Looking Back. Looking Ahead.

In case you hadn’t realized it, my foray into blogging was part of class assignment exploring leadership and media strategies. I have never been one to do just enough to get by and this blog hasn’t been that way either. Each week, I have taken two campaigns–one modern and one retro–and explored them. What will likely be my final post of 2016 will be no different.

Retro: 2016.

As if I didn’t have enough on my plate, I decided to go back to school. This was the year for me to challenge my thinking and my actions. I did it and came through with flying colors. The things I have learned this year have found their way into my everyday communications practice. I would consider that growth.

Modern: 2017

But I can’t rest there. With the new year brings new challenges and opportunities.  A few years ago, I resolved to stop making New Year’s resolutions. Instead, working in school public relations, I decided to tackle new school year resolutions–just a list of professional items I wanted to accomplish as students return in the fall.

In all actuality, they probably work well for life, too.

  1. Figure out how I can make a difference.
  2. Spend energy on things that matter.
  3. Just do it!
  4. Reflect on my successes (and failures) for future growth.

If those four steps seem familiar, it’s because those are the components of The Four Step Process.

  1. Through research, I can figure out how I can make a difference.
  2. By planning, I am spending my energy on things that matter–that includes time and money (budget).
  3. Nike summed up implementation best: Just Do it!
  4. The mark of a successful campaign is evaluation, and that means reflecting on my successes (and failures) for future growth.

Sound communication practices do provide us best practices for life. Although I will continue to blog, I am not sure the schedule and length of my current posts will be the same. As we conclude one year and begin another, I am reminded of a song which many of us will sing in the coming weeks: Auld Lang Syne.

“For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.”

I wish you all sweet success in 2017!


Measuring the Call to Service

By now, you have probably figured out something about me: I like learning about history. I’ve always enjoyed looking back in time to better understand the context surrounding events. The Bible states that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, New International Version). That’s true in public relations, too. For as much as we communicators believe we are doing something no one has ever seen or done before, history tells us that’s not true. We can be inspired by examples from the past! That’s why Modern Retro PR has been such a treasure to me over the first few entries.

As I think about my profession, I believe school public relations is a way for me to serve my community. There are never enough people who serve. From teachers to nurses to those in the military, many times those working to serve others have to take the time to find the next generation of public servants.

The test of the work in these instances is drawing others into service. That’s where evaluation comes in. There is a difference between outputs and outcomes, both of which can be measured. Outputs are the tactics taken to achieve a campaign’s goal, i.e. number of posters printed or clicks to a website. Outcomes should be our bread and butter as public relations practitioners–did we motivate someone to take action? In this week’s Modern Retro PR, find out why measuring your work can help you determine what’s a win.

Retro: Creel Commission

You’ve seen the “I Want YOU” poster many times in your life, but chances are, you may not know how it came to exist. Uncle Sam’s piercing blue eyes, his stern look, and pointed finger called a nation to action in a time of war.

James Montgomery Flagg's illustration

James Montgomery Flagg’s illustration Source: Library of Congress

James Montgomery Flagg’s illustration first appeared in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly in 1916 as cover art above the caption “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?”.  A year later, it was the centerpiece of a United States Army recruitment poster–the image you’ve seen time and time again.

Flagg’s artwork, along with that of other noted artists of the day, was part of George Creel’s Commission on Public Information (CPI). The sole charge of the CPI was to gain public support for World War I, work that incorporated the use of speechmakers, known as the Four Minute Men, and an  “army of artists” (Creel, 1972, p. 134).  From a public relations standpoint, this marked an early moment in the history of the profession where the trends of the day used patriotism as part of its publicity efforts.

According to Christopher Capozzola’s Uncle Sam Wants You World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen, more than four million posters were printed (2008, p. 4). A huge output considering the era and available technologies!

Even Creel noted the success of an overall strategy featuring posters, such as the iconic one with Uncle Sam in his autobiography, How We Advertised America: “Posters were effective and we used them freely. Care was taken to phrase them tersely and simply” (1972, p. 312).

This is significant when you consider that in this era, not all people could read English. A key factor in developing an effective campaign: know your audience!

Modern: Johnson & Johnson’s Campaign for Nursing’s Future

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a 22-page report outlining a projected shortage of nurses that would only grow in the following two decades. One line stood out:

“If not addressed, and if current trends continue, the shortage is projected to grow to 29 percent by 2020.”

Shortly afterward Johnson & Johnson, maker of first aid products like Band-Aids, launched the Campaign for Nursing’s Future. In the company’s campaign highlights, Johnson & Johnson noted its “leadership position” in addressing the issue:

The Campaign is a multi-year, $50 million national initiative designed to enhance the image of the nursing profession, recruit new nurses and nurse faculty, and help retain nurses currently in the profession.

Using a multi-faceted approach, the health and beauty aid giant implemented strategies jnjto connect with audiences largely grouped as prospective nurses, current nurses, and customers to rebrand a profession . Further, a comprehensive website was developed encouraging each of these audiences to Discover Nursing.

As the campaign evolved and new technologies emerged, the company branched out into social media. The Campaign for Nursing’s Future has a Facebook page, Twitter account,  Pinterest account and a YouTube Channel.

More than five years after this video was first uploaded to YouTube, it has racked up more than a half million views–and that doesn’t begin to count the number of times it’s aired on television.

It’s not enough to simply produce a large number of outputs, especially when clear goals have been established. Converting people to action is what was necessary here to address the deficit of nurses. With videos like this, it’s easy to see why the campaign could be successful. Johnson & Johnson claims:

“Campaign television commercials have successfully motivated more young people to think about nursing as a career option, including 24 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds (Source: 2002 Harris poll).”

