Wisconsin senators in Illinois and Gov. Walker fight for TV time

In urging the 14 Wisconsin Democratic state senators to return from Illinois to the Badger State capitol, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said repeatedly they have to be “in the arena.” Whether the Wisconsin Dems in Illinois are in the Wisconsin political arena is a point of debate.

But are they staying in the Wisconsin media arena from outside the state border?

The Dems clearly have a structural disadvantage in staying in the local media eye, particularly in the all-important TV eye: They’re not in Madison as usual, where Wisconsin TV can easily cover them.

How’s the war for TV going?

For anyone not aware, the 14 Senate Democrats left Wisconsin one week ago to prevent a vote on Walker’s budget repair bill, which cuts state worker pay and benefits and eliminates most collective bargaining rights for most employees. The Senate Republican majority needs at least one Democrat to attend a floor session reach the quorum needed to allow a vote. By staying out of state, the Dems are stopping the Senate Republicans, who are in the majority, from passing the bill.

Republican Walker has taken full advantage of the Dems’ absence and his stature as governor, becoming a common face on TV and print in Wisconsin and nationally. He’s held numerous news conferences. He’s conducted many local and national one-on-one interviews, including a live session on ABC’s “Good Morning” with host George Stephanopoulus.

To keep his messages in the media, he held a live “Fireside Chat” (though without a lit fireplace) this week that pre-empted local evening news, receiving uninterrupted, unedited coverage without reporter questions on seemingly all Wisconsin news channels. Throughout his continuing media blitz, he’s appeared very comfortable on camera and stayed on message.

Highlighting the Dems’ distance from the capitol, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald this week held a conference call meeting with two of the absent senators. Media attended. The two senators’ name tags were visible at Fitzgerald’s table, but their seats were visibly empty. Their voices were heard on a speaker phone, but the visual of their voices through a speaker didn’t help them.

So how are the Dems doing, away from the Wisconsin media machine?

The Senate Dems put together an immediate live response to Walker’s fireside chat that was aired on TV (with some media Q&A) from their undisclosed location. In terms purely of the visuals, the Dems’ broadcast looked less polished, which is understandable given their location was the basement of a hotel. But they were on TV when they needed to be.

Sen. Mark Miller televised respone to Gov. Walker "fireside chat"

The media seems a bit fascinated by the Dems absence, which benefits the senators. Sure, the media uses words like “fled,” “skipped town,” “are on the lam” and similar jocular terms in describing the Dems’ relocation.

But the absent Dems have been interviewed by phone, with comments appearing on air and in print. They’ve allowed some TV and photographers into their “undisclosed location” – apparently an Illinois hotel – with footage and interviews showing up on air in places such as on Milwaukee’s ABC news affiliate (WISN) and on the CBC Evening News.

The coverage often makes them look under siege and thus creates sympathy. Today’s New York Times ran a front-page story entitled “Life on the run for Democrats in union fights” about them and Indiana state reps in a similar situation.

And despite their situation, they’ve managed to appear remotely on national TV — for example, Sen. Jon Erpenbach made satellite appearances on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” and on the Colbert Report. The Colbert Report segment is an hilarious, must-see.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Wisco Inferno – Jon Erpenbach
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

A main reason this story is a national story is the great visuals of large numbers of protesters. The protesters are colorful, articulate, passionate and carry clever signs. They return in huge numbers day after day after day. And these sorts of protests in the U.S. are, at least in this era, unique. (Early prediction – between the demonstrations in Cairo and Madison, Time Magazine will name “The Protester” as person of the year.)

I am a little surprised that, in this era of YouTube, the Dems haven’t compensated for their physical absence with easily accessible and effective online video tools. Web cams, Flip cameras, YouTube postings, Skype interviews – these are all part of how everyone from teenagers to national anchors communicates with each other these days. They would have allowed the Dems to provide video to  TV and directly to constituents via the web.

In media interviews, the Dems said they left for Illinois hastily, not even packing changes of clothes. So grabbing the webcam was probably far from their minds, assuming they use webcams.

