In the spring of 2014, I received a direct message on Twitter from a friend. In and of itself, a DM on Twitter is not that usual – it being 2014, it’s one of my preferred methods of communication. It was a save-the-date message for a party. But, there was no date and no other information about what type of party. I love cryptic party invitations – absolutely, I’d attend. A little history about this friend is probably helpful – Jonathan became my friend two years ago when he also became my daughter’s 5th grade teacher. He was exactly the type of teacher any parent would want for their kid and so, when a teacher talks, parents listen. Party – yep, I’m in.
The party day arrived and with it, came a screening of a film called Tiny: A Story About Living Small. As it happened, I already knew of the movie because it was screened at The Key School during the winter for the Middle Schoolers – my daughter being one. Now, I had the opportunity to watch it. What a film, what a concept, what a movement – tiny houses and sustainability. A new concept to me, but being a photographer who spends an inordinate amount of time photographing wildlife – outside – and who enjoys the great outdoors (NOT camping), it was compelling. Living off the grid or close to it, less impact on the environment, getting rid of all the excess in our lives and not having to pay a mortgage = admirable. There was great conversation and food at the party, as well as a really interesting mix of people. Then came the reason we were all brought together. A group called SustainaFest was going to build a tiny house – a 210-square-foot domicile, like the one in the film, but in Annapolis. Oh, and this they were doing with middle and high school-aged kids at a school (Key School). Did I mention they were going to build the tiny house in just three weeks? Yep. And they needed help with, well, everything. I agreed to help with social media/media. Almost immediately (it seemed like seconds in retrospect), I was given the reigns to SustainaFest’s social sites, with what could be considered by leading experts as a minimal or even reprehensible amount of knowledge on the topic of sustainability.
Getting to know SustainaFest, and the people behind it, was fantastic – I’m not just saying that because I know they’ll read this, I really and truly mean it. George Chmael II started the organization because of his commitment to all things earth and his very admirable concern for sustaining this planet we call home. He’s an idea guy and his ideas, or those I’ve heard, and seen, are pretty cool. Not only that, he’s an action guy. So, if you take those two traits – idea guy and action guy, and put them together, the skies the limit. Then there’s Kate – George’s right hand man, except she’s a woman and at that time Kate was not just a little pregnant, but very pregnant, with a due date of — wait for it – the start of the tiny house build. There’s also Katie – that got confusing, but not for long. Katie was in Texas and helping when she could, but doing so in addition to lots of other responsibilities. It soon became abundantly clear the reason George has been successful in business and life is not just because of him, but because of the people he surrounds himself with. It’s a good rule for those who want to succeed in business to remember – surround yourself with the best. There were lots and lots of other people involved with the build, helping on and behind the lines – a fantastic group brought together for this tiny, yet oh-so-big project.
What happened was this – Kate was doing a lot – A LOT, which in addition to being very pregnant is impossible to understand how she did it all. She prepared press releases and we prepared the scheduling of press releases and the idea of what would become known as ‘Media Morning at the Tiny House.’ As the build got nearer, I began reaching out to everyone I know and almost everyone I didn’t to let them know about the tiny house. The build was slated to start on Monday, July 7. The night before, I received a text from George letting me know Kate had her baby – a beautiful one named Isabella. I was so happy for her and hoped she heeded my advice on not getting too many pairs of socks for a newborn (I’m stellar with mommy advice). For reasons unclear to me, I never once considered how Kate delivering a baby the night before the build would have an impact on me or what I was doing for SustainaFest. And then it hit. OH MY GOD, HOW IS ALL OF THIS STUFF GOING TO BE DONE?
The build started as scheduled on Monday morning. I arrived thinking that’d I just take a few photos every morning and leave. Ha. On the first morning, there was another surprise in store for me. 12-year-olds were swinging hammers and using power tools. Something I didn’t mention yet – I’m a neurotic mom sometimes. Or most of the times. I almost fainted again and again. I quickly learned I could not, under any circumstances, look at any of the kids. Ever. They did have a lot of safety lessons and I think that helped. Them. Once past the kids and hammers, you had Key School staff, SustainaFest volunteers and veterans joining forces to create what would become a very cool model of sustainability, but at that point was just a pile of wood. But something else happened on the first day. I finally had photos of real kids building a real tiny house. And, as we all know, a photo is worth a thousand words AND lots of retweets, likes and oh, the first media visit. Hard to sell a story you can’t see, but once people saw kids – really cute, smart, hard-working kids building a tiny house, it was a story that sold itself. We had journalists – TV and print on site almost every day of the build. On the days they weren’t, I had George scheduled on radio interviews. George is a great talker on air and off, which was a big reason for the media success and well, the success of all things SustainaFest. While social media was an important part of SustainaFest telling the story of the tiny house, traditional media was crucial. We went international with a British radio program, as well as a wire service piece that went everywhere the Associated Press does – a lot of places.
