Some stories are a privilege to share with the world. They deserve our very best. What happened on February 14, 2017 is a tribute to great stories about a great cause, told by a committed Ceisler Media team with the capability to make news in every part of Pennsylvania at the same time.
In James City, in the northern Tier, Sally Peterson had a secret: she was going to save her friend’s life.
In Factoryville, north of Scranton, Leslie Sorg and Jeffrey Crass were about to celebrate their one-in-a-million love story.
In Altoona, Abby Levine and Eric Vey were still welcoming their daughter home.
In Pittsburgh, Laura and Daniel Chalich were planning their first Valentine’s Day as a married couple.
And in Harrisburg, Scott Little prepared to thank a new friend for the gift of a second chance.
Everyone knows that February 14th is Valentine’s Day. But the date has another distinction:
National Donor Day, an observance dedicated to spreading awareness and education about organ and tissue donation. In our work for Donate Life Pennsylvania (DLPA), it was our responsibility to use testimonial stories to share the life-giving power of organ donation.
Having a dedicated day on the calendar is a great hook for news stories. It also represents a major logistical challenge, condensing outreach that might normally take weeks into a matter of hours. This was especially true for these stories, each of which had the potential to go national.
So what is the playbook for an effort like this?
It starts with a strong team, including people with experience working in every region of Pennsylvania. Ceisler Media has three offices -- in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. For a statewide effort like DLPA, project teams typically include someone from every office. The geographic distribution allows us to be on site, same day, anywhere in PA.
I’m in Ceisler Media’s Pittsburgh office. We typically lead projects when the clients are based in western PA – such as Wesley Family Services, No Crayon Left Behind and Lobos Management.
We also serve on project teams for clients whose footprint includes western PA, like Walmart. For DLPA, I led the statewide team and worked with colleagues Michael Rodriguez (based in Harrisburg, work experience in northeast PA), Caitlin O’Connor (based in Pittsburgh, work experience in northwest PA) and several members of our Philadelphia office.
The next step is communicating with the client to identify the best stories. For a Valentine’s tie-in, we sought examples of organ donation stories that embodied love -- both romantic and friendship. We reached out to people who’d been touched by donation and walked them through the process of media interviews; what to expect and what key points to emphasize.
The final step is reaching directly to reporters, editors and producers to pitch these strong stories. Once we secure their interest, we coordinate the logistics of the interviews from start to finish.
That’s where things got complicated on National Donor Day 2017.
Sally’s story was the most difficult to capture – and also the most exciting. She was longtime friends with Toni Pearson and her family. When she saw a Facebook post that Toni was in need of a liver transplant, and that they shared a blood type, she had to find out if she was a match. She had herself tested, waiting for weeks to clear several stages of approval. I first talked to her just hours before she learned that she was a match. We coordinated the details of the big reveal.
I knew that it was vital to have video of the moment when Sally told Toni the life-changing news. With video in hand, all the TV stations were likely to run a story and – crucially – share it with affiliates across the country. But there was a problem. James City, population 270, sits right on the border of Elk and McKean counties, a dividing line that itself separates the television markets ofBuffalo and Johnstown/Altoona. I knew from my experience managing a political campaign in Elk County that it would be virtually impossible to get a TV crew there. The Buffalo stations have a reporter in Jamestown, NY and the Pennsylvania-based stations usually have a reporter in DuBois – but both are an hour away from James City.
So I improvised. I talked with Sally’s husband about capturing video on a smartphone that would be high enough quality to make it onto TV. I made sure he knew exactly how to hold the camera, how close to get, how long to film – everything.
It worked. We caught moment on film and I sent a high-resolution, downloadable link to every news station in Buffaloand Johnstown/Altoona. The storywentnationalfrom there and hundreds of thousands of people saw Sally’s inspiring example of selfless love.
Across the state in Factoryville, Leslie and Jeffrey had an equally incredible story. They had never met before 2013, when each of them received a heart transplant. But as they awaited the surgery, they crossed paths in the hospital. Slowly they got to be friends, and then more. Theirs was a beautiful story of the immeasurable value of a second chance at life.
Ceisler Media’s Michael Rodriguez knew he had lightning in a bottle, so he worked with the couple to prepare them for a full-length feature on WNEP-TV Scranton. The producer moved the touching love story to the national wire, where it spread across the country. It finally landed on AOL, where it was seen by over a million people.
In Pittsburgh, I shared the story of Laura and Daniel Chalich, a couple brought together by the fact that both were living kidney donors (Laura to a friend, Daniel to his father). Laura kept a journal of her journey through the process in 2012, and Daniel found it online a year later. The two met and fell in love, Laura moved to Pittsburgh, and got married. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette helped them celebrate their very first Valentine’s Day as a married couple with an A1, above-the-fold story for the Feb. 14 edition.
Finally in Harrisburg, Michael Rodriguez worked with Scott Little, who had never met Denise Tshudy before she saw his story from a friend-of-a-friend and decided to give the ultimate gift. The two shared a Valentine’s Day meal to celebrate their friendship.
These pitches went out the door within a matter of hours, but the stories they generated spread out over weeks. Ultimately our efforts earned three million impressions; on this issue, every single one of them could mean the difference between life and death. More than 112,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for an organ transplant, including over 7,000 in Pennsylvania. One of them dies, on average, every 18 hours.
Over 95 percent of Pennsylvanians who register as organ and tissue donors, do so at a Drivers’ License Center. That means everything we do must have such an impact that it resonates as many as four years later. When the stakes are so high, when the stories are so exceptional, they deserve a strong team that can tell them.
At Ceisler Media’s three offices spanning the state, we are proud to do our part.
Keegan Gibson is a Special Projects Manager of Ceisler Media's Pittsburgh office.