Wednesday, September 30, 2009

PR battle in Greenwich Village

There's a great story on the The New York Times' City Room blog today about a PR battle being waged between The Jane Hotel, on Greenwich Village's Jane Street, and its residential neighbours.

Residents of the street are irritated by the loud music and the rowdy behaviour of the hotel's night club patrons well into the night, and they're using PR to instigate change. According to the Times story, their coalition, "Jane Street Neighbours United", has established a blog called "Nightmare on Jane Street," has aTwitter feed documenting the troubles, and has hired veteran PR consultant Ken Frydman of Source Communications to develop a media strategy to help them. According to the Times blog:

"Mr. Frydman has looked after big, blue-chip clients like Pfizer and BMW, worked for The Daily News and served as Rudy Giuliani’s press secretary during his 1993 mayoral campaign, according to his profile on the Source Communications Web site.

He was retained a month ago and thinks a good media campaign is essential for opposing a bar. It attracts the attention of the local community board and government,” Mr. Frydman said by phone.

While he refused to discuss strategy in the coming weeks, he did say he “had a hand” in some of the negative coverage of the Jane in recent days.

“It seems to me that the neighbors know what they are doing and I could take some pointers from them,” Marilyn Dorato, director of the Greenwich Village Block Associations, wrote in an e-mail message.

Mrs. Dorato advised residents who succeeded in getting another nearby hot spot, the Beatrice Inn, closed down this year and lobbied against the Waverly Inn until her neighbor, the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, bought it and quieted it down. She said she is not directly involved in the battle but is following events on Jane Street with interest. When asked whether it made sense to hire a P.R. company, she responded: “Why do you ask that question? Is there a down side to hiring P.R.?”"


We'll be talking about the influence of PR on public opinion -- and the influence of public opinion on government and business -- later this semester in my first-year PR classes. This will make a great real-time case study.

Monday, September 28, 2009

On recovery, rehabilitation and redemption

My last post on public image rehabilitation following moral lapses has had me thinking about Michael Richards’ quest to restore his name after a racist outburst at a comedy club in 2006.

Michael Richards played Kramer on Seinfeld for its entire run from 1990 to 1998, and was a key element of the ensemble show’s enormous appeal. The show, which its producers and stars insisted was “about nothing,” was nevertheless able to ridicule appalling social realities ranging from racism to homophobia, using a light but intelligent, comfortable, comedic environment.

That enlightened wit is part of what set Seinfeld apart from its peers, and what made Michael Richards’ racist tirade against a couple of comedy club hecklers particularly upsetting to some of his fans.

The cellphone video of Richards’ outburst was played ad nauseam in the days and weeks after it happened. I’m not posting it here; you can find it on YouTube if you’d like. What interests me from a PR perspective, though, is whether Richards has, in the three years since the incident, been able to live it down. Will his fans put it behind them when he joins the cast of Seinfeld for a reunion on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm this season?

Richards would appear to have done all the right things:

1) He quickly and (apparently, anyway) sincerely apologized for the outburst.

2) He did a number of appearances and interviews related to opening a dialogue about racism, notably Jesse Jackson’s syndicated radio program, Keep Hope Alive.

3) He disappeared for a while, presumably in the hopes of giving American audiences a chance to remember his decade of brilliant work more prominently than one evening’s outburst. (He may have had some help with this one – I’m not sure the offers continued to pour in in the immediate aftermath.)

But will it be enough?

When politicians are able to come back from sex scandals, I think it’s because their audiences accept their apologies, and consciously decide to accept that their politicians are capable of poor personal judgment. I think they also consciously decide that poor personal judgment has a limited impact on professional decisions – or, “he/she’s not perfect, but I can accept these flaws because they’re not related to what I need him/her to do for me.”

When celebrities spew hate speech, it can be more difficult to separate the personal behaviour from the job they do; their job is to entertain us, and it can be harder to be entertained by someone you think is a jerk.

With the Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm this season, it'll be interesting to see whether audiences are able to get past Michael Richards' one terrible night – or at least, believe that’s all it was. As Extra reported, Larry David, creator of both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, indicated that even three years later, Richards wanted to address the issue on the show:

"He wanted to," David explained when asked if Richards felt comfortable addressing the drama onscreen. "He made a terrible mistake." David added that Richards deserves a second chance after being shunned in Tinseltown the past three years."

Is racism a tarnish that can be polished away over time? We'll see.

