A PR Clinic in the Snow: Christmas Lessons at 6th and Grant

I’m not sure when school let out right before Christmas break, but I do remember a few times on the last school day before Christmas I was able to rush home and then with my mom take the trolley to Downtown before my dad finished work.

For me and just about every other kid, Downtown was the place to be around the holidays. There were three major department stores – Gimbel’s, Joseph Horne’s, and Kaufmann’s – and usually depending on which one was closest to your trolley or bus stop, that was your family’s go-to place. Ours was Gimbel’s.

As you approached the store in the dark and the cold, you’d be greeted by those well-lit and colorful Christmas dioramas in the windows. You’d start to feel the warmth even before you spun through those heavy brass revolving doors.

Bright lights, and garland of red and green, gold and silver, blue and purple, all glittering and sparkling everywhere you looked, and shiny new things that my mom said not to even think about wanting. The 11th floor at the top of the escalator was my destination, even long after the reality of Santa Claus had set in. That was where they had the good stuff.

After that, we’d hit the lunch counter at a nearby restaurant which had the best hamburger, chocolate milk and French fries you could want.

But before all of this Christmas sensory overload, we’d stop by the corner of Pittsburgh’s Sixth Avenue and Grant Street, right in front of the William Penn Hotel. That’s where I’d watch my dad work for a few minutes before he’d visit with us. He was a traffic cop who seemed more like the host of a constantly unfolding social event, rather than just someone who pointed cars and trucks in the right direction.

There always seemed to be someone else standing on one of the four corners of the intersection wanting his attention, wanting to talk to him about something. I’d watch him get traffic moving and then make his way over to whomever seemed to have a need.

That mom and her kids across from me wanted him to give them directions. Another man asked my dad if he knew a good place for shoe repair. A college student wanted to know where to get a good fish sandwich. A young man in a Marine uniform asked my dad if the Pittsburgh Police Department would be hiring new officers soon. These were the little things, and they were non-stop.

Sometimes he’d tell me about other things people approached him about. He once told me about a woman who had passed by his corner for years with nothing more than a smile and a pleasant “Hello.” But one day, she stopped to talk. She told him that her adult son had gotten into some trouble and she didn’t know where to turn. He gave her the names of some people he thought could help. Not coincidentally, these, too, were people he had met and gotten to know on this very corner.

Doctors and lawyers, executives and CEOs, bus and delivery drivers. As their routine took them through the intersection of Sixth and Grant, sooner or later many got to know my dad and all were the better for it. He was a visitor’s bureau with a badge, who every now and then had to keep the peace along with direct traffic, and he loved just about every minute of it. Anyone who knew him would tell you that.

At Christmas, people who walked by his corner seemed to have the holiday spirit and the mood was always upbeat.  There is something about seeing your dad do his thing out in the world when you’re a young boy. As I watched my dad in action, he seemed larger than life. I was proud of him.

He was in his element. Almost no one got away from him without a handshake or a pat on the shoulder.

So, what does this all mean to PR?

My dad gave me a lot of good advice over the years, but it was probably his example that taught me the most. This was most predictably evident when I watched him do his job.

To him it wasn’t about directing traffic. It was about people. It was about being a goodwill ambassador. It was about helping. Clearly when I think about it, he understood as much as anyone the value in helping people connect with each other in meaningful ways. He created community.

That’s the life lesson I learned without a word in the falling snow on the corner of Sixth and Grant during the Christmas season.

President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving: A Healing Holiday

The 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 parts 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!

When Reporters Ask, “What’s new in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year?”

St. Patrick’s Day is this Friday, but for most Pittsburghers, like those in a few other cities, parade day this past Saturday was the big day. We always have our parade on the Saturday before or on the 17th.  This year’s parade was as early in March as it gets. Next year’s parade will be on St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th.

In handling communications and public relations for the annual event, I’ve learned to anticipate a handful of questions from editors and reporters every year.  One of the most common ones is, “What’s new in the parade this year?”

On the surface, the answer may center on a celebrity who will make a guest appearance one year. Maybe another year we’ll have a set of new bands, entertainers or Irish acts.  Always new is the Grand Marshal or Miss Smiling Irish Eyes, each of whom usually has a very impressive and very Irish story to tell.

