Anatomy of a Viral News Event

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Positive and negative news travels at the speed of light via social media and the 24/7 news cycle. This post provides the inside story into the organizations and channels involved in an extraordinary story Creative Energy helped to manage.

It’s 6:30 p.m. on February 28th at a Pal’s Sudden Service restaurant in Bristol, TN. At the order pickup window a frantic woman jumps from her vehicle in a panic; her three-year old son had stopped breathing. An 18-year-old Pal’s employee ran to the child to administer CPR, successfully resuscitating the child before a city rescue team arrived. The episode was captured on the restaurant’s security cameras. By the time the life-saving employee, Kaela Eads, later visited the boy in the hospital, he was alert and watching a cartoon.

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The action of the Pal’s employee was no surprise to us. A client since 1992, the regional burger chain trains then empowers its employees to make hundreds of customer-focused decisions per shift. Store operators are likewise trained to contact our public relations team when unusual events occur. When we received the one-paragraph e-mail from the restaurant’s operator the next morning, we knew this would be big.

PR Director Karen Jenkins contacted the store operator, checked on the condition of the child and assembled the local media for a news conference. Once the story was set to air on local outlets, our social media team crafted a post for Pal’s social media outlets. Knowing the local media would use the dramatic footage of Kaela performing CPR on a near lifeless boy, our team instead chose to post a photo of a confident Kaela standing outside the iconic Pal’s building. The image was more in line with the upbeat, fun persona of the beloved chain.

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Our social media team began sharing the story via Facebook and Twitter on March 1st before evening newscasts. By 10 p.m., more than half of the Tri-Cities, TN, market had seen the story on Pal’s Facebook page (250,000+), with nearly 25,000 likes, comments or shares. From there it was the laws of math and algorithms.

Picked up by the Associated Press and Reuters overnight, the phone rang with calls from producers for ABC World News Tonight and Good Morning America. What was the status of the child? Who is the mother? What’s her phone number? Where is the employee? How do we arrange a live interview? Karen was glued to her cell, her laptop, and Kleenex as she’d taken the day off due to sickness. By 3 p.m. we were on the phone with the producers, had sent footage of the life-saving event caught on store cameras and were standing by to provide tech support for a possible live interview via Skype with Kaela. Meanwhile, ABC was receiving an upload of raw footage from the previous day’s news conference to build their own story. Background info on the client and reactions from the store’s operator and the chain’s president were prepared and sent to ABC.

By 6:30 p.m., ABC had a complete voice-over that is part of their “Person of the Week” good news story, followed by coverage Saturday morning on Good Morning America. Requests continued from the international news media ranging from London’s Daily Telegraph to The Daily Mail. Millions of people now knew of the heroics of Kaela Eads and the life she saved at a Pal’s restaurant in Bristol.

Feeding social media and the networks requires a nimble response with a client that trusts the judgment of its employees and its PR team. We’ll chalk this one up as a win.

By: Tony Treadway