Friday, September 25, 2009

John Edwards: the redemption clock may have to be re-set... again

Politico has an interesting story today about politicians’ return to public life following scandals. The article reiterates conventional wisdom about the best way to communicate a politician's bad behaviour: get the story out – all of it – honestly and quickly; and then have them disappear for a while. It's an approach that relies both on Americans' willingness to forgive, and on their confidence that the wrongdoer has come clean, having recognized his/her actions were wrong. As Politico points out, it’s a strategy employed by politicians of all stripes:

"On Tuesday, former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned less than three years ago following a scandal involving a congressional page, debuted as a radio talk show host on Florida’s WSVU-AM. Congressional Quarterly reported: “Mark Foley Leaves Door Open for a Run.”

Former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) — just a few weeks out of jail after serving seven years in federal prison for racketeering, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion — told Fox News host Greta Van Susteren that there’s a “50-50 chance” that he may run again for Congress.

Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who still faces federal corruption charges despite his pleas of innocence, told The New Yorker that he’s “not ruling myself out or writing myself off as getting back in the business of serving the public.”

All of which comes in the wake of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s return to the public eye. Spitzer, who stepped down in March 2008 following a sex scandal, is a regular commentator on MSNBC and writes for Slate. In political circles, hardly a day goes by without someone pondering Spitzer’s aspirations."

Edwards’ refusal to admit to the allegations against him drew out the negative media coverage and public attention to his failings (see my earlier blog on that topic here). And to dredge it all up yet again, as The New York Times pointed out earlier this week, a grand jury investigation is currently underway (with a decision expected relatively shortly) as to whether there was any criminal wrongdoing in Edwards’ efforts to cover up the affair.

So while these other fellows may be able to begin planning to their respective returns to public life, Edwards has a ways to go.

You can't put it behind you until it's actually over.

One of the key requirements for moving on after a scandal is that the scandal has to be over. PR professionals advise their clients to get all the embarrassing details out right away, in part, because doing so ultimately deprives the media of fresh “news” on the topic. A lack of new angles can shorten the “legs” (or ongoing newsworthiness) of a story.

Edwards made his ultimate downfall far messier than it had to be, by lying to the media and allegedly spending a great deal of time, energy and money covering up his affair. The story dragged on and on as the media dogged him and his lover, documenting mounting evidence that his denials were false. Only when he finally came out and admitted to the affair did Edwards put an end to most of the speculation – and the daily media coverage.

You might think that having admitted to the mess didn’t help Edwards' PR much – but at least we stopped talking about it for a while.

And even then...

The grand jury investigation is news, so we likely would have been talking about the story again about now, anyway. However, if the Times’ report that Edwards may publicly acknowledge that he fathered his lover’s baby is true – constituting a full reversal of all his previous statements on the matter – he’ll be back at square one in the court of public opinion.

If that's the case, he'll have to re-set the clock on redemption yet again – and you have to wonder whether he'll ever be able to salvage his credibility. Yes, he may get whatever bad news remains out with the inevitable grand jury coverage, but his publics will nevertheless be faced with the reality of yet another lie.

How many times can you go back to the American people asking forgiveness for dishonesty, and still be believed? Edwards may be just the man to find out.

Friday, September 18, 2009

VisitDenmark: when your ads cause bad PR

Advertising folks have it tough, having, as they often do, to find the line between "edgy and new" and "offensive." This is especially true when their clients' audiences are wide-ranging, and collectively have a broad definition of what's acceptable.

I can remember many a time in my corporate career when I engaged in spirited debate with my ad department colleagues over proposed campaigns I knew were going to offend people in our target markets. They usually fell into the "humour" category; that is, they would have been very funny to some people in our market, and offensive to others. The fact that more people would likely be entertained than offended by them was irrelevant, from a PR perspective: the proposed ads were disrespectful of certain groups, so I knew the inevitable complaints would have news value.

In Denmark last week, the national tourism authority got a little taste of what happens when "edgy" ads cause bad PR.

The Danish tourism department, VisitDenmark, had to pull a video it had posted to YouTube less than a week earlier, following outrage among Danish citizens about the image of Denmark the video portrayed. In the video, an attractive young woman speaks to an anonymous man with whom she had a fling a year and a half ago, remembering fondly the Danish attractions they enjoyed, and letting him know their evening together had produced a beautiful son.

The video became a quick sensation on YouTube, reportedly attracting 800,000 hits in the few days it was posted (likely because it wasn't clear the whole thing was staged). Once it became known that VisitDenmark was behind the video, however, the news quickly turned to Danes' insulted reaction.

