Thursday, May 19, 2011

Run For Your Lives!

I like horror movies.  I do.  There's nothing better than sitting back and getting a good scare.  The kind of scare that makes you jump out of your seat and scream and spew popcorn across three aisles in front of you.  Sadly, my love of horror hasn't helped me much in my professional life.  Truth be told, it hasn't helped me much in my personal life either, but that's a different story. 

As it turns out, I just wasn't thinking far enough outside the box.  This realization came to me today as I ripped through my Twitter feed checking for any interesting stories.  That's when I came across THIS little gem from the Los Angeles Times and local TV station, KUSA (click on the links to read the entire article or watch the video)

Preparing for a zombie apocalypse? The CDC weighs in

CDC advises on Zombie apocalypse
Zombies take over Hollywood Boulevard in a 2009 zombie walk. Would you be ready if they came to your neighborhood? (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Preparing for disasters has always been part of the mission of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from hurricanes to flu pandemics.

It was only a matter of time, then, before they decided to weigh in on another calamity of great concern to the public: the zombie apocalypse.
"That’s right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this," Dr. Ali S. Khan, an assistant surgeon general with the CDC and head of its office of Public Health Preparedness, wrote on the CDC's Public Health Matters blog.
I have to tell you, the instant I saw this article, I laughed, I chuckled, I shared and I laughed again.  But then I took a moment and thought to myself, "THIS IS BRILLIANT!"

I wasn't talking so much about the articles themselves, although the LA Times writing is excellent.  No, I had to marvel at the creativity and cleverness of the Center For Disease Control.  This, my friends is what we call a PR Home Run and there are some lessons to be learned from this particular news gem.

A "Newsy Sense of Humor":

Before I go on, I have to admit, I wish I had thought of something like this.  I also desperately wish I had been in the room when whoever it was pitched this idea during the PR meeting.  In my mind it goes something like this:
Person 1 - Any ideas of how we can make emergency preparedness more interesting and newsworthy?
Person 2 -  We could use the recent tornado and earthquake tragedies as a news peg.
Person 1 - We could, probably too soon, a little depressing, but a good idea.
Person 3 - Terrorism?
Person 1 - Bin Laden's dead, not timely.  Anyone else?  Anyone?  ANYONE?!
PR Intern - uhhhh....Zombie Apocalypse?
Person 1 - (choking on water) WHAT?!
PR Intern - I'm serious...how about a zombie apocalypse?
Person 1 - Errrrr....yeah, you know what?  Okay!
Allright, I'm pretty sure it didn't go down that way, but a man can dream, can't he?  Before we get too deep into the analysis here, I'm going to make a few assumptions.

1. The CDC is trying to reach a younger, more apathetic demographic
2. The CDC probably feels that their message is getting old and that they needed to spice it up a bit

By now, you've probably seen this story on the network news, in your local papers, on your local affiliates, heard it on the radio, heck, even NPR is running the story.  So how does a "fake" news story manage to get massive amounts of news coverage across the globe and shared millions of times in social media circles?

The answer is that the CDC did a masterful job of blending popular culture with a real news story with a real news peg.  And the incredible part is that they managed to do it about an issue that is generally VERY serious and, at least lately, involves stories centered around real life tragedy.

Zombies Rock:

Let's face it.  Zombies are awesome.  It doesn't matter if they're the slow-moving, dimwitted zombies from the 60's, or the lightning-fast brain-eaters from the late 90's.  They're popular, they're scary (usually) and everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is familiar with them.  Zombies have replaced vampires and werewolves as top monster (despite the best effort of that Moonlighting show...wait, not Moonlighting...you know what I'm talking about). 

That's what makes this latest CDC PR effort so effing genius.  The American public has been listening to the emergency preparedness message for decades now.  We've heard it so often, that for many of us, it's become a dull roar against the background of the rest of the news we're inundated with on a daily basis.

And yet, even though we see new zombie movies just about every year, we continue to love them, watch them, read about them; we can't get enough of them.

Zombies have enjoyed fifty years of mass appeal even as the emergency preparedness message has been relegated to the back pages of media outlets everywhere.  At some point, it probably occurred to someone that, hey, what could be more of an emergency besides a zombie apocalypse?  The nuclear threat has gone the way of the cold war, the threat of terrorism seems to have diminished a bit, the economy is picking up. 

What's left to be afraid of?  The answer, of course, turned out to be zombies.  So what if zombies don't exist outside of certain New Orleans neighborhoods?  If ever there was an emergency situation we can all get behind, it's a full-scale zombie attack.

Still Newsworthy:

But here's why the story REALLY works.  There was an actual newspeg behind the effort.  Yes, that newspeg happened to be the tragic deaths of hundreds in the U.S. and across the world due to severe natural disasters.  Within our own borders, the need for emergency preparedness plans is all too evident after watching the Mississippi jump its banks and twisters tear apart town after town in the South.

Yes, the loss of life is tragic.  The financial impact and the social upheaval is disastrous.  But we already know that.  We've all seen the pictures and, unfortunately, too many of us switched away to instead watch American Idol or Dancing With The Stars.  The stories themselves have become a bit old hat.  We're not only not shocked anymore by these disasters, we generally aren't paying much attention anymore.

Now, the CDC couldn't send out this release after the tornadoes, or after the initial flooding in the Midwest.  That would have been seen as insensitive, and rightly so.  But now, the flooding isn't as big of a threat, and enough time has passed since the tornadoes did their damage. 