Final Thoughts.

In school administration circles, there is the saying: what gets measured, gets treasured. That’s true in PR, too.  In short, how do you know if your work, worked? Rice & Atkin detailed three functions of evaluation in Public Communication Campaigns (2013):

  1. Determine expected impacts and outcomes of a program
  2. Determine why a particular program did or didn’t work
  3. Provide information for planning of future activities

Something that stood out to me as I studied for the Accreditation in Public Relations was the idea that “behavior change is usually considered the ultimate sign of public relations effectiveness” (Study Guide, 2016, p. 24).

In both cases, the behavior sought was a call to service. Regardless of the era in which a campaign was produced, the evidence of a solid and effective campaign should still be visible to this day. Those of us who work in governmental public relations understand the accountability required as part of our work. Creel detailed all of the committee’s work in the Complete report of the chairman of the Committee on public information:


As a for the outcomes of  CPI’s work? “More than 1.3 million men and more than twenty thousand women volunteered to serve in the armed forces abroad.” (Capozzola, 2008, p. 7).

That work shaped the future of America and the outcome of the war. However, the effort to draft enough nurses to care for the nation’s citizens continues today.

A campaign overview published by Johnson & Johnson highlighted the successes of the campaign’s efforts since 2002, including outputs and outcomes. Despite the 32 million pieces of recruitment/retention materials in both English and Spanish and other outputs, the company cites the American Academy of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in saying the campaign has led “more than 750,000 people into the profession.”

Ensuring the strength and the health of our nation is certainly something to treasure.


Capozzola, C. J. N. (2008). Uncle Sam wants you : World War I and the making of the modern American citizen. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Creel, G. (1972). How we advertised America (International propaganda and communications; International propaganda and communications). New York: Arno Press.

Rice, Ronald E., and Charles K. Atkin, eds. Public Communication Campaigns. 4th ed. N.p.: Sage Publications, 2013. Print.

Study Guide for the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations.  (2016). http://new.praccreditation.org/resources/documents/apr-study-guide.pdf

Sounding the Alarm

Crisis planning in the middle of a crisis is not a plan. As strategic communicators, we have not only the opportunity but the obligation, to be prepared in the event of a crisis. But that’s the amazing thing about a crisis: you never know where or when it will hit and if your plan is sufficient until you need it.

In the past week, my community experienced a tornado watch. I live in a community where a deadly tornado touched down more than five years ago, but the concerns are still real for residents here, especially children, like my own.

I remember when the tornado hit in 2011, I was nine months pregnant with my second child. That afternoon, I gave instructions to my then-three-year-old that if something were to happen to us and ended up outside, to call my name loudly, instead of calling for “Mommy.”

Whew. She still remembers that (and I do too).

The experience with my child tells me that it isn’t just what you tell your audience after the crisis that counts when it comes to strategic communication, it’s the messages you communicate beforehand. While it may be tempting to examine just the crisis response, in this week’s Modern Retro PR we’ll explore systems enacted by leaders as part of their crisis communication response in the event of an emergency and why it is important.


In 1951, the United States government established (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), known as CONELRAD. The purpose of this initiative was to warn the American public of an impending Cold War enemy attack via the nation’s radio and television stations as part of a civil defense response.


Poster telling citizens how to find information in the event of an emergency.

Upon activation of CONELRAD, all radio and television stations would cease broadcast save for two designated radio frequencies, 640 or 1240 kHz. Those two frequencies would provide instructions to citizens during the crisis. CONELRAD’s implementation requested that the broadcasts would be operated by a succession of radio stations for a set amount of time in an effort to confuse the enemy regarding the broadcast’s origin. Think of it as a radio daisy chain.

In fact, radios were manufactured with small triangles marking the location of the two frequencies on the dial.

However, the plan was not without its detractors. In a 1960 article published in Time, the author argued that “a civil-defense warning system should be capable of warning 90% of the population within 30 seconds.” That would be difficult for CONELRAD to do considering that citizens had to have their radios or televisions “on” to hear these messages.

Additionally, the article cited “weak reception” and switching delays among the stations as reasons to abandon the system (Time, 1960).

Thankfully, CONELRAD was never officially activated, only tested, before the government transitioned to the Emergency Broadcast System in 1961 and later the Emergency Alert System in 1997.

Modern: Education Organizational Use of Automated Messaging Systems

In recent years, the trend has been for schools and school systems to provide alerts via automated messaging systems which utilize phone calls, text messages, emails and social media. In its early adoption, educational organizations would use these features to communicate emergency and non-emergency information alike.

Remember that tornado I was telling you about earlier in this blog? My school system used an automatic messaging system to cancel school on that fateful day in 2011.

The evolutionary use of this technology has seen recent regulatory updates as some alleged this was a form of telemarketing, especially when people did not provide “express consent” (Federal Communications Commission, 2016). This summer, the Federal Communications Commission issued a declaratory statement indicating such automated messaging systems could be used for both emergency and non-emergency purposes.

As someone who works in educational public relations, I find this to be a good thing. In fact, just last week a series of text alerts warned students on The Ohio State University (OSU) campus of eminent danger.  The information was also communicated through social media by the university’s emergency management and fire prevention department:

During the crisis, an 18-year old student drove his car into a crowd and began to attack 11 people with a knife before being killed by authorities.

In this day and age, when school campuses can be accessed by anyone at any given time, it can be a communications challenge ensure students, parents,  and staff members have the information they need to stay safe.

According to Pew Research, 72% of adults own a smartphone; but among the demographic most frequently found on college campuses (18-35), that number is 20 points higher (2016). This statistic underscores the adoption of automated messaging system as part of a larger strategic decision to communicate crisis events at schools.

