Friday, January 31, 2014

Public Mourning for K-9 Rocco Reminds Community of its Heart

There are a few mantras in advertising that prove their truth time and again, despite what some people may want to believe.  “Sex sells,” is one of them.  Another is, “You can’t go wrong with puppies and kids.”

K-9 Officer Rocco
Both of these advertising philosophies are likely to bear themselves out during Sunday’s Super Bowl as sex, kids and puppies are sure to garner their share of hearts and minds of millions of football viewers.

But in Pittsburgh this week, one “puppy” named Rocco struck a nerve throughout the entire city for a completely different, more serious reason.  Rocco was a canine officer in the Pittsburgh Police Department.  In law enforcement, police dogs are considered actual police officers.  Their handlers are considered their partners.  In this context, Rocco last week sacrificed his life in the line of duty, protecting his partner and others.

Here is what happened.  On Tuesday night, The Allegheny County sheriff’s office was looking for a 21-year-old convicted sex offender to serve a bench warrant.  The man was spotted on Pittsburgh’s busy Butler Street.  When confronted by a sheriff’s deputy the suspect was said to have “lunged toward the deputy’s gun then began hitting him in the face.”

From there, the suspect ran into a nearby home and was cornered in the basement.  Pittsburgh Police officer Phil Lerza and his canine partner Rocco responded to the call.  After a warning, Rocco was sent in to flush the suspect out of hiding.  At that point, the man attacked K-9 Rocco with a knife, critically stabbing the dog. The suspect also stabbed arresting officers while violently attacking them as well.

For two days, the dog lingered in an animal hospital, receiving surgery and an iffy prognosis.

Last night Rocco succumbed to his injuries.  But what happened next is something that even if you may have seen it before, you never get used to it.

Social media exploded with heartfelt outpouring of support from people around the city, the region and the country for Rocco and his fellow officers.  Within hours, the Mayor of Pittsburgh declared that all flags be flown at half-mast in honor of Rocco.

Local media converged on the animal hospital where Rocco died, and a seemingly impromptu procession commenced.  A bagpiper played. Rocco on his gurney was draped with a U.S. flag and escorted past a saluting and tearful contingent of police officers, standing in silent attention as he passed.  Then, almost as if it had been planned and practiced, a quiet motorcade of police vehicles, lights flashing, took Rocco to Oak Crest Pet Crematory.

The media picked up on the power of this story and went nearly wall-to-wall with coverage. Facebook pages were created by stations for the stated purpose of giving the public an outlet to send support.  Many of those condolences were accompanied by peoples’ photos of their own pets with signs that expressed condolences.

Any time a public figure – even a K-9 police officer – passes away the media has a sense of its role.  As television stations, newspapers and Internet sites pursue their mission of gathering and disseminating information, they also know that they play a role in a public grieving process.

A cynic might say that this is good for ratings and readership, and this is true.  But there is a social value in all of this. It’s a reminder to a community that it hasn’t become so desensitized to the everyday violence we see on the news that we’ve lost our humanity.  And nothing it seems can help a community rediscover its heart like the loss of an innocent and loyal police dog like Rocco.

This is not a time for shameless self-promotion on the part of the media or anyone, but public demonstrations of support, respect and gratitude are not without their place.

It is with this in mind that this son of a former Pittsburgh Police officer wishes to extend his heartfelt gratitude and condolences to Officer Lerza and his partner who risk their lives to protect their community.  Rest in peace, Rocco.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

NFL Films: Iconic Writing

Even if you’re not a football fan, but you have a true appreciation of remarkable writing, you’d have to be mesmerized by some of the works produced by NFL Films over the years.  Forget the slow motion replays of some of the greatest plays in football for a moment. Forget those tinny and sometimes cheesy musical soundtracks.  Listen to the words, the writing.  It’s art in its own right. 

Over the next week, leading up to the Super Bowl, if you have a somewhat decent cable TV package, you owe it to yourself to sit down and watch some of NFL Films’ telecasts of films about prior championship teams and games.

You’ll hear the legendary voice of John Facenda, also known by NFL Films’ fans as “the voice of God.”  And he’ll tell you such stories.  Stories written by people with a seemingly obvious familiarity with the works of Hemingway and Faulkner.