Critics see another kind of lack of planning, this one by national unions, that cannot be explained by a need for a hasty exit from Wisconsin. Forbes contributor Rick Ungar, in a piece, “Public Employee Unions Failing Badly At Public Relations,” argues that unions nationally “had to know this was coming – and yet, they were completely unprepared.”

“In an era where the public is all too ready to blame state employees for what they perceive as feeding at the public trough – while those in the private sector are left to suffer the ravages of a deep recession – the union PR machine has been anything but effective,” Ungar wrote of the national labor movement.

Since the Wisconsin protests began, labor has been running TV and prints ads, keeping toe to toe with the ads supporting Walker. But could labor have avoided the situation in the first place by building a better case for unions over the last few years, as Ungar writes? What do you think?

Too cute by three

Posted February 9th, 2011 in Communications, Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media, Twitter, Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

PR and ad pitches tied to current events can be very effective, as can using humor — when it makes sense and is done with care. But people – please, please, please be sensitive.

Critics have understandably savaged three recent corporate PR and ad efforts for insensitivity, ridiculousness or both. Perhaps the companies simply wanted good press and they goofed big time. Or perhaps, as a few have suggested, they purposely flirted with controversy, hoping for attention, even negative attention. If so, they got it.

Groupon seems to have achieved the unique feat of paying $3M to lose customers who previously loved them.

Three recent PR / Ad Hall of Shame nominations…

First, commentators have almost universally trashed Groupon’s Super Bowl ad, which insensitively morphed from talking about the Tibetan crises to getting a deal at a Tibetan restaurant. Watch:

The interwebs are full of criticisms about this, plus you can read Groupon’s unsuccessful attempt at explaining why they did what they did. One tweet during the Super Bowl said it all: “Groupon seems to have achieved the unique feat of paying $3M to lose customers who previously loved them.”

Second, a similar example of trying to find humor in exploiting tragedy comes from fashion maven Kenneth Cole. Cole himself allegedly sent this tweet, which a company store in San Francisco apparently liked so much it turned it into a window display:

In addition to bringing tons of angry commentary, Cole’s tweet prompted an angry critic to create a mock Twitter account (@kennethcolepr) that is faux tweeting as the company with sarcastic little ditties such as: “Jeffrey Dahmer would have eaten up our spring collection.”

Finally, Allstate Corp. last week issued “a tongue-in-cheek press release correlating zodiac signs to accident rates, but nobody got the joke,” according to a CNNMoney story. Allstate was forced to retract its release, saying that it “led to some confusion around whether astrological signs are part of the underwriting process. Astrological signs have absolutely no role in how we base coverage and set rates.”

What’s amazing about all three efforts is that weren’t necessary because of external pressure. Someone simply dreamed them up and thought they were good ideas. Someone approved them — probably a lot of people, including lawyers. Yet somehow no one saw the train wrecks they were creating.

The lesson here: Before communicating, think about your goal. Think about your audience. Think from every angle about how your communication will be perceived.

And don’t joke about human rights violations or civil unrest.

Barcodes for the masses (like you and me)

Posted February 4th, 2011 in Marketing, Mobile, QR Code, Smart phone, Social Media, Technology by Jeff Bentoff

You may have seen them. Strange-looking icon-like squares filled in with black lines and patterns. They’re weird. They’re cool. And they may be the future.


They’re called QR Codes, short for “quick response.” They’re two-dimensional bar codes. Developed by Toyota for industrial purposes several decades ago, they reveal encoded data when scanned. The growing use of QR Codes in our everyday lives stems from the ability of smart phones to serve as scanners, courtesy of free apps. Scanning a QR Code with an iPhone or Android can quickly take you to a website, no pesky typing of URL code required, or give you other information. Doing it is kind of fun.

They’re showing up in magazine ads, billboards and elsewhere. They’re even inspiring objets d’art. My recent trip to Minneapolis ended up being all about QR Codes.