Final Thoughts.

The first of five phases of crisis identified by crisis management researchers signal detection.  It is in this phase that leaders “sense early warning signals that announce the possibility of a crisis” (Wooten & James, 2008, p. 5).

It is not enough to just sound the alarm, the key messages must be clearly communicated.

“The role of any communicator in any crisis is to provide good information accurately, and in a timely fashion,” said Neil Chapman in a British cable broadcast now available online. Chapman was BP crisis communication director during the Deepwater Horizon crisis in 2010 who has since left the company.

Both CONELRAD and automated messaging system had the same intended result: to alert people of a crisis event and provide emergency instructions. The ambiguity in the CONELRAD system could lead to confusion if one couldn’t access the information in a timely fashion. Further, the delays in the system could lead to not everyone getting the same information at the same time.

Meanwhile, in the example from OSU, all stakeholders received the same clear and specific instructions at the same time–even people far from the campus in Columbus, Ohio. A quick analysis of new coverage of this event doesn’t yield questions about the timeliness of the message from university officials, but rather many serve as a primer to explaining what “Run. Hide. Fight.” means.  The speed with which OSU communicated and their transparency play to their favor.  Because the university worked to meet stakeholder’s expectations during the crisis event, they will likely maintain trust(Kim, 2015, p. 69).

The latter is clearly more effective than the former.

Effective, ethical implementation of strategic communication systems can benefit organizations not only during the crisis event but also in the aftermath. As part of W. Timothy Coombs Situational Crisis Communication Theory, crisis managers can “benefit from understanding how crisis communication can be used to protect reputational assets during a crisis” (Kim, 2015, p. 63).  However, it should be noted that organization’s reputation is not the priority. Priority one remains those directly impacted by the crisis.

By ensuring organizations have strong, effective and redundant communication systems in times of crisis means that amid the chaos, communication professionals and crisis managers may have a better chance of message penetration.

Finally, it would be a missed opportunity for me to say as communicators we cannot just be satisfied that the crisis is over; however, we must find time in the aftermath to reflect on our actions, determine how we could have responded differently, incorporate those findings into our crisis plan and improve it.


Buzzers Mean Bombs.(National Affairs; CIVIL DEFENSE). (1960). Time, 76(20), 26.

[CIPRtv] (2011, March 3). Crisis communication in conversation with Neil Chapman. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yjb196dB0VY

Federal Communications Commission. (2016). Declaratory Ruling FCC 16-88.  Washington, D.C.: Marlene H. Dortch.

Kim, Y. (2015). Toward an Ethical Model of Effective Crisis Communication. Business & Society Review (00453609), 120(1).

“Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (February 22, 2016). http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/

Let’s Talk Turkey!

I love Thanksgiving–always have. In fact, my husband proposed to me kneeling in a heart I drew in the sand with a stick on Thanksgiving Day long ago. It is a memory I treasure. My Thanksgiving Days have been filled with family, food, and laughter over the years–and I wouldn’t change it.

In recent years, there has been a push to start the Christmas holidays as soon as possible. Now, it seems the pendulum is swinging back.

In this week’s Modern Retro PR. we’ll talk turkey (literally!) and see how message placement for two companies is part of the overall strategy to connect with customers over Thanksgiving.

Retro: Butterball’s Turkey Talk Line (1981)
The Thanksgiving scene around family dinners across the nation can be a landmine. Let the turkey be cooked incorrectly, and you’ll become the family joke. The stress is real, especially for those first Thanksgiving dinners the new couple will host.

Enter a brilliant message placement strategy, courtesy of PR firm, Edelman. Before we get to that, the backstory is as tasty as the result.

Butterball brand managers theorized that sales were lagging because people didn’t know how to cook the turkey. Edelman’s plan sought to get to the root of the problem implemented a 1-800 number where someone could answer those frequently asked questions and inject the chef with a bit of confidence.

Six home economists armed with their expertise and a telephone bank would change the


Vintage Butterball Turkey Talk experts take phone calls.

the course of Thanksgiving Day in 1981. Eleven thousand people called in for help. Not only did it boost sales, it solidified expert-status to customers.

“This was a unique approach to building sales for Butterball. It not only raised consumer confidence in the brand, but the talk line itself got media coverage, thus heightening Butterball’s profile.”

The publication Ad Week, even noted the strength in the message placement of the turkey company:

“Butterball’s help line is also shrewd marketing, positioning the brand as the turkey experts in the minds of many home cooks, even those who may have bought a Purdue or Bell & Evans turkey.”

If you find yourself needing some tips during the months of November and December, go ahead and give them a call at 1-800-BUTTERBALL, they’d be happy to help you save your holiday meal.

Modern: Target, Home Goods, & T.J. Maxx Bring Back the Holidays Campaign (2015)
I must confess: I have only participated in one Black Friday event in my life. I didn’t particularly enjoy it but did get a TV at a great price out of the trip. But it seems that the holiday shopping season starts earlier and earlier each year.

My Facebook feed has friends declaring they will leave the dinner table at 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day to go shopping. Really?!!? I. Just. Can’t.

Last year, T.J. Maxx (and its subsidiaries which include HomeGoods and Marshall’s) introduced the “Bring Back the Holidays” campaign.

Talk about message placement! The effort “focuses on people, and creates opportunities to bring them together,” according to a news release issued by the campaign. This work was predicated on the results from a 2013 Pew Research Study in which nearly 70 percent of people say they most look forward to time with family. That same study showed that nearly a third of people said they dislike the commercialization of the holiday.

