A few months ago, after nearly a decade of handling PR for everything from hotels to sports clubs, I took on my first book client. Grace in the Wilderness is a self-published memoir by Scott Riley, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient who battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a subsequent heroin addiction for nearly 30 years following the war. Scott’s journey – from being a machine gunner on the front lines of the Vietnam war, to running (and becoming addicted to) opium as part as Vietnam’s black market, to his post-war battle with drugs on the streets of lower Manhattan, to his ultimate recovery and reunion with his long estranged twin daughters – is a fascinating labyrinth of loss, adversity, survival, and love.
Long story short – there is no short story.
As PR pros, our job is to take a multilayered story, break it down, and present it succinctly to targeted media. With a story as dynamic as the Rileys,’ this took some time – but after some trial and error, we realized that the core of the story – what seemed to really resonate with media – was the way “Grace in the Wilderness” illustrated the far swinging pendulum of human experience; i.e. Scott’s ability to triumph over tragedy with the love and support of daughters he’d never known.
It was in pursuing this angle that we got our first big break. I booked Team Riley (Scott and his twin daughters Hasha and Libra, who coauthored Grace in the Wilderness) on Maggie Linton’s SiriusXM radio show, which is taped in D.C. We reached out to Mike Frisby in D.C. in hopes that one of his local media contacts might be interested in meeting with Team Riley, and he connected us with an editor of the Washington Post – she thought the story might make a good blog post.
I had a long call with the reporter after she met with the Rileys that week – the first of many calls that would take place over the next month. She wanted to make this story bigger, to interview all the players in this epic odyssey – former wives, old girlfriends, long lost war buddies, doctors and social workers that made the Rileys’ incredible, happy ending possible – so over the coming weeks, I channeled my inner P.I. and helped the reporter get what she needed. There were nightly calls, weekend calls, dozens and dozens of emails back and forth.
In the end, what began as a blog post became a 2,500-word feature in the Washington Post’s Style section. And when our client called to say she cried tears of joy reading the article in line at the drug store – that’s when I knew it was all worth it.