They won’t just recount game action the way the nightly sportscast does. They’ll tell stories of triumph and defeat, of struggle and desperation.  You’ll watch a Greek tragedy unfold in slow motion.  And you’ll be captivated.

The writers use all sorts of devices, from metaphor and simile, and they will draw from the classic figures of literature to drive home the importance of the toss of a football, or the anticipation of a defensive back.

But it’s the words that will do it.

Nowhere else in sports would you hear such words:

“The Autumn wind is a pirate, blustering in from sea, with a rollicking song he sweeps along, swaggering boisterously.”

The late Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, wrote that about the Oakland Raiders in 1974.  The next year he penned this for Facenda’s deep voice:

“Super Bowl IX arrived on a frigid rain-soaked January afternoon in the southern city of New Orleans.  An early morning storm left the playing field water-logged. Originally the Super Bowl was scheduled for the rain-proof, air-conditioned comfort of the Louisiana Superdome. But it was unfinished.

So the game was moved, replete with gusty winds and gray flannel skies to ancient Tulane Stadium.   The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings would meet in the worst weather yet for a Super Bowl  setting.  But the cutting cold and damp did not deter 81,000 fans, particularly the huge Pittsburgh contingent. For after 42 years their team was at last competing for football’s grandest prize.”

With words like that, you don’t need pictures, let alone NFL Films’ cinematography and masterful editing.  With this in mind, I’d like to share excerpts of two of those NFL Films classics. It’s hard not to watch, but if you are willing try closing your eyes and just listen to how words themselves can paint the picture:

The Autumn Wind:

Pittsburgh Steelers:

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Local TV News's Snow Job

For years, print media, and both network and cable television news have faced a seemingly never-ending competitive onslaught from the Internet as their readerships and viewerships have suffered steady declines.  Yet for the most part, local TV news and neighborhood newspapers have held their own comparatively speaking. The reason is simple.  The more local the news the fewer the competitors.

That has changed with the emergence of social media and smart phones, and the explosion of apps for those smart phones.  Because people can get information from person to person, information service to phone at the most localized and customized of levels, now local TV news it facing a kind of competition it hadn’t seen before.

It may be primarily for this reason, you’re starting to see the response on your local TV station and its related Internet and social media extensions.

It’s costly to run a local TV news operation, and what it takes to maintain its staff and operations is eyeballs, or in more conventional terms ratings.
When the Pew Research Journalism Project issued its State of the News Media 2013 report last year, it spent a respectable chunk of that report on the state of local news.  According to the report, local network TV affiliates lost over six percent of their audience in the most important time periods of the day – early morning, evening and late night.

As a result, the report indicated that story lengths have shortened, there is less in-depth journalism produced, yet there is an increase in the amount of time devoted to traffic, weather and sports.

“Coverage of politics and government, meanwhile, was down by more than 50 percent,” the report stated.

In fact, sports, weather and traffic now fill about 40 percent of local news broadcast time.

Of those, according to some research Pew did in 2011, approximately 58 percent of adults said weather is the primary reason they watch.  Pew Research found that after looking at 48 newscasts in 2012 and 2013, 42 percent “led with a weather report or story.” 

Why the weather? 

It’s universal. The weather affects every viewer regardless of demographic.  It’s immediate and always changing.  If you have plans, you most likely want to check the weather to see what to wear, to see if you have to alter your plans, or at least change your transportation arrangements or route.  Somehow, almost instinctively, you will want to find out the weather at least once during the day. So where will you turn to get that information? 

Local TV news operations own three places you might turn – their Web sites; their social media pages; or their broadcasts.  And most are tightly integrated across channels.

Then there are the bells and whistles of technology.  No doubt, your local TV news has a “storm center,” or “severe weather hub,” or something to that effect.  They use a data collection operation to get you all sorts of information you really don’t care about, but the point is to show you the sophistication behind their weather forecasts.  They want you to see how complex weather forecasting can be, and in so doing give themselves credibility.  They want to be your first choice when the weather gets cold or wet, or hot and dry. 