As a result, the three stores will be closed on Thanksgiving Day so that employees can spend time with their own families as opposed to minding the bedlam that is door-buster deals. Consumers are taking note, with many bloggers focused family and parenting issues highlighting the campaign on their own blogs.

Additionally, the effort uses social media to extend the conversation. By using the hashtag #bringbacktheholidays, people can win prizes designed to create special moments for families. For example, 20 people won $2,000 travel gift cards to help them get home for the holidays in 2015.

While there is something to be said for corporate altruism, it is more likely, large companies read the 2014 research from the National Research Federation that highlighted the fact that “the early Black Friday launch has caused costs to rise, while last year saw an 11 percent drop in Black Friday weekend sales.”

The online push of the social media campaign is yielding results. Sentiments like these abound on Twitter:

With more people moving their shopping experience online, what’s one day?

Final Thoughts.
For retailers, a key question to answer will they highlight the value they offer to customers or will they highlight the value of family. It seems that both Butterball and the companies under the T.J. Maxx umbrella have found a way to do that that is consistent with their respective brands.

There are real costs associated with both of these business decisions. Plus, the upside is worth noting too.

“Instead of using it as a way to make money, companies are losing money…and saying that’s okay, that’s okay cause it’s going to help our image and the goodwill that customers have in their minds about us,” said Pete Fader, a marketing professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, in a podcast with Business Insider.

Additionally, the decision netted an increase in media coverage for both companies. As TV stations looked to fill content during a slow news period, they called on the experts from Butterball to offer tips and promoted the names of companies who will be closed on Thanksgiving Day. Prime placement considering the fact that many people are off during the holidays and watching a little more TV than usual.

The bet is that after you’ve had your fill of turkey (and maybe your family), you will be more inclined to patron those companies whose values mirror yours and shop on your time, not theirs.

My wish for each of my readers is to have safe and joyous holiday season! Feel free to share what you are thankful for or your favorite Thanksgiving memory in the comments below. I’ll be doing what I am always doing: eating and enjoying time with family.

The Mother of Invention

“Necessity is the mother of invention” – Unknown

Truer words were never uttered; especially for companies termed “Built to Last” by authors James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras. Eighteen companies made the list including 3M, American Express, Boeing, Citicorp (now Citigroup), Disney, Ford, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Marriott, Merck, Motorola, Nordstrom, Philip Morris (now Altria), Procter & Gamble, Sony, and Wal-Mart.

Collins and Porras contend “visionary companies prosper over long periods of time, through multiple product life cycles and multiple generations of active leaders” (1994, p.2). It’s evident that each of the 18 companies has staying power, but equally important is how they communicate a new life cycle to a new generation of consumers (audience).

In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we’ll examine the leadership General Electric (GE) needed to make to continually tell its story of past and future.

Retro: GE’s Live Better Electrically/Medallion Homes Campaign (1950s)

For a family of the 1950s, new advances in technology were becoming available for the modern home. The spot showcased a variety of products available for purchase including, a dishwasher, range and refrigerator/freezer combo, among others. The concept that GE was really selling was time and improved quality of life. Imagine no longer having to actively perform routine tasks manually. That would be a time-saver in itself!

In the 1950s, GE, in partnership with Westinghouse, would “co-sponsor a multi-million dollar nationwide campaign to promote the sales of electric appliances and the benefits of electric power. The campaign, called “Live Better Electrically,” was also endorsed by electric manufacturers and utility companies. The ultimate marker of having these features was to be called a “Gold Medallion Home.”

According to an article published by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, certain characteristics were required for the designation:

“To earn a gold medallion, a house had to be solely sourced with electricity for heat, light, and power; have full 150-ampere service with a specified number of outlets

Homes meeting the criteria received the designation and were usually found near the front door or garage.

Homes meeting the criteria received the designation and were usually found near the front door or garage.

and switches per linear foot; and include specific appliances like an electric range, refrigerator, and even air conditioner—customary now, but revolutionary then” (Walsh, 2016, p. 9).

The visual of the Medallion Home was found on house keys, sign posts, doorbells and even embedded in the concrete sidewalk surrounding the home. One sign of the success of the effort: entire planned communities sprang up touting Gold Medallion Homes for sale. If ever there were an opportunity to keep up with the Joneses, this was it.

For a home to have the Gold Medallion was a symbol of modernity of the times. In an article published by the Los Angeles Times, the campaign was deemed successful: “By some estimates, the nationwide goal of about 1 million all-electric homes was achieved, according to the Edison Electric Institute, although data on the actual number built is unavailable” (2001).

Modern: “What’s the Matter with Owen?” Campaign (2015)

In the future, the United States will need “nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade and 2 million of those jobs are likely to go unfilled due a “skills gap,'” according to a 2015 study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute. Making it more difficult for companies like GE was the idea that millennials with skills in tech-related fields didn’t see a place for themselves in a legacy brand like GE.

Sensing an opportunity, GE embarked on a rebranding effort to lead the way in attracting a new generation of talent. With these 17 words in a tweet, GE ushered in the dawn of a new era for the company:

“Hammer”  is one of a series of “What’s the Matter with Owen?” commercials which has seen heavy rotation. Through the campaign, the company positioned itself as “GE. The digital company. That’s also an industrial company.” The emphasis was no longer on industrial products, but rather digital ones.

This clever campaign was developed in 2015 as a way to recruit the next generation of big thinkers to the company. In order to compete, GE needed programmers and lots of them. The campaign sought to shift public opinion, but as evidenced by the ad, the fictitious character “Owen” struggled to convince his own parents of the company’s transformation.

