The Western New York region and the binational Niagara Falls are hours away from being in the international spotlight. All the attention stems from one man’s quest to achieve the seemingly impossible: Walk from the U.S. to Canada, directly over the roaring Niagara Falls, on a high-wire
The daredevil’s name is Nik Wallenda
, and by 11 p.m. EST on June 15, 2012, he may become a household name around the world. ABC News, among many networks worldwide, will broadcast the coverage live that evening. Whether or not Wallenda has a flawless walk, he already proved he has more PR-savvy than most seasoned professionals.
At least I think so. I had the pleasure of working with him and news outlets from around the world as he trained for 11 straight days
on a 1,200-foot long, 50-foot high high-wire above the parking lot of the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel
. For a practitioner considered by most to be just entering “mid-career level,” this was a seemingly gift-wrapped opportunity for professional development.
But the person from whom I learned the most was Wallenda. His skill with reporters left me in awe, and he displayed the same cool-as-a-cucumber sense of balance as his walking on a two-inch-thick cable. Perhaps his skill cannot be taught, but there are many lessons we can glean.
1. You control the interview.
Wallenda once said to me: “Some reporters like to think they’re the ones dictating the interview. They’d like to think they hold the cards—but they don’t.” He went on to explain that this way of thinking wasn’t a sense of arrogance, rather, that the person being interviewed controls the message and can (and should) choose to remain confident throughout the conversation.
2. Every outlet is important.
Whether it was a crew with “60 Minutes Australia” or a local video blogger, Wallenda treated every reporter with respect. Perhaps it’s in his blood—as a seventh generation circus and stunt performer—to be his own best publicist, but Wallenda believed that one good statement on national television versus one on a local blog was equal. It’s a way all PR practitioners and their CEOs ought to think, especially in an age of instantaneous information and where an “i-Reporter” can become a top journalist overnight.
3. Stay on message and repeat it as needed—no matter what.
At Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, Wallenda engaged media and the public in a daily debriefing, in addition to countless one-on-one interviews—even while walking the wire—from morning until night. He heard many of the same questions asked again and again. (Are you nervous? Have you ever fallen before? How well do you think the training sessions are preparing you for the June 15 walk? Are you crazy
?) But Wallenda answered each question directly and honestly just like it was the first time he heard it. And the repetition generated both clarity and excitement for all who would listen.
4. Be real.
Whether it was his devout religious faith, uneasiness about learning he would have to wear an uncomfortable safety harness for the June 15 walk, or frank discussions about past stunts from his relatives, Wallenda always “told it like it is” and opened up just enough to show a human side while promoting his “brand.” That sense of refreshing talk is exactly what made local and regional outlets come back day after day, knowing there would be something different, yet still newsworthy, to cover.
Wallenda made these principles seem so easy—just like walking the high-wire. Yet he’s not a PR professional by trade; we are. If he can do it, so can we. So should
History is about to happen in Niagara Falls. For some news outlets around the world, today’s event will be one of the most talked-about stories of 2012. For Wallenda, it’s a childhood dream come to fruition. For PR professionals, it’s a reminder of what
makes news and how
that news is shaped. As Wallenda’s great-grandfather, the famous Karl Wallenda, once said: “Life is on the wire—everything else is just waiting.”
Tony Astran is the publicity manager at Seneca Gaming Corporation and director-at-large for PRSA Buffalo Niagara Chapter.