Thomas’ media efforts help Smart family find teen
Written by Sherri Deatherage
Published on May 24 2004
Intrepid Group partner Chris Thomas’ media relations efforts for Elizabeth Smart’s family after the 2002 abduction of the Utah teen were key to her eventual safe return.
Sports and crises run as common threads through Chris Thomas’ career, but he admits to losing his game face during his biggest crisis.
Thomas, 31, handled media relations for the family of abducted teen Elizabeth Smart. “Chris Thomas was a true asset to the Smarts,” said America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh. “He helped keep Elizabeth’s story alive.”
Thomas began his communications career at Westminster College in his hometown of Salt Lake City. As a freshman, Thomas told the college’s PR director that the soccer program needed more publicity. “I made Chris the sports-information officer, and he was fabulous,” said Dana Tumpowsky, now PR manager for Salt Lake City's public-library system.
He went on to become a sportswriter and editor for the Park Record in Park City, Utah, and to help in the Atlanta Olympic Committee’s press center. He also worked on projects related to Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Olympics while at Publicis Dialog and tech firm marchFirst.
After marchFirst succumbed to the dot-com bust, Thomas joined the Intrepid Group as a partner. The firm’s local connections run deep. Elizabeth Smart’s cousin, Sierra, had just started an internship at Intrepid when the teen was abducted in June 2002.
Sierra’s father, Tom Smart, a photographer and stringer for several national publications, used his contacts to spread the word about Elizabeth, but the situation quickly became more than he could handle. The Intrepid Group volunteered its services.
“We honestly thought they’d find her in a week,” Thomas note. He and partner Mike Grass eventually realized the firm couldn’t continue putting other clients on hold. Grass and Intrepid’s other four employees turned their attention back to business while Thomas continued assisting the Smarts.
“The family, within the first few weeks, received lots of donations. Much to their credit, they saw PR as an important venue for finding their daughter,” said Thomas, who worked at a greatly reduced rate.
“[Chris’] work brought Elizabeth home because ... he planned backward,” Grass recalls.
Thomas first established ground rules for reporters and the Smart family. He put the Smart home and children off-limits and made it clear that he was the point person.
“Any attempts to go directly to the family would hurt their chances of getting an interview,” Thomas says.
As the months wore on, mini-crises arose within the larger drama.
One night, Thomas learned The Salt Lake Tribune would run an article the next morning citing unnamed law-enforcement sources suggesting the abduction might have been an inside job.
He drafted a response stating that interviewing family members is common procedure in such cases and that the Smarts cooperated fully. Thomas passed copies of the statement around the “tent city” erected by reporters. “We were able to respond to an article before the hard copy was available to the public,” Thomas said.
His team also solicited supportive statements from three influential neighbors – a former senator, congressman and Salt Lake City mayor.
Elizabeth’s little sister witnessed the kidnapping. In October 2002, a picture triggered her memories of Brian David Mitchell, a drifter who had worked on the Smart home. The police, whose chief suspect died in prison, didn’t give her revelation much credence.
Elizabeth’s parents sought Walsh’s guidance on whether to publicize information about Mitchell. While Walsh and Thomas share a deep mutual respect, Walsh’s media status concerned Thomas. The family decided to make an announcement after the holidays, but Walsh leaked the story on Larry King Live on December 23, 2002.
“I did interviews most of Christmas Eve day,” said Thomas, who had feared that skeleton-crew newsrooms might not run the story. Thomas told reporters that the family would make an announcement in the new ear. He added that Elizabeth’s return would be her family’s best Christmas present.
He spent Christmas Day hoping the phone would ring. He received a call just before bedtime, but it wasn’t about Elizabeth. Thomas says he cried. “That Christmas was incredibly difficult but meaningful because my thoughts were completely on somebody else,” he said.
Producers at 48 Hours went around Thomas and worked directly with family members, then pressured them not to talk about Mitchell until their segment aired in February 2003 sweeps. Just over a month later, America's Most Wanted viewers spotted Mitchell, his wife, and Elizabeth in a nearby community.
Earlier, Thomas worked with neighbors and extended family to develop a media-relations plan considering all possible scenarios for Elizabeth’s recovery. Her parents felt the plan was unnecessary, but Thomas gladly dusted it off.
“She was found alive,” Walsh stated, giving Thomas much of the credit for keeping the public and the family focused on finding Elizabeth.
Thomas helped the Smarts for a few more weeks, but bowed out when talk turned to book and movie deals. He doesn’t fault the family for participating in them, however. “They had a chance to control as much of the story as they could by cooperating,” he said.
Since then, Thomas has been sought out by clients needing advice on dealing with families in crisis. He worked for Shell Oil after a Utah-based employee and his wife were murdered in Brazil, and he taught a National Guard PAO class on dealing with families affected by war casualties.
Thomas says traveling and meeting new people are among the things he likes about PR. He especially enjoys press tours to Hawaii for the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. “It’s a tough sell for my wife,” Thomas joked.
He still speaks frequently about
the Smart case and encourages PR people to use their skills for good. “We have
an opportunity, almost an obligation, to help those less fortunate,” he says.
“The Smarts had incredible resources, but not every family has that.”
June 2002-March 2003
Leads PR efforts for the family of kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart
Joins Intrepid Group as a partner
PR director for marchFirst
Graduates from Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Works as a sportswriter and editor for the Park Record in Park City, UT, and in the Atlanta Olympic Committee's press center before joining Publicis Dialog's Salt Lake City office
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