Bon Appetit to Kraft Foods, which will be reaping tremendous Free PR benefits tonight, during the “Fight Hunger Bowl” on ESPN.

The powerful pipes of Ted Williams, homeless radio announcer who’s become the year’s first YouTube rockstar of 2011.

In the unlikely event you haven’t heard, Mr. Williams was homeless earlier this week, hawking handouts on a Columbus highway. A self-confessed substance abuser and absentee dad, he had all but given up on his former career behind the microphone. That’s when a Columbus Dispatch videographer, on a whim, shot a clip of Williams using his golden baritone.

“When you’re listening to nothing but the best of oldies, you’re listening to Magic 98.9!”

The video went up on the Columbus dispatch website, then YouTube, and then PR “lightening” struck – as the short video drew millions of views. Viral pixie dust. It’s completely unpredictable. But amazing when it happens. Soon the Dispatch newsroom was fielding phonecalls for Williams, which led to local interviews, then a spot on the Today Show this week, then the offer from Kraft foods to provide the voice-over for the company’s iconic macaroni and cheese products tonight on ESPN.

The company already had a mammoth publicity campaign surrounding it’s ‘Huddle to Fight Hunger’, an outreach to provide 20 million meals or more to a hunger relief organization. But this swift move has quickly dwarfed the rest of the positive pub in free mentions alone. (Was anyone planing to TiVo the Fight Hunger Bowl? Heck, had anyone even HEARD of the Fight Hunger Bowl – before Williams made media magic happen?) Kraft comes across as a company that cares, that is engaged in public discourse, that wants to do more than talk, and that is nimble and smart enough to do the right thing on short notice. Plus… every recent mention of Kraft is completely free of charge. What CMO wouldn’t be pumped over such a coup?
Williams recorded four TV spots – some of which will be seen during the Golden Globes next Sunday on NBC.

Kraft Brand Manager Noelle O’Mara released this statement about Williams’ immediate hiring:

“Like many others, KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese and our ad agency were moved by Mr. Williams’ story. We were in the middle of making our TV spots and in a unique position to help Ted use his great voice to gain employment…KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese has a tradition of bringing families together and helping those in need and we’re thrilled to help Ted on his journey to re-establish himself.”

He’s also been hired by the Cleveland Cavaliers. For Mr. Williams, it’s probably not much different than winning the lottery.

And for Kraft foods, what a way to start the year!

But here’s my question – what can we learn from this masterful PR move? And can the miracle be duplicated?
Not exactly. But understand how it worked:

First, someone within the Kraft organization was paying close attention, watching for an opportunity to ride the freight train of free PR when and if the moment occurred. Then, the unexpected news event happened. They quickly gave it a litmus test for appropriate pub.

  1. Is it a feel-good story with which we would like to be associated? Check.
  2. Does it parallel a current PR or marketing effort? Check. (We’re collecting food and raising awareness to feed the hungry.)
  3. Can we do something to get involved? Check. (We can hire the guy!)
  4. Will we most likely get a few free mentions in local and national media? Check. (I’m sure Mac and Cheese Marketing Division has stopped counting the media hits by now…)
  5. Could it have gone wrong? Sure, there’s always the possibility that Williams could implode into a drug addicted stupor or that some highly offensive footnote in his criminal past could come to light.
    But normally, Americans love a redemption story. And this one is a doozy.

So: everyone who’s looking to build a brand with some free publicity should consider following the lead of Kraft.

  • What sort of news media opportunity would align with your product or service offering?
  • If you identify one, is there an opportunity to contribute? To donate? To get involved in a positive way?
  • If you do get involved, is it likely to generate follow-up, or continuing coverage?
  • Is there a risk? (There almost always is.) So evaluate and have an escape plan.

And while you’re pondering this, make sure to watch the big bowl game tonight on ESPN, listen to the announcers talk about Williams, (as well as the Monday morning talk shows tomorrow) and ask yourself what Kraft would have had to pay for such powerful publicity. That’s a lotta Smack and Cheese, baby.

Author: Jeff Brady, Brady Media Group