of a motion picture based on the book.
• Over $250,000 raised year-to-date for the Nick Schuyler Foundation
While the success of the book was tremendous, the true accomplishment was FWV’s ability to implement a crisis communications plan that:
• Put speculation to rest and prevented his friends from being perceived as quitters
• Positioned Nick as a survivor rather than a hero
• Prevented Nick from being viewed as opportunistic or disrespectful
• Protected Schuyler’s long-term personal and financial interests
• Opened doors for career opportunities such as inspirational speaking and motivational lectures