“Sole” Mates: Turning a Potential PR Crisis into an Opportunity

Adrienne King (@dr_adking) is vice president of marketing and outreach at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky.

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Murray State University is home to one of the most romantic college traditions in the country: the shoe tree. In fact, the shoe tree was ranked number three on a list of the top 25 most romantic college traditions.

This celebrated tree, which has at least 50 pairs of mismatched shoes nailed to it, has weathered many changes throughout the years, but a plan to dismantle the tree in the fall of 2015 was perhaps the most devastating. The tree had become a safety concern and, as its limbs began to fall, university officials made the decision to take down the tree to prevent possible injuries.

The History

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 11.35.16 AMThere is limited documentation of this celebrated campus tradition’s history. Based on what we’ve been able to find, the tradition started around 1965. There are several rumors about how it started—including as a student art project, the result of a student moving out of a residence hall and not wanting to take shoes home, and (the campus favorite) as a way to illustrate the devotion of love between two people who met on campus.

It’s been said that if two students meet at Murray State University, fall in love and marry, they will have a lifetime of good luck if each partner nails a shoe to the shoe tree. Lovers often write their anniversaries on their shoes as well. It is also common for a couple to return to nail a baby shoe to the tree after starting a family.

The Opportunity

Working together, our alumni affairs and marketing and communication offices began researching the tree and gathering the stories behind these shoes in an effort to document this cherished tradition. A new tree was selected to continue this beloved campus tradition.

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University officials began notifying constituents in fall 2015 before Thanksgiving about the need to take down the previous tree and plans for the tradition to continue. Individuals wishing to move their shoes themselves were encouraged to do so before Dec. 18. Over the holiday break, our facilities team carefully removed the shoes from the previous tree and transferred as many as possible to the new tree.

The stories gathered became a unique promotional campaign, Sole Mates, which Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 12.56.00 PMwas used throughout the month of February in honor of Valentine’s Day. These stories were shared on our social media pages, as well as on a special website created in honor of this campus tradition.

The promotion generated so many stories that we created an official Facebook page for the shoe tree where others can share their love stories. We’re also working on a memory book for the campus archives that showcases each of these personal stories of Racer love. These stories will also be maintained in the Sid Easley Alumni Center for future generations.

The Solution

12439148_10153826448716000_3408586862608345711_nA safety situation that could have resulted in the end of a beloved campus tradition turned into an incredible public relations opportunity—during the month of February and beyond as a piece of documented history for the university’s archives. By communicating openly and in a timely fashion with campus constituents, particularly alumni, we were able to celebrate the “roots” of this tradition for generations to come.

Media Coverage:

It should be noted that the new tree selected was also dying. Facilities staff worked to trim the tree and seal any injuries before moving the shoes in an effort to extend the life of the tree. Serving as the newest caretaker of this campus tradition is actually extending this tree’s life.

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