Some Classic Holiday Greetings from TV and the Movies

The following was first posted on PR, Pure & Simple, December 12, 2011:

shutterstock_160197791In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d post some holiday greetings YouTube-style.  Here are some songs, commercials and features that may strike a holiday chord with you.  Happy Holidays!

Charlie Brown Christmas Song

Griswold Finds the Perfect Tree

Miller’s Classic Christmas Card Commercial

Budweiser’s Entry into Commercial Christmas Cards

Bing Crosby’s White Christmas

The Grinch’s Heart Grows

Muppet’s Christmas Carol (Thankful Heart Song)

 

The Question: What’s behind Make-A-Wish®’s communications magic at Christmastime?

The holiday season is also known as the “season of giving” for mostly altruistic and a few tax-related reasons. This is when people and organizations tend to feel more generous than other times of the year, so they give to a broad range of charities, nonprofits and causes.

One organization that is at the top of many peoples’ lists during this season is Make-A-Wish®. Perhaps this is because Make-A-Wish is seen as one organization that gives more than it can possibly receive.  What it does is give hope to children facing life-threatening medical conditions.

How it fulfills its mission is the key ingredient. It grants “wishes” to young patients who otherwise could only dream about them.  As the organization says in its own mission statement: “A wish experience can be a game-changer for a child with a life-threatening medical condition.”

BluePositive_GreaterPAandWV_newTo be sure, Make-A-Wish may not be in the business of finding medical cures, but what it does is work to change the lives of the kids it serves.

The founding principle of the organization’s vision is to “grant the wish of every eligible child.”

Perhaps you’ve seen some news story about a child with leukemia having the chance to go to Disney World with her family. That’s a very popular wish. But wishes range in creativity with the imaginations of each kid and the can-do will of the Make-A-Wish team and their supporters who are legion.

I could throw some stats at you, but look at it this way. Make-A-Wish counts tens of thousands of “volunteers, donors and supporters.”  In the United States alone, the organization says a wish is granted every 37 minutes.  That’s a lot of hope.  And it means a lot of positive energy for kids who really need it.

Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia has been around for 31 years.  In its first year, it granted 13 wishes.

On May 5, 1983, the organization granted its first wish to a boy named Bryan who had cancer. All he wanted to do was enjoy another piggyback ride with his uncle who had moved to Texas.  Make-A-Wish made all that and more possible for the young boy on his 7th birthday.  Since then, the organization has completed over 16,000 wishes, each one as unique as the child and the family at the center of the effort.

Make-A-Wish’s Communications Philosophy

“Our primary communications philosophy is to keep the mission in focus in everything we do,” said Ann Hohn, Chief Operating Officer at Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “Obviously, that’s easy to do with a touching wish story. But even if we are promoting a special event, a giving campaign or a donor’s check presentation, we try to keep the communication very wish-centric. Even our thank you letters feature a wish story.”

And while the organization works to demonstrate the impact of a gift in quantitative and qualitative terms to donors, Hohn said that, “Nothing is quite so powerful as a quote from a child on their wish when they say ‘this was the best day of my life.’”

The Make-A-Wish Brand

Hohn said the Make-A-Wish brand is “very singular and grass-roots – in our mission and in our fundraising – and we feel this separates us from a number of other charities.”

She has worked for the organization for the past 25 years, and said that during that time the brand has been built through localized media relations, connecting with the community one wish at a time.

Nationally, the Make-A-Wish brand gets heightened visibility, especially during the holidays thanks to partnerships with brands like Macy’s and Subaru through its “Share the Love”  campaign. In the schools, teachers participate in the organization’s “Kids for Wish Kids” programs to create awareness at that grassroots level.

Hohn could not emphasize enough, however, that the brand is as strong as the ripple-effect of awareness that comes from granting over 16,000 wishes.

Then and Now

Some of Hohn’s most memorable stories are of the “then and now” type, she said.  These are stories of former wish kids and where they are now.

Kurt and the Fighting Irish Band

“I met a boy named Kurt in the early 90s when he wished to play with the Notre Dame Band at the Orange Bowl,” said Hohn. “He subsequently lost half his leg to bone cancer but survived to become a husband, father and orthopaedic oncologist at UPMC.  And he points to his wish as a catalyst of hope.”