As The Huffington Post reports, VisitDenmark manager Dorte Kiilerich explained the ad was meant to tell "a nice and sweet story about a grown-up woman who lives in a free society and accepts the consequences of her actions." A sociologist quoted in the same article had a different take on it, echoing the perception that embarrassed and outraged some Danes: "you can lure fast, blonde Danish women home without a condom."

VisitDenmark is affiliated with the Danish government; and in this case, it appears its communicators forgot about one of their client's key audiences: the Danish people. This is a key issue that presents a struggle for many organizations: reconciling the needs, tastes and expectations of different audiences. The ad team may have been focusing on the target audience for the spot -- that is, non-Danes with the potential to travel there -- and forgotten its client's most important audience (the taxpayers of Denmark).

While Denmark is known to be a liberal country, it appears the ad team misjudged the public's tolerance level for casual sex; accepting a certain behaviour in your society is one thing, and being characterized and identified by that behaviour is quite another. It might even be true that opposition to the campaign came from a relatively small segment of the population -- but it doesn't matter, because the news value of a government-supported international message suggesting Danes are promiscuous is clear.

In advertising and PR alike, it's important to really know your audiences. The better you're able to predict their reactions to issues and situations, the more likely you'll be to create messages they find compelling -- and to avoid ticking them off.

It's Follow Friday!

Get Twitter Buttons

There's a tradition in the Twitter community (doesn't it sound odd to say "tradition" about something so relatively young?) in which, every Friday, users share their recommendations for interesting people/organizations to "follow;" it's called "Follow Friday". I've found some great resources through Follow Friday recommendations, so thought I'd provide my PR-related recommendations here, in case you aren't using Twitter but might if you could see its potential first-hand.

So... here's my PR-specific top five Follow Friday list (in alphabetical order):

@ereleases - Twitter feed from Mickey Kennedy, Baltimore-based writer of the PR Fuel blog; he provides great links to PR-related stories and resources as well as original articles of interest.

@KarenRussell - Karen Russell is a PR professor at the University of Georgia, and Editor of Journal of Public Relations Research. She regularly provides links to items of interest in both mainstream and social media; on her blog, she provides a weekly list of the most interesting PR-related items she's seen on the Web.

@mashable - Mashable is often cited as a leading authority on all things "social media;" the site's Twitter profile is managed by its CEO, Pete Cashmore. It provides timely updates on social media issues and news.

@PRSarahEvans - Sarah Evans is a Chicago-based PR consultant; she provides great PR-related links and generates excellent discussion between PR-types and journalist-types through Twitter.

@publicityguru - written by Bill Stoller, PR veteran and editor/founder of the "Free Publicity Newsletter." He provides interesting links to PR (often, publicity) in the news.

And then, of course, there's always me.

See you in the Twitterverse!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

There is no such thing as “off the record”

President Obama has provided us with another “teachable moment.”

Just before an interview with CNBC yesterday, the President was chatting informally with the various broadcasters, technicians, PR people and other assorted handlers on set, and was asked his thoughts on Kanye West’s stunt during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards.

Said the President, “I thought that was really inappropriate… The young lady seems like a perfectly nice person, she’s getting her award… what’s HE doing up there? He’s a jackass.”

Immediately following the jackass comment, Obama jokes “where’s the pool?” referring to the pool microphones (assumedly the very microphones which recorded the clip now playing on TMZ), and then asks the assembled group to “cut the President some slack” – in other words, “this is off the record, don’t share it.”

The whole exchange is very casual, and while I'm sure he'd have preferred the recording not get out, I highly doubt the President will suffer much PR damage as a result of its release. (Frankly, I suspect a large majority of American voters agrees with him.) While not all that "presidential" sounding, the statement didn't betray any national secrets.

Some seasoned PR people have relationships developed with certain journalists over time, which give them the confidence they can provide information off-the-record and have it kept that way; they have to accept, though, that they are taking a risk every time they do it. While this example involves an off-hand remark as opposed to strategically leaked information, the lesson is the same: the only way you can guarantee you won’t be quoted saying something is not to say it.

Sometimes, though, PR professionals feel their clients would be well-served if certain information was made public, even though it might not be politically or otherwise expedient for them to release it under their own (or their client's) name. In those cases, and if they feel they have a strong enough relationship with a journalist that they can be fairly certain their anonymity will be protected, they'll elect to provide information off-the-record.

