In 2015, New York-based civil law attorneys Mani Tafari and Lisa Maroccia approached Goldman McCormick Public Relations (GMPR) about taking on a campaign to help Nick Hillary, an African-American father of five who was going on trial for the third time for the murder of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips, who was strangled in his home in fall 2011—despite no eyewitnesses or physical evidence tying Hillary to the scene of the crime.
Potsdam, N.Y. police had named Hillary the primary suspect on the night of the murder, even before the autopsy had deemed the boy’s death a homicide, and leaked his name to the media the next day. Before Nick even went to trial, 1,993 people signed a petition, “No Bail More Jail!” against Hillary.
The challenge to overcome stereotypes and commonly accepted—but false—information was monumental: “When a majority of people have had an ideal ingrained in their minds for a prolonged period of time that is also reinforced on a daily basis, and your agency seeks to reverse the mass perception of that very ideal, expect a tremendous amount of resistance,” explains Mark Goldman, Co-Founder of Goldman McCormick Public Relations. “If this particular CSR campaign has taught us anything, it’s that PR professionals need to also become teachers. The skillset of teaching and understanding how individuals accept new information—even if it is at odds with their current belief system—is an invaluable asset to have.”
The battle to get the truth out for Nick Hillary was going to be a massive undertaking—and one of the most challenging campaigns in Goldman McCormick’s history. Read on to see how the firm was able to bring visibility to Hillary’s story and achieved its goal of winning freedom for an innocent man—an effort that won the firm a Gold Award in the “Best Cause/Advocacy Campaign” category in Bulldog Reporter’s 2016 CSR Awards.
The Strategy and Execution: Goldman McCormick’s strategy was to speak extensively with Hillary and his civil law attorney Mani Tafari, with the objective of garnering as much information as possible about the case. GMPR also reviewed legal documents (available in the public domain) pertaining to the case and began to highlight facts that they felt would pique the interest of the media.
GMPR also reviewed past and present media coverage on Nick Hillary and began reaching out to reporters who had covered the case. The campaign team’s main strategy was to get Hillary and Tafari on large and influential media venues (TV, radio, newspapers) to tell Nick’s story.
“One of the first challenges we faced was getting into the mindset of actually believing that we had the capability of taking on a force that was much more powerful than us or Nick Hillary,” says Ryan McCormick, Co-Founder of Goldman McCormick Public Relations. “From the onset, this was a battle of public perception where the opposition had a colossal head start. In the beginning of this campaign, many members of the media did not particularly take an interest in Mr. Hillary, and a majority of the town’s population where Mr. Hillary resided already believed he was guilty of a crime. There was a lot resistance to any information which presented Mr. Hillary in a favorable light.”
GMPR felt that more people that knew about Nick’s story, the more people would question the case and more money could be raised for Hillary’s legal defense (nearly $50,000 was raised for this purpose).
GMPR also created a website called Truth for Nick Hillary. “Building an online newsroom for Hillary was crucial to the success of this campaign,” Goldman relates. “We constantly updated facts about the case on the site and also made it possible for people to donate money to Mr. Hillary’s legal fund. Every time Mr. Hillary or his attorneys did a media interview, not only was their public profile being raised, but donations were received.”
The website gave the press and the public a background history on Nick as a veteran, high-school teacher and coach, while also pointing out gaps in the murder investigation. The website also gave viewers regular updates on how the press was covering Nick.
“We made ourselves available 24 hours a day to reporters, and we were quick to respond to their requests,” says McCormick. “We also took notice of other stories these reporters were working on and offered our assistance in helping them attain primary sources or access to certain individuals. It didn’t matter if a member of the media was at a publication read by thousands or read by millions—we treated everyone the same and we recognized that each reporter had the capability of taking Hillary’s football of truth and gaining yards (though the end zone seemed like miles away at times).”
The Results: A breakthrough media placement was when The New York Times did a five-page story on Hillary. Public and media interest surged after the story was published. After the Times story was published, both ABC’s “20/20” and NBC’s “Dateline” were interested in learning about Nick’s story—and they both aired back-to-back specials on him on September 30th, 2016.
“The actual results of the campaign were much greater than our goals,” Goldman offers. “We set out to raise national awareness of Nick Hillary’s case, create doubt about the district attorney and prosecutor’s case about Mr. Hillary, and raise money for Mr. Hillary’s legal fees. Our greatest hope was that Mr. Hillary would be found not guilty,” he continues.
On Sept. 28th, 2016 Hillary was found innocent. In a statement that day, Hillary said, “This morning I stood at the precipice of either spending the next fifteen years-to-life in prison or finally going home to my family. Goldman McCormick PR is a big reason why I’m going home to my family.”
“Mr. Hillary’s story received national coverage in the Times, a front-page cover story, ‘20/20’ and several other national TV and radio programs,” he adds. “Over $50,000 (well above expectations) was raised for his legal fees. As of right now, Mr. Hillary is in the process of suing the DA and prosecutor who sought to put him in prison.”
Secrets of Success: Here are some insightful tips from the campaign that you can use in your next cause-related effort—and demonstrates why Goldman McCormick Public Relations, Mark Goldman and Ryan McCormick, won a Gold in Bulldog’s 2016 CSR Awards.
- Keep It Simple: “We think a ten-page plan of action is nine and-a-half pages too long. Make your battle plan easy to understand & execute. Do a few things exceptionally well rather than do several things just good.”
- PR Fundamentals First: “Reporters and give them everything they need, follow up appropriately, never lie, and always make yourself indispensable to the media. 3D charts and multimedia PowerPoint presentations may be aesthetically pleasing, but nothing compares to the effectiveness of PR fundamentals executed with excellence.”
- Create a Compelling Online Newsroom: “Every CSR campaign should have one. Update yours on a regular basis and allow it to be a treasured asset to the media.”
- Tap Into the Power of Love: “For Nick Hillary’s campaign, we were very motivated to succeed because we recognized the gross injustice that was being perpetrated upon him. When an agency takes on a CSR campaign—if every member of the team is committed to the cause and sees what they are doing is moral and just—they are drawing power from an infinite energy source. That energy source is love, and love can manifest in the form of motivation, great ideas and other tools that ultimately help you bring the result you wish to see.”
“We couldn’t be happier to see Nick Hillary be exonerated. We always believed he was innocent,” said Goldman upon Hillary’s exoneration. “This is one of the most fulfilling campaigns we’ve ever worked on and we’d love the opportunity to work on similar campaigns in the future.”