Megan Meets First Dog Millie

Another notable memory is Megan, who is now 35 years old and has survived cystic fibrosis longer than many of the kids who were treated at the same time as her when she received her wish.

“It was to meet George H.W. Bush because she really wanted to meet his dog, Millie,” said Hohn. “Megan believes in Make-A-Wish so much she volunteers at our office and is here today helping with our holiday card project.”

Francesca Takes Fashion World by Storm

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Francesca sitting in front row at L.A. Style Fashion Week with Glamour Magazine’s entertainment writer Jessica Radloff. Photo credit: Make-A-Wish

More recently, Hohn thinks of Francesca, a “wish kid” diagnosed with a brain tumor at 17. She wanted to write a fashion blog “which she did two years ago at L.A. Fashion Week with Glamour magazine,” added Hohn.  “Francesca can clearly point to the plane ride home from Los Angeles, as she was trying to sort through everything that had happened with her wish, as the moment when she knew she was going to survive. Francesca is in her third semester here as an intern, a college student at CCAC and a terrific writer.”

Beetle Boy Saves Pittsburgh

Hohn’s favorite wish, however, was 14 years ago and involves a super hero. “Long before Bat Kid, there was Beetle Boy,  a wish granted to Michael in the late 90s,” she said.

Michael spent the day as ‘Beetle Boy,’ Pittsburgh’s very own villain-fighting superhero.

Today, Michael says that he still remembers the experience “pretty vividly.”

“I was watching cartoons like I usually did with my Dad,” Michael said.

Then on the television a “newscast” interrupted the cartoons.  Then Michael heard his own name mentioned by the newscaster, followed by a plea for help: “Pittsburgh needs you!”

beetleboy_spidermanandgreengoblin_slideshow

Green Goblin, Spider Man, and Pittsburgh’s Beetle Boy. Photo credit: Make-A-Wish

That led to Michael being transformed into “Beetle Boy,” complete with super hero attire and a mission to save his hometown and defeat the Green Goblin.

His day involved saving a damsel in distress who was tied to the train tracks at the Zoo. He rescued the Pitt Panther at the University of Pittsburgh stadium.  He even restored the water supply of the fountain at Point State Park.  And in the end, Beetle Boy captured the Green Goblin with a net.

Michael is 20 now. He is engaged and working.  And he has those vivid memories of the day he saved Pittsburgh from the Green Goblin.

A “Giving” ROI as High as the Sky

What’s the price of hope? Or maybe better put, what is the value of hope?  That’s the work of Make-A-Wish, and the simple reason it has such a strong brand that helps shape the holidays as we know them across the country, but particularly in Pittsburgh.

For more information on Make-A-Wish, call (800) 676-9474, or visit http://greaterpawv.wish.org/.

 

Five Things to Do When Tragedy Takes Over the News Cycle

Crime Scene TapeLast week when two terrorists attacked and killed 14 people and wounded scores of others in San Bernadino, the story took control of all major media.  Cable news networks went live non-stop.  Regular programming on the major networks was preempted by “Special Reports.”  The Internet lit up with information, news, speculation, commentary and even efforts by people directly affected to connect with family and friends.

Through it all, the world continued to turn, companies continued to operate, and communications programs continued to churn out content.  Much of this was automated.  Thanks to a range of technological platforms, we can create and schedule content to post on Web sites and social media platforms well in advance.

We can go into meetings, sit in on conference calls, or hop on jets without knowing what’s happening in the real world, at least for an hour or two, and rest assured that our communications programs will roll on.  Yet all too often, we have seen how the world can change in far less than that hour we may have been out of pocket.

With this in mind, we should know by now there is a need to have in place some protocols when big changes happen that are beyond our control.  I’m talking about those times when some man-made or even natural disaster takes over the news cycle.  These are events that in an instant can change the entire landscape for communication.  And it’s for these moments we need to be prepared to adjust.

