Tackling Social Anxiety Disorder with Ricky Williams
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Tackling Social Anxiety Disorder with Ricky Williams

Since 1999, Cohn & Wolfe’s public relations efforts have yielded extensive top-tier media coverage about social anxiety disorder and Paxil as the first FDA-approved treatment for the condition.

Paul Holmes

Since 1999, Cohn & Wolfe’s public relations efforts have yielded extensive top-tier media coverage about social anxiety disorder and Paxil as the first FDA-approved treatment for the condition. While the team had generated significant media coverage in the mainstream press, reaching men and diverse populations had been challenging. In an effort to continue to build awareness of the severe impact of social anxiety disorder and the importance of treatment, Cohn & Wolfe wanted to create a platform to appeal to the male and African-American community, since media outlets that reach these groups rarely cover mental health issues.
After learning that NFL star running back Ricky Williams was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and was being treated with Paxil, he was made the centerpiece of Cohn & Wolfe’s media campaign. We knew Ricky’s status as a Heisman Trophy winning football player would resonate with target audiences, and help reduce the stigma associated with the condition.
Given the hallmark symptom of social anxiety disorder—intense fear of social situations—it is challenging to help someone with the condition feel comfortable sharing their experiences with reporters and the public. Making Ricky comfortable was particularly challenging; for example, before receiving treatment for social anxiety disorder, he would cope with his media obligations by doing interviews with his football helmet on. While this behavior is understandable given his disorder, it nonetheless caused many reporters to label him aloof and eccentric, leading to negative press.
In addition, shortly before the campaign launch, there were a series of stories in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale press about Ricky’s involvement in traffic incidents, negative publicity that Cohn & Wolfe did not want to seep into coverage profiling his social anxiety disorder experiences. As such, Ricky was prepared to bridge to messages about his experiences with social anxiety disorder when facing difficult questions from reporters. In preparation for the media outreach, Cohn & Wolfe decided to approach reporters who not only covered Ricky in a positive light, but in a negative light as well in order to help them understand the impact social anxiety disorder had on Ricky’s life in the NFL.
 Cohn & Wolfe conducted extensive research on Ricky Williams’ personal and professional life to provide reporters with a taste of Ricky both on and off the football field. To aid in the efforts, Cohn & Wolfe’s biggest sports fanatics were enlisted to provide the healthcare pitch team with a “football 101” session so that they could be as knowledgeable with sports reporters as they are with health and medical reporters.
The objectives of the campaign were to: increase awareness of the severe impact of social anxiety disorder; educate consumers about Paxil as an effective treatment option for the condition; and empower people not accustomed to seeking help for mental health problems such as men and African-Americans.
  Based on these objectives, Cohn & Wolfe conducted numerous internal brainstorms to identify angles for each outlet and, in order to continuously challenge themselves, they developed a “wish list” of top-tier outlets/reporters, including “The Today Show,” BET, USA Today and People. Once the “wish list” was compiled, Cohn & Wolfe’s divided it by media outlets that would directly reach the target audiences (i.e., sports media, African-American media and national consumer outlets).
 To leverage interest in Ricky’s story, particularly among sports reporters, Cohn & Wolfe’s decided to time the launch of the campaign just before football training camp. Ricky’s trade to and new start on the Miami Dolphins was used as a rationale for why reporters should interview Ricky about his battle with social anxiety disorder. Ultimately, Cohn & Wolfe’s wanted their training camp stories to include information about Ricky off the field.
Media skepticism of how someone as famous as Ricky could suffer from social anxiety disorder, after all, he could play in front of stadium-sized crowds, was proactively addressed by using it as an opportunity to further clarify what the disorder was and what it was not. In addition to communicating this information to reporters verbally, customized pitch packets were created, including tailored proposals, a social anxiety disorder fact sheet, a colorful backgrounder on Ricky’s professional accomplishments and personal tastes and photos of him to humanize the condition.