I opted for the first time to get my boarding pass texted to my phone. I received the text, which included a URL. When clicked, it opened to an electronic boarding pass – with a QR Code.

I showed the image on my phone to the ticketing agent when I checked my bag. No problem. When I got to TSA, I showed it to an officer who pulled out a metal scanner and had me pass my iPhone screen over it. Voila, I was cleared. I don’t know what he saw, but it got me on the plane.

Once in Minneapolis, my wife and I went to dinner at a highly recommended restaurant in Uptown called Chino Latino (cool place with a great menu and food). Seated at a window, we saw a huge billboard across the street advertising the restaurant we were sitting in. The billboard featured a large QR Code.

Curious about it, I pulled out my iPhone and used a QR Code scanner app called i-nigma. With the app, I basically took a picture of the billboard from my table, through the window, zooming in on the code. The app processed the image and led me to a URL. That opened a web splash page the restaurant developed for this purpose. Check it out here.

Our waitress stopped by the table as I was looking at the website on my phone. I showed it to her, and she said, “You get a half-price drink for showing me that!”

As cool as all this was, it seems like a long way to go for a half-price drink. Typing a URL or doing a Google search is sometimes a pain, but honestly, opening an app, taking a picture and then clicking a URL isn’t super smooth, either. The “wow” factor was great, but would I do this a lot?

Creating your own CR Code is easy. Search for a free CR Code generator online. Here’s one that converts URLs, text or phone numbers into scannable QR Code.

Here in Milwaukee, the only CR Codes that I recall seeing were on Meet Meme Trading Cards. They’re akin to social media business cards and were developed by techno-marketing whizzes at Translator here in town. In addition to a photo and other info, these clever cards feature QR Codes that lead to an e-version of the cards themselves.

I’m just starting to pay attention to how QR Codes are seeping into my world. Seeing them around your world, too? Any particularly clever QR Code tactics impressing or exciting you?

(Literally) drawing audiences in with stories

Posted January 18th, 2011 in Communications, Government, Media Relations, Public Relations, Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Putting messages in the form of stories helps break through the clutter and reaches into audience hearts and minds in ways that recitation of facts can’t. Normally, communicators tell stories in writing, speeches, interviews or videos – all effective methods.

But via cartoons?

That’s the method that award winning cartoonist Lynda Barry employed to tell stories of real people to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin – via official testimony in a case on windmills.

Barry, who lives in southern rural Wisconsin, believes that the noise and light flickering from windmills poses health threats to nearby residents. She’s created a website about the issue and has received publicity for her fight.

To make her case in the PSC case, she took the unprecedented step of testifying via cartoon.

Barry’s cartoon succeeds by telling the story of real people. It’s also as unique a form of storytelling as any that you’ll see in this age of digital everything. As with everything Barry does, this is a creative work of art and worth checking out.

As far as I know, Barry didn’t seek or receive publicity for the toony testimony. Had media known about her cartoon testimony, the inherent novelty (the “new” in the word “news”) of her approach would have made this newsworthy. Barry is fighting the perception of being a NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) opponent. The term NIMBY effectively castigates opponents in the public’s eye. Positive publicity for her cartoon could have helped even the scales and attracted more public attention and support to her side of the issue.

(Hat tip to former-Journal Sentinel reporter Gretchen Schuldt who wrote about PSC cartoon on her blog.)

Uncle Sam as Epithet

Posted December 22nd, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Seems like if you want to tar and feather someone, forget about calling them nasty names, comparing them to Hitler, insulting their momma. Wanna land a real blow? Just insinuate they have something to do with the government.

Opponents of so-called “Obamacare” worked feverishly in 2010 to attach the dreaded word “government” to the Democratic health care plan. Despite the fact that most people want health care reform, apparently attach the word “government” to the concept, and magically, they oppose it.

The incessant chant of “government takeover of health care” was as ubiquitous this year as the background Christmas music we hear in every store and coffee shop during the holidays.

Yet, PolitiFact.com, a self-styled truth-o-meter of public statements, found this commonplace label to be the “lie of the year.”

