One woman’s 50-State search for kindness delivers a few PR lessons

Sep 09, 2019
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One woman’s 50-State search for kindness delivers a few PR lessons

In the early part of the summer, I had the opportunity to talk with someone who is doing something most people wouldn’t do even if they could dream it.

Mary Latham is nearing the end of a very unique 50-state journey that has not only changed her, but it has served as inspiration for just about anyone who’s heard of it. 

Here is the short version of Mary’s story. Around the time the news of the Sandy Hook massacre broke, she was very distraught over the event and what that event said about the state of society at that time. 

In a phone call with her mother, Mary sounded off on all of the bad things happening around us. That’s when Mary’s mother reminded her to focus on the good. She told Mary that there is “more good” out in the world than you realize, but you have to look for it. 

Not long after this conversation, Mary’s mother passed away from cancer, and that set off a chain of events in Mary’s life that would lead her to go looking for that good, to search for stories of kindness. Mary’s hope has been to collect these stories for a coffee table book that families in hospital waiting rooms could read while dealing with family and health challenges of their own.  

Finding inspiration at a low point

That was the impetus for a journey that took shape this way. Mary would set out on a mission to all 50 states, collecting stories of kindness. She would travel from state-to-state in her mother’s old Subaru, and would stay as a guest in the homes of people she had never met before, for the most part. 

She would publicize the mission as she went, scheduling media interviews in advance, primarily to identify places to stay and people who may have stories to tell. When I heard of her story, I had to talk to her, and did so for Episode 75 of the Shaping Opinion podcast

If you’re in the public relations business, this is as grassroots as it gets, and for Mary it has worked. If you search “Mary Latham” and “more good” on the internet you’ll find no small number of articles and TV stories about Mary’s mission, along with any number of those touching and moving stories of kindness.  

Stories of kindness, big and small

She told us a few of those stories during our podcast interview. Like the time a bank teller was having a bad day, and when a customer asked her about it, she said, “It’s nothing that a bag of M&Ms won’t fix.” 

And about an hour later, that customer came back with a bag of M&Ms, and this former bank teller is still telling this story of kindness decades later. 

Of course, there were other more serious stories of organ donations, communities rallying around one person in need, and the time an honest driver left a note after he accidentally damaged someone’s property, promising to pay for the damages. When he came back later to settle up, the owner of the property saw something in that driver, and would put him through medical school. 

The power of authenticity

Mary has collected so many stories of kindness, the challenge for her now will be which ones to include and which ones to leave out of that book she is planning. 

When her journey took her to my hometown of Pittsburgh, I had the chance to spend some time with Mary. She is as authentic as it gets, and her mission is as real as it gets. Few public relations programs sketched out in an agency conference room could come close to the difference Mary has already made on a shoestring budget. 

The PR lessons for me were simple and lasting. If it’s personal, it’s powerful. If it’s from the heart, it will move people. If there is a commitment to go the distance, budget won’t matter. If it’s real, perceptions will follow, and so will awareness. And if you can truly connect with one person, you can touch thousands. 

Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy, and he is producer/host of the ShapingOpinion podcast. He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.

Photo via Mary Latham

About the author

Tim O’Brien formed O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice, i…

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