Off-the-record agreements, when they must happen, should be negotiated in advance; the PR professional should ask for the journalist’s assurance of confidentiality before providing the sensitive information. It isn’t fair to a journalist to provide tantalizing information without their having agreed to keep it anonymous, and then expect them to do so. Their job is to report on what they find; you can't give them something and then half take it back. (Also, in that case, they have no obligation whatsoever to keep it confidential; so if you want to risk going off-the-record, make sure to get the journalist's agreement first.)

Obama's comment wasn't included in the CNBC interview, but it was published on Twitter by ABC’s Terry Moran, according to a story on last night. While Moran’s tweet was taken down soon after having been posted, the fact that Moran has more than a million followers on Twitter allowed it to reach many eyes before it was taken down.

POLITICO’s story provides an explanation and apology from ABC as follows:

In the process of reporting on remarks by President Obama that were made during a CNBC interview, ABC News employees prematurely tweeted a portion of those remarks that turned out to be from an off-the-record portion of the interview. This was done before our editorial process had been completed. That was wrong. We apologize to the White House and CNBC and are taking steps to ensure that it will not happen again.

So. If you don’t want to be quoted saying something, don’t say it.

On the topic of good PR, toward the end of the recording you can hear someone in the background joking about having a fly queued up for release at a certain point in the interview (a reference to an earlier unscripted Obama moment that earned lots of mostly positive attention, which I blogged about here) – and asking whether he has his chopsticks ready.

Wax on, wax off.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Johnny Mac school of image rehabilitation?

We talked in class this morning about disgraced NFL star Michael Vick’s speaking engagement at a Philadelphia high school, at which he warned students against falling victim to peer pressure. When you’ve been jailed for illegal dogfighting, the path to redemption is uphill – but it has to begin somewhere, and it would appear that Vick is working on it.

As Vick’s imprisonment illustrates, pro athletes don’t necessarily get free passes for bad behaviour. They have to pay the legal price, and they have to do penance with their fans, too. The length of the penance depends on the sport’s audience and the athlete’s reputation before the incident; a “bad boy” playing in a rough sport like football might get more slack than, say, a top performer in the gentlemanly sport of tennis.

A tale of two Johnnies

Tennis’ best-known “bad boy,” John McEnroe, knows what it’s like to be vilified and admired at the same time. A fixture of the pro tennis circuit of the 1970s and 1980s, McEnroe thrilled fans with his brilliant play and his unpredictable antics, and embarrassed line judges, chair umpires, and tournament directors along the way. He served as a polarizing figure in tennis – and whether fans found his tirades entertaining or shameful, he generated a lot of interest in what had previously been considered a rather staid sport.

There are many McEnroe tantrum videos available on YouTube; I’m posting this one for old times’ sake, because it contains that iconic line which, incidentally, he used as the title of his 2002 autobiography.

Over the years, McEnroe says, parenthood has mellowed him; and he has re-habilitated his image to a great degree. He has been actively involved with charity work for a number of organizations, and – perhaps most importantly from a public perception point of view – he has made it clear that he recognizes his on-court tirades were inappropriate. He has made ads (like the one below), endorsements (for example, the "Visine Mac Cam" which was used at pro tournaments to second-guess line calls), and at least one feature film appearance (in Adam Sandler's Mr. Deeds) playing on his “bad boy” behaviour, all of which serve to gently ridicule it. The resulting perception: John McEnroe can laugh at himself; he must be a good guy.

Yesterday’s villain, today’s hero?

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, the fourth-highest ranked tennis player in the world today, is known for his uncanny imitations of his fellow pro tour players. The players have been polite about Djokovic’s imitations, which delight audiences – it's all in good fun, right? But when Djokovic had some trouble taking some ribbing from Andy Roddick about his multiple calls for trainers during last year’s U.S. Open in New York, his “fun guy” image took a bit of a beating.

Djokovic became the guy who can dish it out but can't take it, and has worn the mantle of “bad sport” ever since.

Fast forward to this week, and the early rounds of the 2009 U.S. Open. During his on-court interview after a win, Djokovic kissed up to the crowd, and then challenged John McEnroe, now a well-respected commentator for ESPN, to come down to Centre Court and hit with him. The crowd went wild, and as McEnroe made his way down from the broadcast booth, interviewer Darren Cahill asked Djokovic to do his best McEnroe imitation – which he did, to the crowd’s delight.