Bill Adair, who runs PolitiFact, told NPR’s Steve Inskeep:

Well, it’s just ridiculously false. The plan relies on private insurance companies, and in fact private insurance companies are actually going to end up with more business because of the law, and yet it was a refrain we heard again and again. It was definitely the most pervasive falsehood of the year….The intent is to scare people about it and to make them think that the healthcare system is going to become this big bureaucracy. And that’s not to say it’s not that way now. But it is not going to be a government takeover.

So why apply the words “government takeover” to a plan that really is not a government takeover? Careless use of language? Actually, the opposite. Very smart people developed and then tested the phrase with voters. They knew the term would be effective. True or not.

Media critic Howard Kurtz, on his CNN show “Reliable Sources,” identified the likely mastermind who inexorably melded the terms “government” and “healthcare.” Kurtz said on a recent show that in the beginning, the media, including Fox News, initially labeled the controversial portion of the plan the “public option.” Kurtz reports that this more neutral characterization was banned on the influential Fox News after Republican pollster, and famed wordsmith, Frank Luntz, a one-time adviser to Newt Gingrich, said in a television interview:

If you call it a public option, the American people are split. If you call it the government option, the public is overwhelmingly against it.

Responded Sean Hannity, Fox News:

You know what? It’s a great point.

Kurtz said that soon after, the newsroom “got its marching orders” from Bill Sammon, Fox’s vice president and Washington managing editor. Kurtz said that Sammon:

…issued a memo telling the troops, “Let’s not slip back into calling it the ‘public option.’ Please use the term ‘government-run health insurance,’ or when brevity is a concern, ‘government option,’ whenever possible.”

 And the troops fell into line. … Now, maybe it’s a coincidence that Sammon, a right-leaning commentator and author, was echoing the GOP talking points. But even some folks at Fox don’t think so.

Communicators with successful records in shaping national opinion have determined that labeling something as related to “government” makes it less popular. A decades-long demonization of government – fed by a number of well publicized governmental failures – has been effective. How ironic and sad when government is in essence nothing more than us – “we the people.”

One Reason Scott Walker Was Elected Governor

Posted December 9th, 2010 in Campaigns, Communications, Government, Media Relations, Public Relations by Jeff Bentoff

Strong media skills often sit high atop the list of why a political candidate succeeds. I was reminded of that watching Governor-Elect Scott Walker’s masterful performance as guest speaker at a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon this week.

The room was packed, sold out, with every media organization in town crammed in the tiny space, with a panel of three solid journalists and a sharp audience pitching him questions.

Yet in the face of this media scrum, Walker exhibited preparation, confidence, a human touch, a plan to make news, non-defensiveness about the questions and clear, repeated but natural delivery of messages.

Later, I had no problem recalling his two key messages. First, he said he’ll solve the budget deficit while pursuing all options – except by raising taxes. Second, his priorities once in office will be helping Wisconsin companies create jobs and trying to attract companies outside the state to Wisconsin to create jobs. He also made it clear by repetition what the news story would be from the event – that state union workers were going to help solve the budget crisis by some sort of cutbacks.

Whether you agree with his positions or not, he got them across to the media, and the public.

During the event, I didn’t see what some new to power (or in this case, higher office) often show the media once they get there – hubris, arrogance, ego, annoyance, impatience, prickliness, unpreparedness, anger. Such attitudes turn media against you.

Scott Walker just won a campaign by a reasonable margin, yet a few weeks later, he’s acting as if he’s still campaigning, at least with his media discipline. Whether he’s focused on media at all times, or whether he actually is campaigning for higher office, I can’t say.

While over the years, I’ve seen Walker speak and talked with him, I’d never observed him in a media event before this one. So after the luncheon, I checked with one of the panelists, ace Journal Sentinel reporter Lee Bergquist, a former colleague at the Milwaukee Sentinel, to see if my instincts were right about Walker being so good with media. Berquist, who covered the recent gubernatorial election, said they were.

“He’s a master communicator,” Bergquist answered, without hesitation.