However, the ingenuity of this spot resonated with job-seekers in a new economy, particularly those with technology-based backgrounds. This campaign showed how a developer could be connected to something larger than him or herself: it was a connection to a storied history.

It should come as no surprise that the effort paid off for GE as company officials told Business Insider visits to GE’s online recruitment site 66% month over month.” Now other companies are forced to play catch up.

Final Thoughts.

The key to being built to last appears to be staying relevant as GE has done with the examples outlined above. According to Forbes, GE held the spot of the world’s 10th most valuable brand of 2016.

Leadership success always starts with vision,” according to John Ryan, president of the Center for Creative Leadership. Oftentimes, it is a vision which no one else sees. The housewife in the first GE commercial couldn’t see it over budget concerns; the fictitious parents in the “Owen” commercial were dubious because GE was known for making things one could see and use.

The idea of change can be a difficult one to accept. That’s why in each of the two advertisements, one can see GE trying to ease the cognitive dissonance between the present state and the future state by providing a reasoned explanation of how change can come about. In the Retro example, it is done by the announcer advising the housewife to buy what her budget will afford bit by bit. In the Modern example, it is with “Owen’s” explanation to his parents of how programmers can help with the manufacturing process.

Leadership means selling others on an idea of not just seeing what no one else can, but also creating it and having others adopt the new innovation.


Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last : Successful habits of visionary companies(1st ed.). New York, NY: HarperBuss.

Walsh, P. (2016). Gold medallion homes bespeak decades of energy efficiency. ei, the magazine of the electroindustry, 21 (3), 8-9.

Find Your Adventure

In my mind’s eye, I am an adventurer. I have this unmet desire to explore the world around me. How about you? I was the kid who as fourth-grader would read under the covers with a flashlight (until I would get caught by my mom) to travel to places far away and back in time. Perhaps we all have a bit of wanderlust.

I first fell in love with the craft of writing when my 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Elmore, shared her fellowship experience of learning about Herman Melville and visiting the places he found his inspiration. There is something romantic (in the writer’s sense) of seeing how writers in different eras put pen to paper in a way that withstands the test of time.

Getting the word out when you are a communicator for a government agency can be a challenge, especially when advertising budgets are a fraction of your private-sector counterparts or perception issues on spending curb ad-buying. In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we’ll explore the challenges of communicating on behalf of the government.

Retro: The National Parks Portfolio

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the American people had heard of President Teddy Roosevelt’s travels preserve those special places found only in America. Roosevelt’s conservationism paved the way for an organization to manage these places. Since his signing of the American Antiquities Act of 1906, 153 sites have been preserved.

In the same year, Ivy Ledbetter Lee wrote The Declarations of Principles, in which he advocated that public relations practitioners have a responsibility for the work in which they do.

“This is not a secret press bureau. All of our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news. …. In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.”

The public relations industry was in a state of transition between models from press agentry to public information. This is notable because, in 1915, a former journalist-turned government official was tasked with setting up a National Park Service. The effort would be seen as monumental for Stephen Mather, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, who called on a former journalism colleague to help. Former journalist, editor, and publisher Robert Sterling Yard, a preservationist, signed on to the role.

Over the course of a year, Mather privately funded Yard’s travel that allowed him to author a series of articles about places such as Crater Lake, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite, and published them in 1916 in The National Parks Portfolio.

Yard described Yosemite (1923), thusly, “The first view of most spots of unusual celebrity often falls short of expectations, but this is seldom, if ever, true of the Yosemite Valley” (p. 44).

el capitan.PNG

El Capitan in 1923.

In the third edition of the publication, Mather wrote in the introduction: “The main object of this portfolio, therefore, is to

present to the people of this country a panorama of our national parks and our national monuments” (Yard, 1923, p.5).

Mather believed public support would be needed to build Congressional support for the effort, a fact noted by the Secretary of the Interior John Barton Payne who posited if Congress were to fund a National Park Service, the parks would become even more of a treasure (Yard, 1923, p.4).

Yard’s publication was distributed to all members of Congress and is attributed, in part, to the passage of the bill signed by President Woodrow Wilson to authorize the National Park Service in 1916.

Modern: #FYPx (Find Your Park Expedition/Encuentra Tu Parque)

In 2016, the National Park Service celebrated 100 years in existence. The need to raise awareness still exists, but tools have changed. These days, people may be more inclined to explore Pinterest rather than Pike’s Peak. How do you update the work of Yard to raise awareness of the treasure of America’s parks system?

Social media crowdsourcing, of course!

fypx_headerThe Find Your Park Expedition (#FYPx) is an “education and awareness campaign connects media influencers nationwide with America’s national parks and allows their stories to be told.” It first began in 2015 and recently the second edition returned from its expedition.

Little had changed in the picturesque scenes from Yosemite from 100 years earlier, including the cost of travel. This time, there would be no private funding of the trip, but rather, corporate sponsorships to cover the cost.

As part of the centennial campaign, eight social media influencers were selected to travel to national parks, including Yosemite. While it may sound like a television show, each of the bloggers represented diverse audiences to be introduced to national parks.

The updated campaign had five areas of focus:

  1. Diversity, History, Relevancy, Heritage, and Education
  2. Working with the National Park Service
  3. Conservation and Environmental Stewardship
  4. Outdoor Recreation, Fitness, Nutrition, and Health
  5. Digital Engagement

Unlike Yard’s first edition of The National Parks Portfolio, the 2016 effort prominently featured photography from the great outdoors. (It should be noted that many of the bloggers selected in 2016 had backgrounds in either photography or design):

Final Thoughts.