Here are five things to do when tragedy takes over the news cycle:

  1. Check your social media program – Be prepared to freeze your social media posts. You may need to put a stop on all of your scheduled social media posts and rethink any that you may have been prepared to send manually. Take into consideration the larger events in the news, and determine whether this is a good time to post. Even if it does make sense to continue posting as normal, make sure that whatever you do post does not send a message of tone-deafness or insensitivity. On the flip side, be very careful if you wish to comment on events making news. The most well-meaning expressions of empathy can backfire if not handled the right way.
  2. Are you participating in any live events? If you are already participating in a live event that’s taking place when something serious happens in another part of the world and takes over the public consciousness, be prepared to readjust your tone. If you’re giving a speech or hosting a conference at that time, you may need to provide an announcement to those in attendance of what may be happening. In cases where significant loss of life has occurred, be prepared to incorporate a moment of silence into your program. Those are just two actions that may be appropriate to consider. The unique circumstances of each situation will likely govern an appropriate response.
  3. You may need to stop the presses. If you have a press release in the cue, there is a very good chance it will get lost in the newsroom chaos of the day. Reconsider the timing of your news release, and perhaps reschedule it for another time.
  4.  Respect your workplace community. When major events happen outside the workplace, that’s often when we are reminded that a workplace is a community and sometimes it needs to come together so that people can provide reassurance to each other and cope. This can be a very constructive and necessary process for group dynamics. To try to ignore what’s happening outside your walls and follow a “get back to work” mentality, could miss a real opportunity to connect with your people at a substantive level.
  5. Don’t wait for someone to tell you how to help. If the tragedy is a natural disaster and there is a chance there will be a need for volunteers, or for food or blood drives, be prepared to do what makes the most sense. Of course, it’s never a good idea to try to start implementing these activities while events are unfolding and people have not yet had a chance to grasp the gravity of the event. But be prepared to respond shortly after, when the need for help in the recovery efforts intensifies. This, too, helps foster a sense of community in your own organization.

Regardless of your organization and where it is located, with the omnipresence of smart phones, computers and live access to breaking news just about everywhere, we have never been closer to tragedy wherever it happens.  Once we understand this, we may be more prepared to respond in the most appropriate way for each situation.

Eat’n Park “Christmas Star” Creator Reflects on Iconic Commercial

Craig Otto remembers a veteran commercial music composer watching the final product of Craig’s first television commercial and telling him to pack it up and take a serious look at working in children’s television.

“’You’ll never be able to top this,’ he told me,” said Craig of the spot that earned such high praise.  The year was 1982, and the ad in question was the now iconic Eat‘n Park  “Christmas Star” commercial.

“That assignment was one in a million.  It was the best creative assignment I ever got,” Craig said recently of the familiar animated, 30-second commercial where a Christmas star struggles to make it to the top of the tree.  But with a little help from the tree itself, the star is able to shine brightly sending holiday greetings to the region the restaurant chain calls home.

For a little perspective, at the time this commercial was created, viewers watched on television sets that relied on heavy tubes to serve as screens.  Thirty-three years later, new generations of Pittsburghers may see the commercial for the very first time on smart phones, flat screen televisions, or even on their Apple Watches.

This all serves to prove that regardless of changes to technology and the emergence of new delivery systems, timeless messaging that touches the heart endures.

Eat’n Park tells the story of the commercial on its own blog this way:

“It all started in early 1982. Eat’n Park was just beginning to blossom into the family restaurant chain that you’re now familiar with, and the company was prospering. Our CEO at the time, Jim Broadhurst (who recently retired), wanted to create a holiday card on video to thank the city of Pittsburgh for their support of Eat’n Park.

So, Jim charged Ketchum, our ad agency at the time, with creating a message that would ‘last for 20 years.’ Easy, right? Craig Otto, then a young Art Director, and Cathy Bowen, a fledgling Copy Writer at the time, lead the project. The pair worked for 3 weeks to generate over 30 ideas, none of which were met with approval. Eventually, they hit upon the idea of an animated commercial, but they still weren’t sure where they were going with it.

One Sunday shortly thereafter, Craig decided to come into the office. He sketched out a star, a traditional holiday image, and then stopped. ‘How does the star get to the top of the tree?’ He played around with a few ideas until deciding that, of course, the star would need some help from the tree itself. In a fateful coincidence, Cathy had also decided to come in to the office that Sunday. So, while Craig worked out the illustrations, Cathy devised a simple, yet perfect sentiment to wrap up the commercial.”

From a communications standpoint, animation seemed to work best.  If it had featured actors and scenes that reflected the period when the commercial was produced, due to changes in fashion and production values, the ad would have quickly become dated.  But animation or not, no ad stands the test of time like this unless there is something more.

Craig Otto Photo

Craig Otto presently serves as on the team at Elliance, a Pittsburgh-based digital marketing agency.

