A look behind the curtain of national media relations

A couple of weeks ago, Colonial Williamsburg’s partnership with Williamsburg’s historic First Baptist Church was featured on The Today Show.

Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum, began an excavation of what’s been determined to be the first permanent structure of First Baptist Church, one of the nation’s oldest Black churches, in September of 2020. The Today Show shared early findings in a piece during Black History Month in 2021.

I’ve been working in media relations for more than 20 years. National morning show features (or even mentions) are still really, really exciting.

Here are a few things that stood out from the day-long shoot on June 5 that led to a four-minute feature during the 9 a.m. hour on July 7.

Prep… Lots of Prep

The seeds for this follow-up segment were planted in July of 2022 when the producer we were continually updating with new findings from the excavation reached out about trying to make a connection between the people buried at the site and current members of the First Baptist Church community.

We set up a handful of Zoom update calls between then and the Spring of 2023 for the producers, our PR partners at Colonial Williamsburg and key voices from Colonial Williamsburg and First Baptist Church. We sent along email updates with new images and findings.

Once the producers decided the timing was right, we set up pre-visit interviews for our “stars” and supporting cast to better inform the producers, enabling them to shape the story. From there, the Hodges/Colonial Williamsburg PR teams focused on all the little details – itinerary, drone planning, lunches for the crew, etc. – to ensure everyone from Today, Colonial Williamsburg and First Baptist Church knew where to be and when on the big day.

Every Little Detail

In addition to the main producer whom we had been working with, a crew of three came in from out of town the day of the shoot. And Craig Melvin left New York City right after finishing up on the Today Show set.

The crew arrived at First Baptist Church nearly three hours before the interview times. It was clear from the beginning as they set up the lighting and audio equipment that they genuinely enjoy what they do… they were having a lot of fun. What would look best? Where should Craig sit? Can you turn out the lights over the altar? Lots of little things that when put together make a big deal.

Even when there was a hiccup, in this case, our producer coughing several times* during the interview, they were joking about it and giving him a hard time. (*The producer had set up next to a flower arrangement and realized that it was the flowers that were causing him to repeatedly cough).

I realize this is what they do for a living, but it still was impressive to see all the behind-the-scenes planning and adjustments for shooting inside the church and outside at the excavation site at Colonial Williamsburg.

Odds and Ends…

  • While the crew was having fun throughout the morning, they seemed just as excited and appreciative to hear that we were bringing in lunch from a local eatery. We pulled a cooler with water and soft drinks to the excavation site for the crew to enjoy drinks as the temperature reached the high 80s. A couple of simple gestures seemed to go a long way.
  • We didn’t need to use anything from our PR Emergency Box (last time, we made use of yellow caution tape to section off part of the church parking lot to limit background noise during outside interviews). But we were prepared!
  • Speaking of background noise, we couldn’t do much with the clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage – a staple of Colonial Williamsburg – that did a down-and-back as the interviews were taking place at the excavation site.
  • What’s Craig Melvin like? He seemed just as personable as the guy we see on TV. He took time to chat with all of us who were helping out that day about our kids, hobbies and Williamsburg, Richmond and Virginia. And he made connections with the people he interviewed, making it easier to share a story that has moved so many over the past few years.

Sean Ryan

A former print journalist, Sean joined The Hodges Partnership in 2003 and leads Hodges’ media relations team. He manages media relations strategy and helps place client subject matter experts on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and more. Sean regularly helps place op-eds in top-tier papers like the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today.

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