“He’s very good at communicating. He’s great to work with, even in an adversarial relationship, between a reporter and a politician, because he knows what you need.”

Bergquist agreed that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker’s gubernatorial opponent, also was effective with media. “Walker just really excels,” Bergquist said.

Bergquist reminded me of a Q&A he conducted with Walker during the campaign that shows Walker’s interest in communications:

Q. If you weren’t in politics, what would you like to do?

A. Ride my Harley all day. My wife and I have talked about it and I don’t know what I would do. Maybe something in communications. Maybe I would host a radio or TV show.

Walker’s media skills didn’t make or break the election, but they sure didn’t hurt. It’s too soon to say how his skills will serve him as governor, when he’ll face more media pressure than ever, but I wouldn’t bet against them.


In 2012, two years after I wrote the above blog post, I had the opportunity to write an article for Delta airline’s “Sky” magazine on Wisconsin’s economy. Gov. Walker was among the many people I interviewed. Seeing him as a reporter for the first time, I agree with Lee Bergquist’s assessment above. Walker was one of the best interviews I conducted for the story if not the best. When we spoke on the phone, he was friendly, engaged, prepared and very quotable. Made my job easy.

“Plenty o’ nuttin’”

Posted December 2nd, 2010 in Communications, Marketing, Media Relations, Music, Public Relations by Jeff Bentoff

Communicators often find there’s one obstacle that’s hardest to overcome.


We sometimes fall in love with the sound of our own voice, the words we choose, the cadence. And that can get in the way of the message and our communications judgment.

If you’re falling in love with what you’re saying, remember the words of that great philosopher, The Robot: “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”

[Warning, warning: From the classic 1960s TV series, “Lost In Space.”]

Blogger Rob Parnell writes in a post called “Murder Your Darlings”:

As Elmore Leonard once said, “If I come across anything in my work that smacks of ‘good writing,’ I immediately strike it out.”

Finding the right words to communicate your message usually involves deleting, not adding. Think focus.

Two good examples come from new books about musicians – and the examples involve words, not notes.

In “Frank: The Voice,” author James Kaplan tells how in 1943, Frank Sinatra’s new publicist, George B. Evans, coined the moniker that helped define the great singer.

According to a New York Times review of Kaplan’s book, Evans didn’t like the wordy slogan Sinatra was known by at the time: “The Voice That Has Thrilled Millions.”

“Certain he could come up with something better, Evans closed his eyes and imagined what drove Sinatra’s fans in bobby socks into a frenzy and suddenly realized he didn’t have to add anything. “All he had to do was subtract. Frank was just … the Voice.”

Another example comes from a world of music far from Frank’s – the world of Rolling Stone Keith Richards and his highly acclaimed autobiography, “Life.”

Richards earned honor as co-writer of some of rock-‘n’-roll’s greatest and most legendary songs. James Fox, a journalist who collaborated with Richards on the autobiography, found the guitar slinger and tunesmith to be a talented editor, according to Janet Maslin of the New York Times.

Maslin quoted Fox:

“What I couldn’t guess was that he’d be such a very good natural editor,” Mr. Fox, reached by e-mail, says of Mr. Richards. “He cut, accordingly, for pace and rhythm — a real musical cut. As for calling the book “Life,” Mr. Richards did some editing there too. “My Life” was what the book was to be called. “I said ‘I tell you what, just cut off the ‘My,’ and you’ve got a title,” he says. He might just as appropriately have used another title he likes, “Keep It Dark.” But, he says, “I’m saving it for a song.”

Actually, it’s not surprising that Richards is a smart editor. Rock-‘n’-roll and the Stones are about directness, if nothing else. And in rock-‘n’-roll, directness communicates.

One way to sum this all up – in song, of course – comes from ol’ blue eyes himself.

This song isn’t about editing, but it kinda fits. Enjoy.

Why media feasted on possible Thanksgiving Day airport protests

Posted November 30th, 2010 in Media Relations, Music, Public Relations, Social Media by Jeff Bentoff

You might have heard, air travelers upset with new TSA body scanners were waging an “Internet campaign” for an “opt out” protest that would cause havoc at airports during the busy Thanksgiving weekend.

