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6 PR takeaways from a Dutch Olympian’s marathon swim

In August 2018 Maarten van der Weijden, former Olympic gold medalist for the Netherlands, undertook an epic 55-hour swim to raise money for cancer research.

This wasn’t just any course. Every winter the Dutch hope that the waterway connecting 11 cities in the northern province of Friesland will freeze over so they can hold their beloved “Elfstedentocht” ice skating tour. In Maarten’s mind, what better way to bring attention and funding than to commit to swimming this iconic route?

Having contracted and then beaten Leukemia in the ten years following his big win at the Beijing Olympics, Maarten suffered from survivor’s guilt. He felt he couldn’t continue living happily while so many people were still suffered. Maarten had the drive and the plan; how would he actually raise public awareness for his cause?

This is where senior PR strategist Ronald van der Aart stepped in. At the 5th edition of Amsterdam’s PR Lab meetup, organized by PRLab Hub, an integrated marketing agency focused on purpose driven companies, he shared some of the unique strategies him and his team of volunteers came up with to help Maarten raise more than €4.3 million.

Here are six takeaways you should keep in mind for your next PR campaign:

Schedule a dress rehearsal

Given the unique nature of the event, anticipating what would be needed in advance was extremely difficult. With so much riding on the few days Maarten would be in the water, the team needed a way to get a better picture of issues that could arise during the actual event. Before starting the official race, Ronald and his team decided to set up a ‘dress rehearsal’ during which Maarten swam along Amsterdam’s famous Amstel River. Not only did this bring greater publicity to what Maarten was trying to achieve, it also allowed the PR team to identify possible gaps before the actual event took place.

In PR, practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but it can certainly help to navigate some potential problems ahead of time.

Set up an online newsroom

One thing the team learned from the dress rehearsal was that the strongest tactic for getting this story out would be through visual storytelling. The photos they took of Maarten swimming past the famous Amstel hotel with supporters (including other cancer survivors) cheering him on would be essential to truly communicate the significance of this story to the public.To get the best shots and live updates on the scene the PR team would have to be stationed on boats following Maarten’s progress. With this in mind, Ronald’s team decided to create their own online newsroom where they could publish photos, videos, updates, news releases and maps instantly.

Keep your spokesperson connected

Maarten’s drive and charisma made him irresistible to audiences. However, during the entire swim the team would not have their main spokesperson available for commentary.One of the most commonly asked questions during the dress rehearsal was simply, “Where’s Maarten?” The team quickly realized that if they couldn’t have their protagonist sharing his thoughts and experience on camera, they instead needed a way to allow audiences to actively follow Maarten’s physical progress online.They decided to install a GPS tracking system on the press boat following Maarten, so people could track his journey via the online newsroom in real-time. This brought tons of traffic to the website and more attention to the regular press updates from the water-bound PR team.

Embrace messaging apps

One of the most successful strategies Maarten’s PR team came up with was to create an opt-in WhatsApp group for journalists where they could immediately share new updates, photos and more.In the end they had 70-80 journalists join the group. According to Ronald, it became such a powerful awareness engine that some photos were republished on various news outlets only minutes after being shared within the group.Instead of sending mass emails or relying on journalists to constantly check your website, WhatsApp groups enable you to share in the moment updates and makes it easier for journalists to quickly identify news worthy content from your campaign.

Use crises to your advantage

No PR campaign will go 100 percent smoothly. You will always run into bumps and hiccups, both big and small. Instead of going into panic mode, the key is to adapt and find a way to use the new reality to your advantage.Originally, the swim was open to others who also wanted to raise money by swimming alongside Maarten for stretches of the journey. This was seen as a great way to raise more awareness and funding through active audience engagement. However, just a day before the swim was set to begin the local mayor announced that the E. Coli levels in the water were too high to allow the public event to go forward. Maarten would have to take on the journey completely alone at his own risk.Instead of panicking, Ronald’s team looked at the positive points. While they may have lost out on the extra funding that could have been raised by the other swimmers, from a PR standpoint this major blow to Maarten’s journey only enhanced the publicity and drama surrounding the event. The PR team was also now able to focus fully on Maarten’s individual experience, creating the makings of a more in-depth and personal look at one man’s struggle to achieve his goal.

Actively involve followers on social media

Maarten’s PR team originally thought Facebook Live would be helpful; in the end it was indispensable. Their live stream of the event at times received up to 250,000 views.They didn’t just give the audience a way to follow Maarten’s journey, they also actively involved followers, calling on them for technical, emotional and even pizza delivery support.During one of Maarten’s brief swim breaks, he had gotten tired of surviving off of power shakes and all he really wanted was a giant mushroom pizza. Within an hour, a delivery boy arrived onsite with a mushroom pizza sent from one of Maarten’s livestream followers. Photos were taken of Maarten gratefully chowing down while still in the water with a smile on his face. By the end of the day the crew had received 55 pizzas in total.

When the second night of swimming approached, Maarten was tired and had lost his motivation to continue alone in the dark. Soon after reporting this, the team received help from four fire brigades that showed up to provide Maarten with 4km of light. Later local farmers joined the effort by driving alongside Maarten in their tractors while focusing beams of light on his path.

After the swim

Together, Maarten and Ronald’s PR team raised €3.5 million during the swim.

It didn’t end there. The viral nature of these stories led to a social media reach of 279 million. The most popular news release from their online pressroom was shared 4,000 times.

You can still donate to Maarten’s cause here.

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