Each of these stories can be news in their own right, but with all due respect, the focus on a particular parade participant can sometimes overlook what really draws upwards of 350,000 to Downtown on a seasonably warm March day.  To be sure, this past Saturday was anything but seasonably warm.

If I said it’s all about family and tradition, that may wash over you.  You hear that all the time about other things.  So, I’ll attempt to explain what appears to make every parade a new one for those who take part.  Here is what was new this year.

  • This year, little Katie and Sean are another year older, and they came to the parade with their mom and dad, who have come to the parade with their parents for decades.  That was new.
  • They looked for their aunts who marched with an LAOH Division, alongside their own aunts and cousins in their smart Irish sweaters and sashes.
  • The kids danced more this year because they love music, and after the parade, they went to a party with their grandpap.  Katie told her pap she wants to be Miss Smiling Irish Eyes someday and ride in a horse-drawn carriage. That was new.
  • This year, another family spent a lot of time remembering someone who was their mother, grandmother, sister respectively, who they lost this past year.  She never missed a parade, so they celebrated her memory on this parade day.
  • On Saturday, a young couple searched and found a spot on the Boulevard of the Allies where she used to perch on her dad’s shoulder as a little girl with her own family. This is their first parade as a married couple, so they started a new Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade tradition.
  • A Pittsburgh firefighter marched alongside his 12-year old daughter.  He and she sang Irish songs, and his feet never touched the ground.
  • A bagpiper tested out his new hip for the 1.4 mile walk on Grant Street to the Boulevard of the Allies.  He used a vision of this very parade as a focal point throughout his physical therapy journey.
  • A radio reporter/producer who’s always been in the habit of covering the parade marched in the parade this year as a Civil War re-enactor.

Now, multiply these everyday stories by the thousands. That’s what was new in the parade this year.  Sure, this isn’t the stuff of viral social media stories and hashtags.  You won’t find any of it trending on Twitter, but it is what brings people by the hundreds of thousands to Downtown Pittsburgh each March. 

Family.  Community. Tradition. 

These are the things that bind Pittsburghers and why this parade rivals those in cities much larger in size. 

In fairness, how can a news organization hook a story on that?

Perhaps it’s the parade’s grand brevity fueled by these values.

Pardon the Scottish reference, but think of the stage musical production Brigadoon.  That’s a story of a charming little village that rises out of the mists every 100 years but only for a day.

In Pittsburgh, this time every year, we leave our houses after a long and cold winter, wearing our green.  On this one day, Pittsburgh becomes that village that rises out of the mists once a year to usher back outdoor life in the city we love.

We do it in the name of celebrating our region’s Irish heritage.  It is that and much more.  Those of Irish descent and many who just want to be Irish for the day are ready to celebrate.  And while that may not be “new” it never gets old.

It’s Thanksgiving! Time (again) to tell your family what you do in public relations

take-pr-off-the-menu

It’s that time of year when you get together with your family and catch up. You can smell the turkey cooking in the oven, the fireplace is roaring, and the football games are on the television.

Everyone’s doing their best to avoid those taboo dinner table topics (some more successful than others), and somewhere between that second helping of green bean casserole and the pumpkin pie, someone asks you once again, “So, tell me, what do you actually do in PR?”

We’ve all been there. Our families often hear us use words like “public relations,” “marketing,” “communications,” or other terms like “social media,” “digital,” and “integrated.”  They want to show an interest.  Maybe more accurately, they want to be interested.  Your mother may even produce the business card you gave her two employers ago to show you she’s always thinking of you.

Now it’s your turn. What do you say this time? How can you make it clear once and for all what you actually do for a living?

If such a question causes frustration for you, let’s take a step back and consider the questions that are really being asked. When a dear loved one asks you what you do, they don’t usually want to know what you really do in terms of tasks.  Here’s what they are really asking:

  • Are you happy in your work? Is it rewarding?
  • Is the stress of work having an effect on you?
  • Do you have time to enjoy life?
  • Is there a future at your current employer or in your field?
  • Is there a chance you could be laid off?

Then, of course, there may be a small bit of curiosity about how public relations people “get away” with making large sums for “typing on a computer.”