When I said “might” have heard, I meant – “you couldn’t avoid this story.” As CNN’s “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz said on his show this week, “Every hour that I turn on cable news, I see this story, even if nothing new has happened in the past 24 or 48 hours…Does it deserve to be on television every hour, and then repeatedly lead the network evening news and the network morning shows?”

Bruce Plante, Tulsa World

Why the insatiable media appetite for this story?

Columnist David Carr in The New York Times this week offered a list of reasons that media couldn’t resist this story: timing, execution, mystery, mistrust of government, relevance, nothing and everything, displacement, race and class, good visuals and gender. His column deserves a read as a reminder of what makes media tick sometimes.

Speaking on “Reliable Sources,” GQ columnist Ana Marie Cox put her finger more simply on the cause – it’s us. Answering Kurtz’s rhetorical question about whether Matt Drudge of the influential www.drudgereport.com had become “America’s assignment editor,” Cox said that in essence Drudge was giving us what we wanted:

Drudge is less America’s assignment editor than he is America’s id…He can plug into those exact fears and insecurities that people have, and then that’s what gets the (Internet) traffic, that’s what then gets these guys working on it.”

After all the media build up, why did this hyped Internet protest simply fizzle? Author Malcolm Gladwell, in a piece published before the airport campaign was announced called “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” explained what he sees as limitations of Internet organizing.

Gladwell wrote that social media wouldn’t have been enough for Martin Luther King in his battle against segregation in the South.

The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.

Gladwell makes a lot of good points. Is that why the protest failed, despite media and viewers gorging on the story? What do you think?

[On a side note of local musical interest, GQ columnist Cox, quoted above, recently wrote about a great Milwaukee band, Sat. Nite Duets. She linked to Milwaukee music blogger extraordinaire Ryan Matteson’s post on the band.]

The quote is in the (e)mail

Posted November 22nd, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

I remember the surprise I felt the first time a newspaper reporter told me that I should simply email him a quote for a story he was working on – no need to talk. Up until that time, it was de rigueur for reporters to get their quotes from interviews, which can sometimes result in misquotes, misunderstandings and lost messages.

Today, quotes and interviews by email are more common the ever. The benefits to the interviewee? Harder to be misquoted (not impossible – more on that later) and easier to control your message. The downsides? Less of a chance to engage in conversation and generate understanding, which sometimes can help you get your message across.

Why not just insist on doing all interviews by email? Because most reporters feel they should decide. Feel free to suggest email if that what works best, but try to avoid requiring it, especially on a regular basis.

Giving reporters a blanket email-only ultimatum will backfire, as that puts reporters in the positions of stenographers, something they don’t like. Read here about how such a policy didn’t work recently for the mayor of Trenton – it wasn’t a happy reporter that wrote this column.

Don’t expect email interviews to solve all your problems. Remember that email quote I gave to the reporter I mentioned at the beginning of this blog?  When I saw it in print the next day, I was amazed to see that I was misquoted. Not enough to make a difference, but somehow, my quote in the paper wasn’t exactly what I emailed in.

Technology isn’t going to take out the variability that comes from adding humans to any process. Which is a powerful reminder that your job as a communicator will always be to know your message and work hard to get it across.

It’s the symbolism, stupid

Posted November 18th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg believes symbols often defeat facts. Nunberg says it’s human nature.

His explanation comes in a recent interiview about why apparent federal boondoggles, even when barely affecting budget deficits, get all the attention. And why the real drivers behind budget deficits get ignored.

Nunberg said that Walter Lippmann observed that “symbols assemble emotions after they’ve been detached from ideas.”

“A phrase like ‘trim the fat’ has a symbolic resonance that some more accurate and precise description might not, just because people don’t really want to know,” Nunberg said.

Hear or read the interview from NPR’s “On The Media” to understand why “just the facts, ma’am,” ain’t necessarily enough.