Yet the newsworthiness of the story remains.  Being prepared for any kind of emergency, regardless of what it is, is still important.  Newsrooms realize this.  They KNOW it's a story they have to cover, it's just that they don't do it with any gusto anymore. 

Right after 9/11, emergency preparedness stories received ten minute, in-depth packages and three page spreads in the media.  In recent days, the same stories were lucky to get a :30 second VO or a sidebar mention.

One of the reasons I think this story really works is because the reporters, producers and editors immediately recognized the cleverness of the release.  The Tweets I saw from my friends still working in newsrooms seemed downright giddy.  They loved the story.  They giggled and guffawed as they posted the story on their websites, read it on the air and printed it in their papers.  They Tweeted it with lead-in's like, "I LOVE this story!" and "Thought everyone would enjoy this!"

The Breakdown:

So let's take a quick look at how this story worked, blow-by-blow.

1.  There was an actual newspeg (recent natural disasters)
2.  The information was wrapped inside a popular culture beast (literally and figuratively)
3.  The CDC made the connection between the fictitious event and a real emergency and the need to 
     be prepared in both instances
4.  The release made no overt effort to be jokey.  It was tongue-in-cheek serious and made its point as   
     if it were discussing a real event
5.  It was timed in such a way that it was still relevant without being insensitive

Trust me, this isn't as easy as the CDC made it look.  It took skill and knowledge and some creativity to pull this off, which they did in spades.

Extra Benefits:

Another stroke of genius is the social media aspect of this story.  Traditional emergency preparedness stories never make it as a social media viral posting.  When is the last time you saw a Facebook post about being ready in case of a sudden snowstorm or epic hailstorm?  The answer is, never.

And yet this story was burning up Facebook, it was blowing up on Twitter.  In a day it became about as popular as the "Talking Dog Tease" on YouTube.  I don't know if the CDC considered the social media aspect of the story, but because of the pop culture reference, and the uniqueness of the approach, the public saw exactly what the media saw, a funny, interesting story packed with real, useful information.

I suppose this story could have been couched in an alien attack, or a vampire scourge or an explosion of werewolves or teenage witches, but somehow I don't think it would have enjoyed the same success.  Had they picked aliens, it would have seemed a little too much "War of The Worlds".  Had they picked vampires, werewolves or teen witches, it would have seemed too cheesy.  It would have looked like they were trying too hard to connect with a younger generation and see relevant. 

By going with zombies, they managed to cross generational lines, be funny and informative at the same time, and look clever instead of desperate.  The particular pop culture reference made all the difference.

How To Do It:

Generally, I encourage you, as a small business owner or non-profit director to take risks, to think outside the box.  And trust me, I still do.  However in this case, I have to say, be careful.  Again, this isn't an easy thing to do.  You can see how the choice of choosing the specific pop culture reference made all the difference.  You can see how the timing had to be impeccable. 

Plus using a fictitious event to promote real information can be tricky if not properly presented.  The CDC got away with it because it's so well known and the story was one which had been presented regularly for decades.  Try doing this with a first-time pitch and you could run into trouble, or run the risk that journalists think your a bit batty.

However, with that said, if you want to use this technique to spice up your story pitch keep these things in mind.
1.  Make it useful - Your pitch has to have quality information, stuff that the everyday person can use and needs to know.  This makes it difficult for a lot of small businesses to capitalize on this technique

2.  Time it right - Like every other pitch, your story has to be timely and have a newspeg.  If it deals with serious, sad or tragic events, you'll have to wait and catch that tiny window between not being insensitive and still being relevant

3.  Choose your reference correctly - If you use this technique, you don't want to appear like you're just using a reference to attract a specific audience.  You want to look clever and smart, not like you're working too hard.  Your pop culture reference has to be something everyone can immediately relate to, like, you know...zombies!

4.  Don't try to be funny - Again, funny is in the eye of the beholder.  The CDC played it right by presenting the information as a real release, complete with background information and fictitious studies.  Yes, the story was humorous, but the CDC didn't present it that way.  There was a subtle wink to the reader, but we all knew what was happening right away and didn't need to be drawn in by jokes or overt humor.

5.  Use it sparingly - This isn't the kind of approach that will work over and over again.  This release worked because it came from a normally staid and conservative organization that normally doesn't do this kind of thing.  It caught the media off guard, it caught the general public off guard.  It was unique in both its presentation and in the fact that it hadn't been done by the CDC before.  However, if the CDC tries to use this approach too often, it will backfire and the media will simply stop paying attention to it.
***NOTE*** The exception to this is if the CDC uses this same approach in a year when it releases its annual emergency preparedness story.  Next time they might try "What to do if attacked by massive flocks of birds" or "How to be prepared in case the Mayan Calendar is correct."  This will work for a few years, but only if used once a year, as if part of a series.  Even then, in five years or so, it will get old and the media will have moved on.
So there you have it.  The breakdown of an honest-to-goodness PR homerun.  it doesn't happen everyday, and I rarely get as much joy writing about a particular press release or news story as I did with this one. 

In the end, what small businesses and non-profits can take away from this story is that it's okay to think outside the box, to be creative and take risks.  Yes, sometimes you'll fall flat on your face and your story won't be picked up.  But then there are those times when your story might actually become a news blockbuster and an internet sensation. 

Hey, it can happen...just like a zombie apocalypse.

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