Live weather reports may give you the same information you’d get if you looked out your own window, but that doesn’t matter. Weather, to some extent, is show biz.  You have to see on your big screen those snowflakes falling on that frigid weather reporter. 

Then they take you inside and show you more digital graphics than you’d find on an Xbox.  Radar, satellite, temperature grids and maps.  And more maps.  And a weather person standing in front of those digitally produced maps to cause you just enough panic to keep watching, but just enough calming to reassure you that they have your weather under control. It’s a delicate balance. 

Then there is the thing local TV news has done better than any to hook you.  I mentioned that social media has emerged as competition for local news, and that’s true. So rather than fight progress, as newspaper dailies did for the longest time, local TV news stations have embraced it.  Or more to the point, they are using social media to further hook you into watching. 

Here’s how it works when it comes to weather.  You look outside and take a photo of the snow falling on your deck.  You’re watching the news, and the weather person asks you to “tweet us,” or “send in those pictures.”  So you Tweet, email or Facebook that shot right on their site.  Next thing you know, your snow-covered deck is on the evening news, if for less than a second.  You call your family and tell them about it.  Maybe it will be on again.  You tell your uncle Joe to “watch Channel 7.”  And the cycle continues.  If you don’t take a photo, you can just tweet your thoughts, and just maybe the station will retweet or even broadcast those.  In social media terminology, you are now engaged.
So what happens when the weather is nice?  Well that can always change, and that’s the beauty of the weather forecast in local news. Weather is good for ratings.

Here is a typical weather-outside standup with non-typical ending:

Friday, January 10, 2014

Pirates' Logo Shift a Lesson on Brand Equity

This post is not about baseball.  It’s about branding.  More to the point, it’s about some of the thinking that went into the updating of an iconic brand, and some perspectives on what the latest change says.

So here’s the latest.  The Pittsburgh Pirates announced this week they will use the gold “P” from its cap to serve as the organization’s primary brand design. 

This means that the “P” will serve as the primary logo for the Pirates, replacing a scowling buccaneer with red bandana and eye patch.  This is the first time since the 1930s that the franchise will not use a cartoon variation of a pirate to serve as the team’s primary logo.

At the same time, the team announced it will continue to use the buccaneer cartoon on uniform sleeves for the time being.  The one feature that is gone is a black, gold and red font that accompanied the most recent version of the buccaneer logo.

Instead, the ball club is sticking with basic black and gold.  The “P” and its iconic font will come to stand for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ brand.  The recognizable font from the front of the Pirates’ jerseys will serve as the complement to the “P” in all official marketing, communications and merchandising efforts.

Now here’s where it can get a little confusing.  The media this week has referred to the buccaneer cartoon as the “Jolly Roger” but a true Jolly Roger is a skull and cross bones, not a cartooned pirate.  So, when Pirate announcers say, “Raise the Jolly Roger,” after a Pirates’ win, more often than not, the flag you’d expect to see is the skull and cross bones, not the cartooned buccaneer. 

Not to worry, though, the Pirates’ merchandising department has seen to it that a broad number of flag variations continue to serve the purpose of raising that flag with a win.

My experience with the brand

From 1987 to 1997, I provided PR support to the Pirates on a number of matters.  During that time, we experienced a change in ownership and a push for a new ballpark.  Tied to this was an effort to refocus the brand.

In 1996, the team was planning a change to the logo, the uniforms, everything.  But it didn’t want to get away from its roots.  In fact, it wanted to freshen up the brand while at the same time returning to its brand roots.

On the field, the team was wearing some non-descript uniforms, staying true to the Pirates’ script for home jerseys but using a cursive “Pittsburgh” on away uniforms. The buccaneer at the time was a relatively recent updating of an older design of a pirate with a handle-bar mustache. 

Out with the old, in with the … older

In 1996 and 1997, we conducted a series of focus groups and did some research to finalize a new look.  We corralled a cross-section of people to get their opinions of some of the logo and uniform designs the Pirates were considering.

I remember how we ended up narrowing it to the buccaneer the team still features.  As I recall, it was essentially between him and another design where the buccaneer had a more speckled beard, a sea-faring pirate's hat and a bandana, and rounder chin.  Again, an updated version of an older cartoon logo.  The participants didn’t like the beard. They thought it looked messy. They didn’t like him wearing a pirate hat, and preferred the bandana.  And since goatees were in style, they gravitated to that type of beard.