Earlier in the evening, the announcers had discussed the need for Djokovic to shake off that "poor sport" rap. Given that chatter, the unusual length of the post-match on-court interview, the ready involvement of McEnroe (who has a special empathy for young guys whose mouths get them in trouble), and the unexpected opportunity for the crowd to see Djokovic laugh at McEnroe’s imitation of him, I had to wonder whether the whole thing had been set up in advance... and whether McEnroe was behind it.

If not, that was some truly great unplanned PR.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My blogroll is on steroids.

This week my blogroll will swell to five times its original size, with the addition of almost 100 new blogs featuring the writings of this year's Creative Communications students.

The faculty of the Creative Communications program at Red River College met last spring, after the students had gone off for the summer, to incorporate more new media into our curriculum. One of the fruits of that planning session was the blog assignment, in which every first-year student must create a professional blog and maintain it throughout their time here in the program. [For more on what the assignment entails, please see my colleague Kenton Larsen's blog.] I've also added the assignment to the PR major program, and believe the Advertising majors will be blogging this year, as well.

Our objective is, at its most fundamental, three-fold: first, to give students a first-hand understanding of how new media work; secondly, to teach them how to write for and attract an online audience; and thirdly, to help them create a positive online "brand" and body of work for consideration by prospective employers.

"CreCommers" are renowned for their energy and creativity; I've no doubt there'll be some great reading on our student blogs. Check them out!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Winnipeg firefighters’ new public service: lessons in crisis management

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the Winnipeg firefighters’ union president’s response to the salacious tale about a firefighter who had been caught “kissing” a young woman in a shed behind the Osborne Street fire hall. At the time, Alex Forrest's response seemed appropriate, given that one of his union members had clearly crossed the line and the union and management both appeared to be acknowledging it and taking action to address it.

It now appears that may not have been entirely true.

In Friday’s Winnipeg Free Press, the young woman involved in the shed incident came forward with her side of the story: she claimed to have been taken advantage of, she contradicted the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) firefighters’ union's public statements that nothing more than kissing had taken place during the encounter, and she recounted having been ignored when she came forward to complain to fire officials shortly after the incident.

Now, I’m in no position to decide who’s telling the truth in this case – I wasn’t there, and I don’t know any of the people involved. But the Free Press story contains some direct quotes from fire department officials which provide some insight.

Ken Sim, the deputy chief of operations for the WFPS, said Thursday the woman's claims are alarming and contrary to what the firefighter at the centre of the controversy claims happened.

"It certainly would shed some different light on this if in fact she was taken advantage of. If that's the case, I would certainly encourage her to get in touch with the Winnipeg Police Service," said Sim. "We dealt with the information the firefighter provided us at face value."

If, indeed, the woman's complaint had been swept under the rug and kept from WFPS brass, they would have had to base their decisions on how to discipline the offender, and to respond to media, on the information they had. The same goes for Forrest: in terms of the response to the initial “what happened” questions, if you believe he didn’t know the woman had ever come forward and had no way to find her, he had to base his response on what the involved firefighter told him. We can’t hold people responsible for things they couldn’t have known.

However. Making definitive-sounding statements about what happened in a controversial incident when you know you've only got one side of the story is asking for trouble.

Friday's Free Press story gave Alex Forrest the opportunity to revisit his earlier statements given the new allegations, which he called "troubling."

Forrest questioned her motives for only coming forward now, through the media, and whether her claims were accurate.

Logically, if the woman’s claim is true, then she isn’t only coming forward now – she came forward earlier, and was ignored. And how could using the media be somehow suspect, if she had tried to complain directly (and privately) to the WFPS and been sent away?

Again, we can't know who's telling the truth. But from a PR perspective, it doesn’t matter: the fire department now looks like it has engaged in a cover up. We have a brand new round of media stories; and what was initially one employee with bad judgment has grown into a potential conspiracy.

If we turned back the clock and looked at the media coverage from when the story first broke, do you think the stories would have been much worse for the WFPS had they reported sexual relations in the shed? I don’t, really. I heard a number of Winnipeggers react to Forrest’s suggestion that, at only 5-8 minutes, there wasn’t time for more than kissing, with “yeah, right!” It was inappropriate behaviour no matter how you slice it – kissing, sexual relations, whatever. It wasn’t what heroes do on the job – that’s why it was a story.

Now, however, because the allegedly silenced victim is here to share her side of the story, the WFPS and its hundreds of hard-working men and women get treated to another round of humiliating coverage.

It’s tough to say whether any of the spokespeople could have done anything differently when the charges first came out, other than to acknowledge they were going solely on the firefighter's word.