So here’s my recommendation.

So, when you get the inevitable question, don’t plunge into a description of tasks you do at work. Don’t use jargon like “digital content” or “market share.”  Don’t drop the names of famous people or well-known brands and companies you may cross paths with through your work.  All of that is a big turnoff and likely to get people to turn the sound down in their minds when your lips are moving.

Instead, try to package your response to answer the questions they are really asking. Let me offer a hypothetical example for your Thanksgiving “elevator speech” that (I’d like to think is true) may address the questions behind the Thanksgiving question, “What do you do in PR?”

“I love my work. Every day I’m always doing something new and meeting new people.  I like the people I work with.  I work with the media, and develop my skills with technology and writing talents.  It’s very rewarding.

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I work hard but have great friends and coworkers. We do things away from work together. I’m taking an art class just for fun, and I joined a gym to stay healthy and fresh.  I feel really great and have learned how to balance work and life.

My field is very exciting. Whether it’s with my current employer or somewhere else, I hear about opportunities all of the time.  Of course, you get out of it what you put into it, but I’m seeing progress.”

OK, I know. Some or all of that may not be true for you. But the point here is at the very least to know the questions behind the question and to answer those questions honestly and sincerely.

Also, I realize that this still does not get at how the field of PR works. Trust me.  I’m a veteran of many Thanksgivings.

Unless you want to clear the dinner table so you can conduct an impromptu Powerpoint presentation on the history of PR, starting with Edward Bernays, I’ve got another idea. When someone asks you, “What is PR?,” just say, “Pass the stuffing, please.”  Works every time.

As always, if you’d like to talk PR with someone who knows how it works, please let me know. I’d be happy to talk turkey.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Revisiting the Core Values of the St. Patrick’s Day Brand

This year will be the seventh Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade where I’ve handled PR and communications, and it’s a labor of love, to be sure.shutterstock_255701698

Over the past seven years, I’ve been reminded of something we often preach in communications. “Let’s get back to the core values of the brand.”

Brands all over have a tendency to stray from their roots, particularly as they grow in popularity. The growth takes on a life of its own.  The brand evolves with its appeal.  Consumers or the community at large come to redefine the brand on their own terms.

St. Patrick’s Day is a good example of this. For many, particularly in America, St. Patrick’s Day is all about the wearin’ o’ the green and a party.  All too often, the holiday plays upon a negative stereotype of the Irish that is unapologetically perpetuated on T-shirts, buttons and hats sold in stores from coast to coast.

So, it is with this in mind, that I thought now might be a good time to revisit the core values of the St. Patrick’s Day brand, simply by learning a little more about the man who started it all. Saint Patrick Himself.

  • At 16, he was abducted from his home in Scotland and trafficked to pagan Ireland to be a slave in 406 A.D.
  • He worked as a shepherd slave, and it was during this time, he became a devout Christian.
  • When he was 22 years old, Patrick, or Padraig as he was known, escaped his captivity. He traveled 200 miles on foot to the Irish coast, and then made his way home by boat.  Once home, he became a student of his faith.
  • At one point, Patrick said he had a dream where God told him to return to the land where he was a slave to serve the people in a new way.
  • Patrick returned to Ireland and spent the rest of his life there, preaching the Christian Word to the people.
  • As a result, thousands of Irish people became Christians. More than 1,000 Christian clerics were trained.  Over 700 churches were established.  In the process, Patrick, a former slave, became one of the world’s first outspoken critics of slavery.

His words: “Before I was a slave I was like a stone that lies in deep mud, and Jesus came and in His compassion raised me up and exalted me very high and placed me on top of the wall.”

The Ireland of St. Patrick was a land of oppressed peoples, and he gave them hope. Over the centuries, his story and his example have been synonymous with hope and faith.  That is the Saint Patrick brand.

It is no wonder then, that even today in a sea of Kelly green, parades and floats somehow that part of the brand has survived. St. Patrick’s Day is a happy day, a day of hope and promise.

How we celebrate it is up to each of us, but the beauty of it is we are unshackled in how we do it. And the “brand” lives on. Erin Go Bragh.

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.”

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!