“It’s about giving and receiving,” said Craig.  “For Pittsburghers, it’s a holiday tradition.  It’s such a big part of the regional culture.  Pittsburghers have just taken ownership of it and truly made it a part of their own holiday tradition.”

As evidence of this, in 2012, on the 30th anniversary of the commercial, Light-up Night organizers and Lightwave International, a company based in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania, created the commercial in laser show format.

And local personality “Pittsburgh Dad,” paid his own tribute to the Eat’n Park advertising tradition.

“I’m not sure how many brands could have sustained this kind of tradition for so long,” Craig said.  “The genuine connection that exists between Eat’n Park the local community reinforces everything that the commercial was about. “

He said that he still sees young children, born decades after the commercial first aired, respond favorably to the ad.

“I’m still amazed and humbled by how this commercial touches people of all ages.”

Why the Boss Should (Re-start that) Blog and the Best Way to Do It: Request Your Blog Planning Checklist

Blog photo with penRemember when you thought it would be a great idea if the boss would start a blog?  The first five posts were a breeze.  You planned it out, made sure the content synced up with some initiatives at the company, and everyone loved it.

Then everyone got busy.  You ran out of things to say.  The boss didn’t get back right away with approvals on new drafts.  Blog traffic slowed down.

Talk to anyone who has tried to coordinate a corporate blog for a CEO and the story you just heard is very common, and understandable.

Still, lack of organizational focus and discipline (and time, resources and attention), cannot take away from the fact that the blog is still a powerful means to deliver key messages to important people at critical times.

But no CEO blog can fulfill its potential if it is updated irregularly. Blogs need consistent freshening to generate regular traffic.  Consider these stats collected by ActiveBlogs:

  • “81 percent of companies consider their blogs useful, important or critical (Source: Hubspot)
  • 33 percent of companies use blogs. (Source: InsideView)
  • 37 percent of marketers say blogs are the most valuable type of content marketing. (Source: ContentPlus)
  • Companies that blog have 97 percent more inbound “links.” (Source: Hubstpot)”

Still, the stats do not illustrate why corporate blogs can be effective.

I could list the reasons, but consider the story of fictional Dan, the CEO of a start-up with a lot of upside.  He wants his company to grow.  Eventually, he wants to sell the company to a major buyer and take care of his initial investors, his employees, his management team and his family.

He needs a place to tell his story.  He needs a place to keep people in the loop and current.  Blog Planner Request ButtonHe doesn’t have time to personally engage in any more meetings.  Even though he likes to write his own stuff on occasion, and perhaps dabble in social media, it just isn’t realistic to expect him to dedicate the time it takes to produce a steady stream of content without help.

So, his communications team decides he needs a blog that will serve as the hub for all of his communications.  And he’ll get the support he needs.

Once a month, they nail down a plan for a series of regularly scheduled blog posts.  They meet with Dan to go over what will be worth talking about in the next month and what needs to be discussed.

They use the content development process as their focal point, because they know it can be leveraged to feed a more full schedule of social media posts, possibly an online video or two, and maybe even some press announcements and media outreach.

Not a bad use of Dan’s time and a great way to keep the communications program on track for the betterment of the company.

All of a sudden, the blog starts to take on the role of time-saver, not time-waster – a focal point, rather than unnecessary distraction.  It becomes the heart of the larger communications program that targets everyone from staff members, to investors, customers, vendors and the community.

The point is, if the CEO has something to say, a corporate blog is a great hub for saying it.  And because it’s digital, you’re just a few clicks away from giving it social media amplification.  In the end, you can leverage the blog development process to create the full range of communications and create a system to sustain it over time.

If you’re thinking of starting, or re-starting a corporate blog, I’d be glad to send you a checklist to serve as an agenda for that monthly planning meeting.  Just click here or get in touch using the contact information on this site and let me know you want the “Blog Planning Checklist.”  When you request your checklist, we’ll also want to add you to our eNews list to keep you up to date.  If you don’t want to receive updates, no problem.  You will be given the option to “opt out.”

President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving

Lincoln ReducedThe following post originally ran on November 20, 2012 on PR, Pure & Simple:

It was just a few years ago that I learned the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it today, at least the one where the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions aren’t playing football, is actually rooted in a decision by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. That’s when the holiday became an annual tradition.

Here’s the story.

Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. It is a uniquely American holiday. Back in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”  While not a religious holiday, per se, it had significant spiritual significance at the time, and served as the kickoff to the holiday season that went through Christmas to the New Year.

As our history books tell us, the first Thanksgiving, was held by the Pilgrims to celebrate their first harvest in their new land in 1621.

However, during the Civil War, the president read a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, which called for a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated the last Thursday in November of 1863. As a result, he decided to make her proposition an annual tradition throughout the country.

The rationale behind the holiday was to start to help create a sense of unity.   In his proclamation of the event, President Lincoln pointed out the things for which Americans had to be thankful to God, including “fruitful fields,” the continued peace with foreign nations, and the continued preservation of the union.

Some historians have said that with the nation so divided at the time, as was pointed out by the president in his proclamation, it appeared the intent was to create a vision for a unified nation, living in peace, sharing the same values of God, family and country.

To Mr. Lincoln, the thought of giving thanks would have been an incomplete one if not to join together in appreciation for “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

In that proclamation, Mr. Lincoln touched on many of the issues the country faced in its war between the states, including the effect it was having on families. He extended his particular sympathies to the widows and orphans created by the war.

To add context to this, it’s important to note that one week before the first national Thanksgiving holiday, the president traveled north of Washington, D.C., to deliver his remarks at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg. This was the site of the bloodiest battle of the war and was devastating to both sides. Both armies suffered a total of over 50,000 casualties. As Mr. Lincoln delivered his remarks five months into the aftermath of the three-day battle, some of the dead still were not buried.

To read his Gettysburg Address, and then to read his proclamation of the first Thanksgiving holiday, you can get a more complete sense of the mood of the country, and perhaps get a glimpse of Mr. Lincoln’s frame of mind at that time. While these were extremely powerful leadership documents, there is a high degree of introspection and sentimentality contained in both.

I found them both to be worthwhile in my own reflection of what I happen to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving holiday. As I read these words from Mr. Lincoln, however, I realize not much tends to change. I too, am thankful for my faith, family and a wonderful country to call home. And that’s just for starters. Wishing you much for which to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

A Ghostwriting Process that Works for Everyone

Media RelationsOne of the most common myths around the practice of ghostwriting is that they aren’t the speaker’s words.  When done right, nothing could be further from the truth.

The key to effective ghostwriting is to capture the essence, the tone, and most importantly the message the speaker wants to deliver and needs to deliver, and to create and execute a process for doing so without placing undue demands on the speaker’s time and attention.

Still, while many leaders in government, business and nonprofits rely on ghostwriters to put their visions into words, in the end, both the thoughts and the words are those of the leaders. The key is to establish a ghostwriting process that is customized to the individual and his or her comfort zone.

There is no one right way to do it, but there is a set of steps that should be followed to give the ghostwriting process the structure it needs to succeed. For simplicity, I will use the term “chief” to describe the leader who will give the speech or whose byline will be used, though I understand that titles will change.

The Planning MeetingOftentimes, the chief insists on participating in this meeting, but there are times when he or she attends by proxy. In other words, the chief has a meeting with a senior staffer who then represents the CEO in the planning meeting with the ghostwriter.  This person provides the writer with all of the initial background, guidance and internal contact and resource information needed to get started on research and writing.  Sometimes, the writer plays the role of reporter, asking questions and posing scenarios to get the chief’s perspectives, personal anecdotes and insights.

This meeting is also the time to identify third-party trade organizations, subject-matter experts and others who can provide background and data to be used in the final product.

Learning the Chief’s Style – Thanks to YouTube, I’ve been able to watch executives I’ve never met deliver speeches in a variety of forums. So when a couple of execs have called on me to write for them, if I have been able to study their styles without having to actually sit in the audience and watch. Needless to say, when it comes to style, video accelerates the learning curve immensely. But so do audio recordings, previous written materials, and when possible and as appropriate the chance to  sit in on group meetings to watch the chief speak.

Once the writer learns the chief’s speaking or writing style, and knows what the written document is supposed to achieve, the developmental work can begin.

Creating the Voice of the Piece – The piece should start to come together in outline form and perhaps as an abstract. While some clients don’t want to review a first draft until it is complete, I’ve had one client ask to see the text for the first 3-4 minutes of a 20-minute speech before I went any further, just to see the direction and tone.  No matter what the approach, it is important as early as possible to confirm that the style and approach is what the chief wants.

