What a fat man walking tells us about media relations

Fat man walking

I can still recall the coverage after eight years. Steve Vaught, then a 39-year-old former US marine, was obese. He decided to do something about it and announced his plan to walk from San Diego to New York City.

It was an incredible distance to walk. And the media coverage was phenomenal. His journey was covered by the BBC, CNN, Washington Post, USA Today, The Guardian – and countless other outlets. Indeed, it became a minor internet sensation. The coverage was helped by his blogging of the trip on a site (now defunct) called TheFatManWalking.com.

What made this a story was not actually that a fat person was walking, which happens all the time. A year earlier Dave Drass set up a website with a similar name, FatManWalking.com. The only media coverage I’ve seen was on CNET, which said: “Since Vaught began his journey, Drass has been getting between 20 and 50 misaddressed e-mails a week from people offering Vaught a place to stay, kudos and inspiring tales”.

So what made Steve Vaught interesting? Two main things. Steve Vaught weighed over 28 and a half stone at the start of his journey. The makes the whole journey seem an incredible and extreme undertaking. And it is extreme examples that make something newsworthy. The world’s largest Victoria Sponge, the size of a football field, is more interesting than a big Victoria Sponge.

Vaught was also very good at telling his personal story, which was full of emotion. “I feel that am looked down upon by people even when they are not doing so maliciously,” he said. Emotion is a tool sometimes forgotten about by PR practitioners, outside the charity and public affairs worlds. But it is just as relevant to consumer and B2B PR. Just think about the David and Goliath stories the successful entrepreneurs tell: James Dyson struggling to get acceptance for his vacuum clear or Richard Branson taking on British Airways. Their companies make an emotional connect with the public.