 With only two days of Ricky’s time to conduct the majority of the campaign, Cohn & Wolfe  needed to carefully craft its roll-out.
Day One: In the days leading up to launch, we offered select print and broadcast outlets that tend to get picked up by other outlets, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and “The Today Show,” the opportunity to have their stories run the first morning of the campaign. These top-tier placements helped set the stage for the campaign and generate excitement among additional media outlets. After “The Today Show” interview, Cohn & Wolf distributed a video news release (VNR) and radio news release (RNR) featuring Ricky to extend the reach and frequency of our messages to national and local broadcast affiliates nationwide.
 Additionally, a late morning telephone press briefing was coordinated, primarily targeting sports reporters from daily newspapers as well as African-American publications and sport-oriented national radio shows, to reach the target male and African-American audiences. During the press briefing, Ricky was paired with his former therapist and Jerilyn Ross, the president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), to provide reporters with a medical perspective on the condition.  Cohn & Wolf also distributed a camera-ready matte release to secure additional print coverage about Ricky’s story. Following the briefing, additional one-on-one interviews with top-tier television and print outlets were coordinated.
 Day Two: The second day of the campaign included a host of one-on-one interviews with prime national radio outlets, including the ESPN Radio Network, “The Tom Joyner Show,” the Sports Radio Network and NPR’s “Tavis Smiley Show.”
 To keep Ricky’s story fresh in the minds of the target audiences, Cohn & Wolf worked with usatoday.com to host an online chat during which Ricky answered many questions from the general public about his experiences with social anxiety disorder and treatment. Interviews with additional “wish list” outlets, including Ebony and ESPN The Magazine were coordinated.
 As a result of Cohn & Wolf’s public relations efforts they saturated their target outlets with Ricky’s story. In less than four months, more than 420 million media impressions were generated, including placements in nearly 60 percent of the “wish list” outlets (the “reach goal” was 25 percent). An overwhelming majority of the coverage delivered key social anxiety disorder and treatment messages. Recently, The New York Times Magazine included Ricky’s treatment in one of the 97 best ideas of 2002 and USA Today sports section voted Ricky’s fresh start one of the “Best of Best” in football for 2002. 
 Coverage in sports outlets helped Cohn & Wolf reach the target male audience. A key highlight was the saturation of the ESPN Network, including Ricky on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, pieces on ESPN’s television and radio stations and on espn.com. Ricky was also on the cover of Sports Illustrated For Kids. Additionally, Ricky’s story was featured on the front-page of The New York Times and Los Angeles Times sports sections the first day of the campaign. Targeting African-American media yielded a feature in Ebony as well as a lengthy piece on BET Nightly News.
Print coverage, catapulted by multiple Associated Press and USA Today stories and 31 reporters participating in the telephone press briefing, included key placements in seven of the top 10 newspapers and hits in People and Parade. Broadcast coverage, including national placements on “The Today Show” and CNN’s Connie Chung Tonight was extended via our VNR, which aired in 41 states. After the telephone press briefing and references to ADAA’s Web site, traffic increased by more than 500,000 hits in one month. Similarly, usatoday.com reported that the chat with Ricky was one of the most popular chats they had ever conducted, with more than 400 people lining up to submit questions in advance of the actual chat.
 In addition, the impact of the Cohn & Wolf campaign and Ricky’s story were felt among the general public. For example, when Ricky was in New York conducting media interviews, people repeatedly approached him on the street to applaud his efforts to speak out about his social anxiety disorder. In fact, a woman who saw Ricky on “The Today Show” was in BET’s lobby before his interview and told him how relieved she was to see a big, strong guy like Ricky admit to having social anxiety disorder, a condition from which her husband was currently suffering and was embarrassed to seek help.
Ricky’s story also helped motivate and build morale among the Paxil sales force and other GlaxoSmithKline employees. Through print, broadcast and Internet outlets, Ricky’s story has generated more than 500 million media impressions and played a significant role in motivating people to seek help.
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