Still, there are times when we don’t have all of the information we need when we need it. That shouldn’t prevent the writer from fleshing out the document in as much detail as possible, while bookmarking those sections that require more information.

The Review Process  – The review process is the most important part of the ghostwriting process. This is where the writer hands the draft off to the chief, who puts a personal stamp on the work and takes ownership.  He or she makes edits and provides feedback for revisions.  The review and approval process gives the final work its unique distinctive voice, customized and personalized to the person who will deliver the message.

Political Campaign Season Provides Lessons in “Optics”

Vote ImagesThis week brings another election day to my community, providing an annual reminder for me of the great democracy in which we live, and why I am glad I don’t work in politics. I’ve got many good reasons for not getting involved in politics, but  that doesn’t stop me from paying close attention to political campaigns from the largest national elections to the smallest campaigns for school board.

In the PR business, there is a lot to be learned just by watching political campaigns. While we can learn new things, perhaps even more often, we can learn what not to do.  Case in point: optics.

How many times have you seen a news story or a photo of a political speech, and behind the politician is a group of people representing a cross-section of demographics most affected by the topic of the speech?  That’s optics.

Or when you see a political rally and there are signs everywhere, the crowd seems to cheer on cue, and the cameras seem focused on the first ten rows that are filled. But what you can’t see is that the rest of the arena is empty, and when the cameras aren’t rolling, the cheering crowd is allowed to “stand down” and quietly go back to their smart phones.  Every now and then, the cameras pan to the empty seats. That qualifies as “bad optics.” And a bad set of optics can kill a candidacy.

No one provides a better example of this than one-time presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

When he was running against then Vice President George Bush, Sr., in 1988, he participated in a photo op where he was required to don a military helmet and ride in a tank. Something about the image of Mr. Dukakis in that helmet was largely regarded as less than presidential.  Late-night comedians had a field day, comparing this very serious candidate to cartoon character Snoopy in his Red Baron outfit.  The imagery, or optics of that moment was effectively used by the Bush campaign in an ad to raise doubts about Dukakis’s mettle as a Commander in Chief.

Those optics, along with a poor debate showing and some other factors helped set the stage for Mr. Dukakis to lose the race.

The moral for those of us in PR is that optics matter. The takeaway for us is to think about how things will look, or should look when we plan press events, arrange for video or photo shoots, and create publications and other deliverables.

I remember one veteran political consultant describing optics this way: “If we’re announcing a bridge repair bill, we do it next to a bridge that needs to be fixed,” he said, “rather than doing it in an office or a conference room, removed from the community and the voters.”

It’s not just about the words, or even just the photos. It’s about what all of it combined is saying. What is the message that is being delivered intentionally or unintentionally?

The goal then is to make sure that to the extent we can plan for it, to make sure that everything in the foreground, background and side-to-side – and even the sound of the event – reinforces the messages we want to deliver.

As we continue to get bombarded with political news coverage, ads and other material, try paying attention to the optics the campaigns are trying to create. See what you think works, and what does not and why. Then think about how those lessons can be used in your own communications efforts.

10 Things to Know about Doing PR in Pittsburgh

From its own special language, Pittsburghese, to an exceptional pride in its sports teams and a yellow ”terrible” towel, Pittsburgh is unique.  With this in mind, doing PR in Pittsburgh carries with it some very region-specific challenges and characteristics.  Here are ten:

  1. Unless it’s Steelers-related, never plan an event on Steelers’ game day. I’ve been told that the best time to do your grocery shopping in Pittsburgh and avoid the crowds is when the Steelers are playing. If you want to verify, just ask all of the people who’ve done this – both of them.
  2. If you live in Pittsburgh and you meet someone from Pittsburgh, chances are you know someone who knows that person. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon has nothing on three-degrees of Pittsburgh.
  3. When planning an outdoor event have a tent. It rains here. A lot.
  4. Business news matters most when it involves jobs. Ever since the decline of Big Steel in the region nothing matters in business news more to Pittsburghers than new jobs, saved jobs and lost jobs.
  5. Nothing newsworthy happens after 6 p.m. That’s when the next day’s news deadlines hit. Unless it’s a shooting, a car accident, a fire, a broken water main, or a shouting match at a school board meeting.
  6. Pittsburgh media are more likely to travel 39 miles to Portersville than 39 miles to Steubenville for a story. State lines are an issue sometimes. This has more to do with “media market” boundaries than distance.
  7. If you want to be interviewed for a “people-on-the-street” interview, go to Market Square. That seems to be the place where TV crews have questions for you.
  8. IMG_20150605_053144_933-1Pittsburghers don’t just embrace you, they take pride in ownership.  Just ask Primanti’s or A.J. Burnett.
  9. As a writer, it’s important to know that even beyond Pittsburghese, our formal names aren’t pronounced always the same as other places.  North Versailles is pronounced (Ver-sales) not the way the French originally intended (Vair-sai).  And it can be important to know that one person’s Washington’s Landing is another person’s Herr’s Island.
  10. Steelers’ players are “news” 24/7, 365. That also applies to Pittsburgh Penguin Sydney Crosby, Pittsburgh Pirate Andrew McCutchen, and an increasing number of Penguins, Pirates and former Steelers’ players, too.

To Get People to Know, they Must Care. To Get them to Care, We Must Educate

Audience and LightsNot long ago, O’Brien Communications began to provide assistance to a nonprofit organization centered on marking a major anniversary of a historical event.  To avoid creating any confusion on the PR issues at play, for now I won’t name the project or get into its specifics.

It’s more important to explore the situation and the process because the communications challenges this nonprofit faces are some of the most common challenges most organizations face. If you are involved with any communications initiative, there is a very good chance you will face some of the same challenges.

More specifically in this case, the general public’s knowledge of the historical event is extremely low. Because of that, any effort to generate awareness around the anniversary will require enough knowledge of the history for the people to want to know more and then remember.

For this reason, we must keep top of mind when planning any communications initiative, if people don’t know, they won’t care. To get them to care, we must educate.

A Little Background

Let’s look at the situation. The communications program will mark the 100th anniversary of an event that took place overseas.  The anniversary will be commemorated here and elsewhere.  This means that the public will participate in activities and events that are remote to them in both time and distance.

In a digital era where last week’s news is a distant memory and last year’s news is now considered historical record, looking back and caring about events that happened 100 years ago is an increasingly difficult challenge.

Still, those who are already familiar with this history can at times have trouble understanding why others don’t seem to care or want to pay attention.

That’s where a step-by-step communications strategy comes in.

Before you can expect someone to care, he or she must have some working knowledge. The catch is that to gain the knowledge, they must care enough or have enough incentive to want to know, to want to ask questions, to want to learn.  This is critical because it shapes the educational process that ultimately is the foundation for all communications activities.

Step One – Educate

The first step is to educate, and that means reaching out to those with at least a casual knowledge of and interest in the history. They are your base.  Create events, communications programs and channels to engage them, to expose them to new information presented in an interesting and compelling way.  This means making many of the lessons of history relevant and by telling them in story form.  People love stories.

Step Two – Conduct outreach

Once you’ve begun to connect with your most qualified audience, the next step is to conduct outreach to stakeholders that may demonstrate a natural interest in the subject matter, if not the actual history. Again, use events, programs and channels to engage.  Oftentimes, these are the same channels you’ve used to start your program, only modified and customized to appeal to a broader audience.

Step Three – Don’t get caught in the weeds

The term is synonymous with not letting smaller details, interpretation of them or even disputes among experts over the details of the history to detract from the current efforts to conduct positive outreach, education and engagement among the uninformed.  The solution here is to build outreach efforts on those facts and details on which most everyone can agree, or those details that are commonly accepted as fact.

Step Four – Get out there

Once you have the foundation in place, you can expand on your initial communications, and work to keep the momentum going with smaller events and activities that build to larger commemorative events around the time of the anniversary. Tap into current-day interest in trends, culture, current events and even entertainment.

In our case we’re going to do all of the above, and seek a good balance between entertainment, education and social elements. The mix is important because too much of one approach does not serve the larger goal of tastefully and respectfully marking a very important anniversary.  Tied to this, the purpose of celebrating the anniversary in the first place is to ensure that a significant period in history is not lost on current and future generations.

If you’re planning a communications program where the subject matter is dry – technical, historical, etc. – your challenges will be very similar. You will need to find a way to get people to care enough to want to know more, and only then can you realistically seek their engagement.

It all starts with your base, and with education.