That thought about me being onsite only in the mornings – that went out the door the very first morning when it became necessary (in my eyes) for me to be around, telling the story or ensuring others did, many hours each day. Plus I liked it – actually loved it. I never thought I could be around that many kids for that long, but those kids proved me wrong. Of course, I have my own kid and I absolutely adore her, but she’s just one kid. The tiny house was a lot of kids. With hammers and power tools. Somewhere along the line the kids asked what I’d like to be called. I, of course, replied, “Your Majesty.” That was part of the greatness of this project. All day long I was being called “Your Majesty” and you can probably understand how I liked that. But it wasn’t just about the kids – this story was about the whole group and that included RB (the lead builder), Wade (a volunteer who since became the very first employee of SustainaFest), the counselors, Key School staff members, at least one veteran (Tyler) who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and a handful of other volunteers. I just enjoyed being around everyone and watching a group of disconnected strangers become a connected and very cohesive team. Although some of the kids returned for more than one week, many didn’t, so this process of team building was repeated each of the three weeks of the build.
And while a tiny house was built, the media storm continued. All the while, I prepared each morning with briefing the team, kids and all, on which media entities would be onsite that particular day. The kids would clamor over who got to be interviewed and I would find ways to make sure each was included. In order to make it fair for all, and find out which of the kids were comfortable speaking to journalists, I (as a journalist) would often do my own interviews with them each morning. Many of those interviews I shared on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I grew to know them and them, me. The same thing was done with the adults. I would give helpful hints, which was also known as THINGS THEY SHOULD ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NEVER TO SAY TO A JOURNALIST. They weren’t just learning about a tiny house and how to build it, they were reinforcing the training and education many of them already had on public speaking and communications. And I was learning a lot in the process. I had never taught kids how to speak to journalists because I was the always the journalist. The team grew to be media rock stars.
From its inception, Media Morning at the Tiny House (an idea Kate and I gave birth to together before she gave birth to Isabella) was to give the media (en masse) and a select group of VIP’s a glimpse of the almost-completed project. We specifically chose the last week of the build because we thought the tiny house would look a whole lot better on camera, put together, rather in than in pieces, spread across a parking lot at Key. Rather genius, right? This became one of my primary focuses throughout the project – who to invite, when to invite them, how to invite them and where exactly at Key to have Media Morning. In collaboration with Irfan Latimer, Key’s Director of Communication (who I can’t speak highly enough of), we coordinated all of the details, right down to what plates and cups to use (sustainable). George was in communication with the VIP’s and I was taking care of media invites. As we neared closer, we tailored the events of the morning around the Governor and worked on speeches. I selected a couple of the kids to speak and worked with them on their speeches – writing and delivery. The morning began, of course, with rain. And then right as Media Morning was about to start, there was no one to be found. ABSOLUTELY no one. While the days before, I had images of greatness for Media Morning, now I had images of a disaster of epic proportions. The Governor was on his way or was supposed to be and no one (except the normal tiny house crew) was to be seen. I was panicking, but in a never-let-them-see-you-sweat type of way. Oh, forget that – I was totally sweating and I wore the wrong shoes, so my feet hurt and no one was there. Could it have been a worse scenario? I didn’t see how. Did I mention I was panicking? This was all on me. WHERE WAS EVERYONE? The Governor was minutes away and would speak to – um, me and naturally, the tiny house crew. Where were the cameras? Where were the reporters? And then people, all at once, from far and wide, showed up, as if they all came in the same car. Kind of weird, but maybe they all knew each other and were thinking sustainably. Media morning was a success! The kids who spoke were amazing – perfect delivery, lots of smiles and eye contact. Sarah Judd, Key’s Middle School Learning Specialist, who was the faculty liaison on the last two weeks of the build, gave an incredibly inspired speech and the Governor followed up, taking many queues from the speeches of George, Sarah and the kids. My feet still hurt and only recently did the remnants of the blisters finally disappear, but that’s not at all germane.
I have since spoken about the media and social media successes of the tiny house at an Annapolis Tweetmasters meeting, which I greatly enjoyed doing. If I can help others learn from what really was the result of being in the right place, at the right time, in the midst of a global tiny house movement, mixed with a passion for the project, I’m happy to do so. Some of the board members of the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America heard the Tweetmasters speech and I’ve now been invited to be one of three panelists at their October meeting. The panel is called “Learn from the Best–Case Studies in Public Relations Practice” – I couldn’t be more humbled and I look forward to it.
My work with SustainaFest spanned a few months, but it was the summer of 2014 I shall always remember. Specifically, it’s because of those three weeks in July – a transformative three weeks for those of us involved with the tiny house. Three weeks of hard work in the hot sun, but an absolutely incredible experience that was as much about the people, as it was about the tiny house. I stepped into the world of public relations and loved it. More than that, I made some fantastic new friends, of all ages/backgrounds and experienced something that was huge – and tiny – all at the same time.
For those that work in schools, veterans assistance organizations, homeless shelters, parks or any number of others that would benefit from partnering with SustainaFest to build your own tiny houses, just do it. To the administration of The Key School for being the first, and paving the way for others, it just speaks volumes.
What’s my next big project? You tell me. Annapolis Creative is ready, willing and able to help your organization.