The Public Relations Strategist

The Invincible: Powerful Stories of Wounded Veterans Healing Through Sports

July 26, 2017

[hill+knowlton strategies]
[hill+knowlton strategies]

In 2005, Israel Del Toro Jr. was 30 years old when a roadside bomb in Afghanistan set him on fire.

Del Toro, a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, was on a mission to call in airstrikes against the Taliban when the explosion destroyed the Humvee in which he was riding. He managed to escape the burning vehicle but collapsed to the ground. A fellow soldier helped him up, and they both jumped into a creek to douse the flames that engulfed Del Toro from head to toe. In that moment, he thought of his wife and young son .

Third-degree burns covered 80 percent of his body. He lost all of the fingers on his left hand except his thumb; those on his right hand were amputated at the knuckles. He suffered inhalation burns. Nerves in his foot were damaged. In the hospital he spent four months in a coma, and doctors gave him a 15 percent chance for survival. When he woke up, doctors told him that he would never walk again and would have to remain on a respirator for the rest of his life. Two months later, Del Toro left the hospital, walking and breathing on his own. By 2010 he had re-enlisted in the service and was training to compete in the Wounded Warrior Games.

Stories such as Del Toro’s inspired Britain’s Prince Harry to create the international Invictus Games, athletic competitions that encourage recovery and rehabilitation for veterans. Invictus is Latin for “unconquered” or “invincible.” The inaugural Invictus Games took place in London in 2014, with nearly 500 disabled service members from 14 countries competing in 10 sporting events.

Two years later, Del Toro gave an introductory speech at the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Fla., telling the crowd, “When your life changes as dramatically as mine, there’s a chance you might give up. I never let that happen to me, and I never will.” He competed in the Games, throwing shotput and racing on a recumbent bicycle.

Hill+Knowlton Strategies developed and implemented a comprehensive program to promote Invictus Games Orlando 2016 to U.S. media and fans. Initially, the communications team found there was little public awareness of how sports help wounded veterans recover. Their strategy was to showcase the Games as an elite competition that can enhance the confidence of these service members — emphasizing their abilities rather than their limitations, and helping to reduce the stigma of invisible wounds of war such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

Storytelling would be at the heart of the communications strategy. The team would highlight competitors’ journeys to rehabilitation and the difference that an international sporting event can make for veterans, their families and caregivers.

“Our goal was to reach into living rooms across the world to ignite conversation and highlight the unconquerable Invictus spirit, and to illuminate a path to recovery,” Lauren Olsen Herchert, vice president of Hill+Knowlton Strategies and account lead on the campaign, told The Strategist. “We made the stories about the Invictus competitors, instead of the ticket sales, the venue or anything else.

“Recognizing that the public would be moved to attend the Games once they heard the inspiring stories, we focused on the sacrifices the competitors made for our country and the courage they had to persevere when faced with an injury,” she said. “It’s easier to do that when you have such honest and motivational stories to tell.”

According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Military Adaptive Sports Program, participating in sports helps disabled service members improve their self-image, self-esteem, leadership and camaraderie. A study by the nonprofit charitable organization Disabled Sports USA and the U.S. Department of Labor found that 90 percent of injured veterans who took part in adaptive sports felt a significant improvement in the quality of their lives. 

Building momentum

The Invictus Games were a relatively new sporting event that sought the visibility of well-established competitions. The communications team set out to build promotional momentum leading up to the Games in Orlando.

They created “milestone moments” to capture the attention of the media and public, including an “Invictus Games Flag Tour,” where the flag that would fly over the Games traveled the country before arriving in Orlando. The flag is emblazoned with the words “I AM,” inspired by the final lines of the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

Other milestone moments would include announcements of sponsors, celebrity endorsers and Games participants, such as First Lady Michelle Obama.
To build interest before the event, the communications team also had to secure visibility in the Orlando market, the Games’ first U.S. host city.

They gathered stories of select athletes who would be the faces of the competitions, sharing weekly profiles and featuring stories in national media, which required coordinating schedules and securing approvals from the U.S. Department of Defense and branches of the military. A limited number of media interviews were granted with Prince Harry.

“Every media outlet, whether print, broadcast or radio, wanted to speak to Prince Harry,” Olsen Herchert said. “We expected that and were very honest with reporters and producers that we wouldn’t have access to Prince Harry for every interview. Instead, we wanted the overall story to be about the amazing Invictus competitors, because that’s what the Invictus Games are about.”

The communications team’s storytelling approach demanded compelling content — including video, imagery and written material — to create interest in the Games across earned, owned and shared platforms. They told stories of how adaptive sports helped veterans in their long journeys to recovery, and about the impact of the Games in Orlando.

Evoking strong emotions

News and visuals were distributed from a dozen milestone moments, including announcements of Orlando as the host city and a “100 Days” countdown leading up to the Games.

The communications team also gave updates, content and news releases to sponsors so they could promote the Games to their own audiences.

Media relations work included securing partnerships with national outlets such as People magazine, USA Today, ESPN and Fox News. For local broadcast affiliates and the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, the communications team identified local athletes who could be profiled, and arranged tours of facilities where competitions would be held.

Recognizing that adaptive sports evoke strong emotions for spectators, Hill+Knowlton Strategies created videos telling competitor stories that could be shared on social media, and set up accounts for the Games on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They also provided video content to traditional media.

“In today’s traditional and social media environment, the public is constantly inundated with messages and content,” Olsen Herchert said. “We found that video content was the ideal way to break through this noise, engage target audiences and visually tell the competitors’ heroic stories and emotional journeys to the Games.”

All told, the campaign generated more than 400 news stories, more than 1.7 million views of 16 videos, 5.5 million Facebook impressions, an audience of more than 55,000 at the Games, and more than 10 million television viewers.

Story by story, the team conveyed the healing power of sports and the perseverance of the service members who competed in the Invictus Games.

“It was unbelievably rewarding to play even a small part in sharing these stories, celebrating the achievements of our wounded servicemen and servicewomen and bringing awareness to such an important issue,” Olsen Herchert said.

“The ability to witness first-hand the courage, determination and perseverance of the Invictus competitors was a highlight of our personal and professional careers.” — Compiled by Greg Beaubien and John Elsasser


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