No Marathon, No Problem

I was driving home alone from my make-do Asheville spring break to spend a few days with my parents before returning back to college for my last two months of senior year… or so I thought. Things were in a weird place. Many universities had already announced an extended spring break or transition to virtual classes due to COVID-19. UNC had yet to address the issue. 

About an hour into my drive, my watch started buzzing with notifications, vibrating on my wrist faster than it could process. I had a gut feeling there was bad news locked up in my phone. I pulled off at the next exit to face my inevitable fate. 

The first thing I saw was a chain of the most disappointed messages that have ever come to my phone. People saying things like “I want to cry and throw up at the same time” or “I’m shaking, I have no words”. UNC released a formal notice cancelling all events with more than 50 attendees. That included Carolina For the Kids’ Dance Marathon. 

The reaction may sound dramatic, but for the exec board, most of us have worked for four years to earn these positions. We started planning for our 24 hour event last April. I can’t even begin to estimate the number of hours and sleepless nights that have been put into bringing Dance Marathon to life. 

But life must go on. After talking to our creative media chair, we decided there has to be something we can do about it. Something like a virtual dance marathon intended to honor the event, recognize the work that went into it, and bring people together digitally in one of the toughest times. CFTK stands for providing support to the patients and families of UNC Children’s when they’re facing difficult battles, so it only felt right that we face this challenge with a brave face, head on. 

The only problem? We had exactly eight days to pull content together and get it live when marathon was originally scheduled to kick off. But this was not a time for excuses, it was a time to make the most of an unpredictable situation. 

Along with others from the board and my public relations subchairs, I began brainstorming ideas and content that would bring the Carolina classic event to viewers at home. We decided to leverage our social media platforms to bring this campaign to life. 

I created a schedule to stay on top of the roughly 80 pieces of content we had scheduled for the 24 hours. The next few days Matt, the creative media chair, and I tag teamed content generation. I pitched the story to local and national reporters and reached out to prominent campus figures such as Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz to collect video footage of them sharing their support. 

We wanted to make the event as interactive as possible, so we asked the community to submit videos of them doing TikTok dances and/or sharing what Carolina For the Kids means to them. We had a Twitter bracket to allow users to vote for a winner and rewarded participants with gift certificates initially solicited for marathon. 

College survival tip #14: Do your best to see challenges as opportunities. When everything feels like it’s falling apart, pivot and use the new circumstances to your advantage. 

Virtual Marathon was far from ideal. But for us, it was a chance to reach a new audience in a way that a physical marathon doesn’t allow. We could connect to alumni, hospital staff, and supporters across the globe who may not be able to attend the traditional event in Chapel Hill.  Ultimately, roughly 14,000 unique accounts saw our campaign – which is a lot more than the 700 students who originally signed up to dance. 

We earned coverage from a variety of sites including Spectrum News, Triangle Business Journal, the Daily Tar Heel, UNC.edu, Carolina Union, and BizBash, further allowing us to raise awareness and get our story out there. 

We also raised over $250,000 to support the patients and families of UNC Children’s. 

This isn’t how I dreamed I would end my experience with Carolina For the Kids. But it did allow me to fully put my public relations skills to the test. I hope that our committee members feel proud of what they’ve accomplished this year, even though we didn’t have our physical event to celebrate them and demonstrate their impact. 

I will forever cherish what we accomplished together, against all odds.

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