Even today, the need for government public relations is questioned in a downturned economy (Liu, & Levenshus, 2010, p.1). Limitations on advertising spending for government-agency communicators, whether real or perceived, provide opportunities for creative solutions to this age-old challenge. Since Yard’s original publication did not include photographs (those would come later), it was his writing which allowed the reader’s imagination to be captured.

 Yosemite’s El Capitan still looks the same as when Yard first wrote about it; the only difference is that now the adventurer’s photos are in color. However, the objective of the original effort still exists: introducing Americans to its national parks. 

The in-the-moment tweets from #FYPx campaign allow for the influencer’s followers to vicariously journey with them, but it will be their travel (b)logs which really paint a picture of the great outdoors to a new generation. In this way,  the 21st-century adventurer is born, crossing what National Park Foundation calls the “digital frontier.” It may very well be that this latest chapter in American preservation lasts for the next 100 years, too.

That said, where will you find your next adventure? Drop me a comment and let me know!


Liu, B. F., & Levenshus, A. B. (2010). Public relations professionals’ perspectives on the communication challenges and opportunities they face in the public sector. PRism 7(1):

Yard, R.S. (1923). The national parks portfolio. (3rd ed.). Washington, D.C.: Government
Printing Office.

Snack Attack!

Who doesn’t love a good snack? Salty or sweet, a good snack is satisfying–except when you can no longer get it. Recently, I overheard my kids discussing their Halloween loot. My son had only gotten one Rice Krispie treat (his favorite snack!) in his trick-or-treat bag but knew his sister had one, too.  That’s when I heard: “Can I borrow your Rice Krispie treat?”

We all knew that “borrow” wasn’t the word he was after. As you can imagine, we all had a great laugh because we knew she’d never get it back. Nevertheless, she listened and understood what he was after and handed over the snack. As he gobbled it down, I started thinking about how this scenario has played out in real life and how listening can ensure a happy customer (or little brother). It wasn’t so much his communication that mattered; it was her response.

In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we take a look at two treats and see what happens when a couple of campaigns–one modern and one retro–threaten consumer snacking habits. See what happens when consumers bite back.

Retro: New Coke

In 1985, the Coca-Cola Company introduced a new formulation of its iconic drink, the first rebranding in 99 years. The invention was an attempt to stem slumping sales against competitor Pepsi. New Coke was introduced with great fanfare by the company.

The new drink was supposed to be cheaper to make, smoother and  sweeter. Needless to say,  it didn’t go down well. The effort failed when tastemakers failed to adopt the new formulation and shared their displeasure far and wide.

The backlash came quickly and furiously. Corporate offices received numerous phone calls and letters in an effort to voice displeasure. The organization noted a 275% increase in call volume each day for more than two months. The scarcity caused by the lack of access to the familiar flavor, caused customers to hoard it rather than drink a product they didn’t like. In The Real Thing: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company, it was noted that even the bottlers for the drink demanded a meeting with the parent company (Hays, 2004).

One of the first rules of strategic communications is to know your audience. Coca-Cola missed this point. Everyone wanted a return to the original formulation; everyone that is, except Pepsi which was able to capitalize on the blunder to reinforce its brand amid the blowback in the press (Hays, 2004).

In a campaign hailed by Time magazine as one of the “greatest marketing blunders,”  the company failed to recognize the national nostalgia many people held for the popular drink.

The Real Thing at my local convenience store. Photo by Lesley Bruinton

Through critical listening, Coca-Cola found its way back to the real thing for fans of the product: the original mix. It only took 78 days to herald the return. Fittingly, the announcement of the elixir’s return was a breaking news announcement during the daytime soap opera General Hospital.

Modern: Twinkies

Time for nostalgic noshing? Photo by Lesley Bruinton

A declining economic forecast meant Hostess had to do something. Hostess, the maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread, was heading towards bankruptcy–again. The 2012 bankruptcy filing would be its second in three years. Debt and rising costs were to blame. Less than six months after the bankruptcy filing, Hostess broke the news to fans on Twitter:

Despite a 150-year relationship with consumers, the response was swift and severe with lots of backlash on social media. Couple that with news stories that Twinkies may soon be off the shelves for good and only a distant memory. The scarcity principle kicked in and folks soon begin filling their baskets with the creme-filled cakes.

It was clear that consumers were not ready to give up the sweet treat. A savvy investor heard the demand online and responded. Smelling an opportunity, Metropoulos & Co. and Apollo bought the iconic brand for $410 million, which extended the shelf life of the famed food.

Twenty-four months after the brand’s reboot, the investors were making dough, and in the process, confirmed its own prophesied return to the market as “The Sweetest Comeback in the History of Ever.”

Final Thoughts.

With any strategic communication plan, there should be a component dedicated to crisis communications. The strategically-minded public relations practitioner should have the opportunity to ask the question “What if this doesn’t go as planned? How will we respond?” It is apparent that no one asked those questions ahead of time as in both cases it took months for a response which addressed the consumer concerns.

Phone calls. Letters. Tweets. They all share the same trait in these two examples: communication from the consumer. But it wasn’t the action in either case that it noteworthy, it is the reaction. In order for effective communication to have the message sent must be received and responded to. In Listening Effectively, the author notes “Responding, then, is a form of feedback that completes the communication transaction” (Kline, 1996, p. 26). In both cases, the product’s maker responded by reviving the brand.

Ironically, the cost-saving decisions by both companies caused more problems than they solved and alienated their respective audiences. However, it was by critically listening to consumers both companies were able to positively affect the bottom line as consumers flocked back. The critical listening allowed both the Coca-Cola Company and the Hostess brand to understand the pathos of its respective consumers. In both cases, the companies heard the pathos of fear and through their response were able to solidify loyalty.

