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
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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?

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.]

Daft damage control efforts damage BP by trying to control media

Posted June 10th, 2010 in Media Relations, Public Relations, Social Media, Uncategorized by Jeff Bentoff

It appears that BP is creating a textbook case for future PR students with its ham-handed efforts to staunch its bad PR — while its massive oil leak flows unabated.

An obvious PR strategy would be to focus on fixing the leak, or at least do everything it can to stop the flow, and publicize that. And take your lumps. The lumps in this case are unavoidable and deserved.

But BP is employing a different strategy — put a cap on critics and media. And they think this will work?

Media outlets have been complaining about being denied access to the spill. The result: More bad press and a congressman complaining: http://snipurl.com/x9xms. Good move?

Not content to just go after the media, BP is targeting satirists. Specifically, BP is tangling with a Twitter writer who created a comic Twitter account – @BPGlobalPR. (It’s worth reading — well done.) According to this New York Times story I read over coffee this morning — http://snipurl.com/x9xw9 — the phony BP Twitter account had nearly 145,000 followers. As I write this post at 8:30 a.m. cst, it’s topped 150,000 and will continue to grow thanks to BP’s attack on it. The story in the New York Times reached millions and will be picked up by other media outlets, drawing more and more people to the Twitter feed. Was it worth trying to extinguish a humorist — and making him an even bigger read? You be the judge.