The team responded with what I think is a pretty sharp design.  I still like seeing that feature on the Pirates’ players’ sleeves.  It’s part of the charm of the game.

On the uniform front, we showed the focus groups all sorts of artists’ renderings of uniforms and even had some front office staffers “model” some prototypes.  The feedback was definitive.

They liked the idea of an alternate jersey in black.  They wanted one.  And at that time, they liked the novelty of returning to the 1960s vest-style Pirate uniforms.  The black Pirate hat with that recognizable “P” was never questioned, though alternate caps were welcomed.   And the Pirate font used on the primary jerseys was a non-negotiable, even for those kids who didn’t yet have a true brand history with the team.

Brands evolve

Change is not a bad thing when it comes to branding.  The key is to find the right balance of preserving whatever that is about the old brand that resonates with targeted audiences – brand equity - while at the same time updating it, keeping it relevant.

I think the Pirates are doing just that.  They’re preserving that iconic “P.”  They’re following a pattern in Major League Baseball where teams build their brands around the letters on the caps the players wear.  The Yankees, the Red Sox, the Braves, the Cardinals.  All storied ball clubs with iconic letters on their ball caps that are the franchise brands.  And the Pirates are seeking to elevate and clarify their own brand in the same way without competition from their own cartooned buccaneer.

So, what is it about brand equity and why should it matter?

Think of it this way. Let’s say you have fond memories of going to the ballpark as a kid with your family.  Let’s say you were a fan.  You followed the team on TV, on the radio.  You had a favorite player.

Then you see that logo later in life and it brings it all back.  The constant of that logo taps emotional feelings of loyalty and affinity.  You want to go back to the summer of your childhood, to the ballpark, and if you can’t, you just want a reminder of that time and all of the good things and good feelings that came with it.

And if you’re just a kid now - or even an adult - experiencing some of these things for the first time, a strong brand will help define that experience for you.  That’s the power of a brand.  That’s brand equity.

My hope is that they preserve the buccaneer or even give him a fresh look again at some point, and not to force him to walk the plank.  He’s been good for the ball club for many, many years.  And if they keep him in some fashion, merchandise sales won’t be any worse for wear.


UPDATE: The Pirates issued a statement clarifying that the buccaneer cartoon will be preserved as a secondary logo.  Here's the story: Pirates Stand by Jolly Roger

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Don't Forget the Conference Call When Planning a Media Event

To have a press conference, or not to have a press conference, that is often the question.  To many PR pros, this is a dreaded question because we know how reporters work these days. They work in a world of time-crunched, short-staffed news rooms.  Most reporters I know tend to work on one story, knowing that there’s another story at that very moment that requires their attention.

Since a reporter can’t be in two places at one time, it helps to be in one place with access to two places in pretty close to real time - in other words, at their desks, on the telephone.

So, when we plan press conferences, we know it will be difficult to impossible to predict how the media will respond to such events. We know that as often as not, last-minute developments and other factors beyond our control could come to play. 

Another key factor is geography.  Some reporters with an interest in a story simply don’t live and work near where the news is to take place, and they can’t justify to their editors the time and expense of travel.

That’s where a planned conference call can make all the difference.  Recently, I handled a press event that was very well received in the traditional sense.  The room was packed with reporters and others.  And while that alone made the event a success, even better was that we supplemented access via teleconference. 

The reporters from all over the country on that line outnumbered the reporters in the room, and they represented a solid cross-section of the media we needed to reach.  They were able to listen to the event, submit questions, and we were able to have our spokespersons address them in the live event.

Other times, you may want to structure media teleconferences with more dynamic capabilities, from providing real-time conference call access to spokespersons for live Q&A, to the ability to archive the event for online playback later. 

While this technology is certainly not new, it still surprises me how often some organizations continue to plan press events without teleconference access. 

The simple tip here is just to make sure that any time you plan a press event, make sure to include a teleconference component. 

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Tim O'Brien, APR, is owner of O'Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh PR firm.