Although one campaign played out in the social media era and one did not, both have been able to capitalize on emerging technology. Hostess created a social media campaign to allow customers to take credit for Twinkie’s return, by encouraging the retweeting of a graphic saying “I Saved the Twinkie.”

Today, the Coca-Coca Cola Company has embraced the sour segment of its history and brought it into the 21st century by inviting consumers to share their New Coke experiences, which include hoarding the classic version in favor of the update.

Pretty sweet, huh?



Hays, C. L. (2004). The real thing : Truth and power at the Coca-Cola Company(1st ed.). New York: Random House. http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/random041/2003046609.html

Kline, J. A., & Air University (U.S.). (1996). Listening effectively. Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.: Air University Press.

Finding Freedom with Feet & Fingertips

When I look at the Underwood manual typewriter in my office that is featured on this blog’s homepage header, I am reminded that if other people can have a successful campaign without the modern-day tools now have at our disposal, what’s my excuse?

We’re tackling opinion leadership, word of mouth marketing (WOM), social media and how they can be used in the process to diffuse innovations this week on Modern Retro PR. The concept here is pretty simple: we’ll examine two campaigns from two different eras and look for the similarities to see how well it worked with the tools available. Specifically, this week, we are looking at human rights’ issues.

Retro: Montgomery Bus Boycott

The year was 1949 and Jo Ann Robinson had accepted a job teaching English at Alabama State College. It wasn’t the lesson taught in a classroom that changed her life’s mission; it was one taught on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.: Robinson “was screamed at for sitting in the empty white section of a city bus; the driver pulled over to yell at her and Robinson fled the bus, fearing that he would hit her.”

It was in this moment, Robinson, who had lived in other places, vowed to change the system. This opinion leader began mapping out a plan to desegregate buses, but it would take years before the innovator had the chance to do it.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for her refusal to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. Parks’ arrest was the tipping point to put the plan into action to protest the unfair treatment of blacks on the city’s public transit system: a one-day bus boycott of Montgomery’s buses.

That night, Robinson, who was president of the Women’s Political Council, printed 50,000 handbills on a mimeograph machine calling for a boycott of the public transit system the following Monday.

Boiled down, the effort to motivate enough people to participate in the boycott in order to have grievances known was essentially done through a WOM campaign.

On Friday, December 2,  Robinson and a small group distributed the handbills, taking many of them to schools for high school students to carry home to their parents for the weekend. She also carried them to a meeting of clergymen who signed onto the plan as early adopters and promised to encourage their congregants on Sunday morning to participate in the boycott. Also on Sunday, in the local newspaper, there was a full-page ad about the boycott.

In Social Influence Model and Electronic Word of Mouth, WOM is called “particularly influential” (Okazaki, 2009, p. 439).

Evidently so. It took one woman a little more than 72 hours to get the word out across a city to a specific audience without social media. By some estimates, 40,000 black passengers stayed off the bus on Monday, December 5.

The one-day campaign was considered a success and was extended for 381 days. While Parks’ arrest is considered the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement, Robinson’s work should surely be considered the labor.

Modern: Kony 2012

Joseph Kony was a cult leader whose militia had terrorized parts of Central Africa for more than thirty years. His Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was known for the recruitment of child soldiers to use on the battlefield and was the feature of the short documentary, Kony 2012. Produced by Invisible Children, narrator Jason Russell  was the opinion leader whose desire to help a Ugandan friend stop Kony led him to this innovation.

Kony 2012 poster

With a click of a mouse, millions of people diffused this innovation by sharing the video to raise awareness of the warlord in the hopes he would be apprehended and brought to justice. If you were one those viewers thinking you could make a difference, you weren’t alone. Six days after the mini-doc was first published on YouTube, there were more than 100 million views, making it one of the most viral in history.

Consider this campaign, an electronic word of mouth effort (eWOM) effort. Someone shared the thirty-minute video on Facebook in 2012, and I watched it and probably shared it with my Facebook friends. Someone probably shared the same video with you, too. The goal seemed too large to comprehend: to catch a predator on the other side of the globe. But why not be part of it?

One reason why so many people shared the video was a direct reflection of how these social media users want to see themselves. According to Shintaro Okazaki, “participants exhibit significantly higher perceptions on social intention, intrinsic enjoyment and cognitive social identity” (Okazaki, 2009, p. 439).

At the end of the video, viewers were asked to “Cover the Night” on April 20, 2012, by placing the campaign’s posters in places across the world in an effort to bring notoriety to the notorious.

While the virality of the campaign made it successful and raised awareness, its ultimate objective (capturing Kony) was not reached by the end of 2012. Nor was the night covered. In the end, news reports showed that social media movement wasn’t able to mobilize activists. Kony has yet to be brought to justice.

Final Thoughts.

When developing public relations campaigns, one must determine if they are seeking one of the following types of changes: awareness, attitudes or actions. Obviously, generating an action change is the most difficult. One has to have skin in the game to motivate the desire to change.

Raising awareness in the two examples above was relatively easy once the strategy was determined. The difference-maker was motivating the action. Recently, I read a blog in which famed author and presenter Simon Sinek discussed how leaders can motivate others through the Diffusion of Innovation. In Sinek’s Ted Talk, he said leaders should explain the why first before the what or how.  This is exactly the work an opinion leader must do.

Robinson’s work clearly articulated why a change was needed, what was at stake and how the response was to be handled. Russell, on the other hand, told us why we should care about the world around us and what Joseph Kony was doing on the other side of it.  What Russell didn’t clearly articulate for the millions of social media participants was how their actions would actually make a difference.

