Paul Holmes 22 Oct 2002 // 11:00PM GMT
On September 11, as Ashley, Aubrey, Alana and Alyssa Welch heard of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, their first reaction was panic: they knew their father, Lt. Col. Tracy Welch, had a meeting scheduled at what became Pentagon Ground Zero that morning. Colonel Welch was unharmed, having learned on his way to the meeting that it was being postponed.
Resolved to do something for all the people in Washington and New York whose loved ones didn’t come home that night, the Welch sisters went with their mother to donate blood, but were turned away because they were too young. They reviewed their options: as teenagers, they didn’t have much money to donate. They couldn’t bulldoze rubble. Then a family friend mentioned that he was organizing a car wash to raise money for Red Cross relief efforts. The girls sprang into action, gathering garden hoses, making posters and enlisting the help of their church choir, schoolmates, friends and neighbors. In three days they organized four local car washes and raised $10,000.
That weekend, an Edelman employee heard one of the girls on local radio: she called their effort, “Wash America,” adding how great the sisters thought it would be if kids like them across the country could hold similar events and “Help Wash Away the Hurt.” On Monday morning, Edelman’s Washington, DC employees were asked if any would like to donate their time and professional skill to helping four local teenagers carry a message of purpose and hope to millions of their peers.
At five that afternoon, the four Welch sisters and their parents arrived at Edelman to meet their new PR firm, and a team of more than 30 professionals--in Edelman’s Washington, DC, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles offices--eager to contribute their time and talents to the cause, and to rally others in our industry to contribute their services as well.
Almost immediately after the disasters, pleas from the Red Cross appeared in every newspaper and on every television and radio station. No reports or studies were required to confirm the scope of relief needed to help the victims. The Welch sisters themselves confirmed the validity of the car wash approach. After a successful first weekend and a radio appearance, the campaign in progress was launched nationwide to create a successful fundraiser for the victims of the attacks.
The main focus of the PR program was to educate America’s children and adults on a fundraising effort that could help those in need during the national crisis. Gaining support and establishing partnerships with many commercial parties and professional colleagues initiated additional local car washes. Local and national media were invited to cover and encourage additional car wash events across the country. Local congressional members were also invited to car wash events to help rally support among the nation.
The client arrived at Edelman, armed with a clear and forthright goal: “to have every car in America washed by a Wash America kid.” Over several hours, three initial PR objectives became evident: to give Wash America a national identity—consistent with how the Welch sisters conceived the program and wished to see it grow; to gain Wash America national visibility—literally overnight, and “in competition” with a barrage of news coverage flowing from 9/11; and to do it all with no budget.
The PR team pushed for a Congressional resolution, and Virginia’s U.S. Sen. John Warner and Rep. Tom Davis introduced a resolution calling upon Congress to recognize the three following weekends as “National Wash America weekends,” giving the effort instant national credibility and an intriguing media storyline.
Meanwhile, the National 4-H Council called on its thousands of local chapters to organize wash events. Compaq computer offered free workstations to the schools raising the most money. The American Red Cross designated a national account number for wire transfers, while Western Union offered to process them for free. Commercial car wash operators in many communities agreed to donate a portion of their fees. In Los Angeles, three stars of the TV hit “Malcolm in the Middle” took up the towel at a well-publicized wash event.
From its September 14 inception through October 31 the national media’s coverage of Wash America reached an audience estimated at over 76 million. An initial (donated) PR Newswire item helped trigger AP print and radio coverage. CNN featured the girls in a live segment from a wash event. The Washington Post and Washington Times covered the campaign. The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek mentioned Wash America in stories about volunteerism in the wake of September 11, as did Oprah.
Soon the Welch girls were appearing on everything from an MSNBC Town Meeting to the CBS Early Show to Nickelodeon and MTV. A (donated), four-hour long satellite media tour landed 14 interviews. Foreign correspondents from as far away as Germany and Japan told the story of American kids banding together to raise money for disaster relief efforts. Family Circle magazine has bestowed a Halo Award on the Welch girls as part of its annual recognition of “extraordinary volunteers making a difference in their communities.”
Wash America’s success can be measured in ways both quantifiable and not.
For seven fall weekends, thousands of American kids donated their time to take part in more than 75 wash events in 25 states. More than $84,000 (still being tallied) has been raised, one wet dollar at a time.
Calls and e-mails poured in, many expressing a young American’s pride at finding a way to make a difference. This one from Adam: “I am 8. My brother Nicky is 6. We had a car wash this weekend at my Dads house to raise money for the Red Cross to help the people in New York and Washington. We made 70 dollars. We had fun and did a good job. Our brother Ben helped too he is 2 years old.”
Total media coverage reached an estimated audience of over 76 million.