But this story does illustrate once again why good crisis communications follow three key rules:

- Tell the truth,
- Tell it first, and
- Tell it all.

Had the WFPS and/or the firefighters’ union had the whole story, and told it right off the hop, there wouldn't have been anything new for the media this week. They, and their employees, might have been able to continue the job of moving on from this embarrassing incident, rather than re-living it yet again.

At this point, the WFPS has a lot of work to do before it's done with this file. It needs to somehow get to the bottom of what really happened – both in the shed, and potentially in its offices when (and if) the young woman initially came forward. Now beyond a single "bad" employee issue, the WFPS has to address the appearance of a corporate culture of deception, in which firefighters are willing to cover up their buddies' bad behaviour at the expense of the public they're supposed to serve.

I sure hope that fellow enjoyed his 5-8 minutes.

Winnipeg's high-profile romantic getaway.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How not to not answer a question

Over the last day or so, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have taken some heat over their response to reports they’re in talks with controversial NFL player Adam “Pacman” Jones. [Update Wednesday evening: the Bombers have reportedly decided against bringing Jones on board.]

The fact is, sometimes you can't confirm something for the media (even if it's true). It could be because the information is protected by privacy legislation, or because it's competitively sensitive, or because it's material to a company's stock price, or because there's a contractual agreement not to talk... there are a number of reasons. And the media generally understand that, if it's put to them that way in good faith: "I can't talk about that because..." It doesn't mean they'll stop asking (after all, that's their job), but they'll generally get it.

In this case, though, we have one official essentially saying "we can't talk about it, even hypothetically, because of CFL policy," followed by another who immediately engages the reporters’ questions and then tries to cover himself by saying he wasn’t talking about any player in particular.

In media interviews, there aren’t any “loopholes.” Perception is reality, and trying to be too clever can backfire on you.

There are times when you can talk about an issue in general terms, to give reporters enough information to write a balanced story without breaking any non-disclosure agreements. For example, if a company was accused of mishandling a customer's account and that particular case couldn't be publicly discussed, a spokesperson could help media paint a balanced picture by discussing, in general terms, what the company's policies are with respect to customer accounts. The discussion couldn't touch on the current allegations against the company, but it could help provide some background information. "While we can't discuss this case, this is how we generally handle things" can be far more constructive, from a PR perspective, than "no comment;" and it helps with your relationships with the media, too.

That isn't always possible, though, when your situation doesn't lend itself to discussion in generalities. In the Pacman Jones story, the reporters want to know whether or not the Bombers are negotiating with him. Period.

If there’s a legitimate reason you can’t comment, you can’t comment – fair enough. Don’t, and explain why. But you can't tease media with the whiff of a response, and then refuse legitimate follow-up questions on the basis that you’re not commenting – and maintain your credibility in the briefing room.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Spreading good habits

For a great example of how Web 2.0 can give a government department’s communications an enormous boost, check out the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) PR strategy around containing the flu.

The objective is huge: to give Americans as much information as possible to help them avoid contracting and spreading the flu… without causing widespread panic.

Complementing the DHHS’s traditional communications campaign, the initiative includes a highly informative and well-organized website,, which provides a tremendous amount of information about the flu, how to avoid it, and how to treat it. It also offers topical webcasts, frequently asked question (FAQ) documents on a variety of flu-related subjects, and e-cards, allowing people to send personalized messages to family and friends with advice on how to avoid contracting and spreading the flu.

They’ve even taken user-generated content a step further, with an online public service announcement (PSA) contest around preventing the spread of the flu. It’s a proven strategy we’re seeing increasingly often: get your audience to do your communicating for you. And it works.

It’s also worth noting how well DHHS is segmenting its audiences – online, and in its communications as a whole. The government wants to reach every person, in every demographic, in the country; if a certain group is left out, that group could be the centre of the next plague. PR people the world over struggle with the challenge of making scientific information understandable to the average person; but in this case, the cost of failure could be staggering.

DHHS needs to get everyone’s attention without being too scary, and then provide enough information to effectively change (or reinforce helpful) behaviours.

Communicating with the adult, literate, English-speaking population: a big job, but not so tough.

With foreign-language speakers: tougher.

With people who don’t consume mass media and don’t use the Internet: tougher again.

With children: potentially toughest. How on Earth does a government bureaucracy impress on children the importance of handwashing and coughing into the bend of the elbow? You can provide information packages to parents and to teachers; you can make posters and PSAs.

Or, you can do all that and more… and cue Elmo (on YouTube, of course).