Both needed participants to travel to make a difference, it appears that one journey was just too far.

Which campaign impresses you more: Modern or Retro?

You Can Learn A Lot From A Dummy

Welcome to Modern Retro PR, where each week I plan to analyze two campaigns–one modern and one retro–and find the similarities and see how it worked (or didn’t). Hi! I’m Lesley and I’m a nationally award-winning Accredited in Public Relations practitioner with more than 15 years experience in broadcast journalism and public relations. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the craft of writing and storytelling. As an elementary student, I could not wait for Fridays to watch 20/20. Seriously.

I’ll use this blog to explore issues of strategic communication and emerging media and you can find it at modernretropr.wordpress.com. Since earning my accreditation in 2013, I have become increasingly thirsty to learn more about the topics which prepared me to successfully earn this designation. Because I work school PR where few in my organization really understand what I even do, I’m looking for folks with whom I can delve deeper on topics like strategic communication, diffusions of innovation, communication models and theories, social media as part of a communications response, and the like.

My favorite PR topic of all is the Four-Step Process (Research, Planning, Implementation and Evaluation). I will gladly partner with anyone who wants to use this approach to accomplish their goals. Admittedly, I get frustrated by being handed a list of tactics to implement which there is no research to suggest the tactics are even needed.

Now that I have your attention, I want to share with you what I learned from a dummy.


My grade school summers were filled with memories of carefree car rides to visit family or go on a vacation. I remember riding in cars with relatives who would throw an arm across to protect a passenger from flying into the dashboard upon a hard stop. I even remember a car trip to Disney where I convinced my little sister to lay in the floorboard of the back seat so she could have more room. While my rose-colored tint makes it sound idyllic, to me, it now sounds idiotic that no one was wearing seatbelts.

Enter these two dummies:

The Ad Council’s “You Could Learn A Lot From A Dummy” campaign ran from 1985-1999, urging people to buckle their seatbelts. Prior to the campaign, social custom at the time was that you didn’t wear seatbelts: “while 80% of Americans believed seat belts work, only 11% regularly used them.” According to the Diffusions of Innovations Theory, the Ad Council, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, served as the change agents in this effort.


The mass media campaign was catchy and slowly people began to change their behavior and buckle up; however, it took time. The key to early adoption was pediatricians. I remember the campaign but doubt it did more than just raised awareness about the issue for me personally. What did it for me was the interpersonal network of which I was a part, along with my mom and my pediatrician.  I recall a childhood checkup with my pediatrician where he talked to my mom and me about seatbelt safety; he encouraged the use of seatbelts and reminded my mom to wear hers. Year after year I heard this same speech.


He was an opinion leader. He believed seatbelts could keep me safe, and he empowered me to hold the adults in my life accountable for buckling up before driving through homophily. What parent wants to look bad in their child’s eyes?  I couldn’t drive, but I could motivate others. It didn’t take long before buckling up was the new normal: the innovation of seatbelt usage had been adopted by the entire family.


While some of the change was motivated by those interpersonal interactions, there is no doubt that the mass media effort persuaded lawmakers. Results from the Advertising Education Foundation show a near quadrupling of the number of states which enacted seatbelt legislation by 1989.



I’m a busy mom with young children and a messy vehicle that looks we have just come from a hiking trip: dry cereal and chocolate candies dot the floor board of my backseat (nevermind the two weren’t brought in at the same time!). For the record: We. Don’t. Hike.

Lately, here’s the ad I feel like I see most of these days for the last couple of weeks:

Here again, another mass media campaign. This one directed to the very same people the retro campaign targeted so many years ago (folks like me!). However, the muscle that makes this spot work leverages the interpersonal relationship that happens each morning in my car with my kids.

I’ll admit it: my car seems this way as we get on the road in the mornings. But the greater point of this ad is to leverage parent power with the control in your hand: a key in the ignition. While the original campaign enjoyed success, the evidence suggests there was still work to be done. As a former anchor/reporter, I read countless stories where someone died as a result of not wearing a seatbelt in a crash. Nowadays, the social custom is for kids to hop in a car with a device and forgo a seatbelt.  This new “Seat Belt Safety” campaign aims to address the high number of American children who died as part of vehicle crashes and were unrestrained at the time of their death.

Because the “You Could Learn A Lot From A Dummy” campaign resonated with me as a child, I would consider myself an early adopter of the new “Seat Belt Safety” campaign. Unlike the precursor campaign, the mass media extends beyond just radio and television. New media technologies like websites, social media and Youtube play prominently in the diffusion of the innovation of Round Two of the campaign.

Honestly, my kids know no other way other than to buckle up when they hop in the car. However, this spot does provide the opportunity for me to have a conversation with my kids about the message.

Their awareness of the need to buckle up in mommy’s car was already there, but I believe this campaign offers them the chance to adopt or reject this innovation for themselves. Recognizing that their behavior motivates me to action, my one child who just a few months ago, relished the idea of being the last to buckle up, is now the first.

Innovation: adopted.

Final Thoughts.

These two campaigns clearly demonstrate the strategy behind the communications effort as the issue to increase seatbelt usage has been part of the national dialogue for nearly thirty years. The first campaign was lauded for the increase in seat belt usage and even garnered awards.

The current campaign is an example of the Diffusion of Innovation as the key message  of the original effort was refined, or diffused, over the years. There are few metrics (beyond outputs) to measure the effectiveness of the new “Seat Belt Safety” campaign at this time.

While the tipping point for me (and my family) was reached years ago, the journey is apparently not over for the current population. Buckle up; it could be a long ride until we get there.

Which campaign motivated your behavior change: Modern or Retro?