It’s been a tough year for “Sesame Street.”
The iconic children’s empire has faced several PR crises, from Mitt Romney’s threat to defund PBS (despite his claiming, “I like Big Bird”) to accusations of inappropriate sexual relationships lodged against the Elmo puppeteer.
Good thing the organization behind “Sesame Street” has such a savvy PR team.
Here are four things you didn’t know about the communicators at Sesame Workshop:
1. Their handling of the Elmo puppeteer situation is textbook crisis PR.
Last week, a 23-year-old man alleged that Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo, had carried on an inappropriate sexual relationship with him when the accuser was 16. Later, the man recanted the accusation, only to lodge it again, claiming he had been pressured to back away from his claims after receiving a cash payoff from Clash.
On Tuesday, Clash resigned
from “Sesame Street” after a second accuser emerged.
Sesame Workshop issued an immediate response, calling it a “sad day for Sesame Street”:
Sesame Workshop’s mission is to harness the educational power of media to help all children the world over reach their highest potential. Kevin Clash has helped us achieve that mission for 28 years, and none of us, especially Kevin, want anything to divert our attention from our focus on serving as a leading educational organization. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Kevin’s personal life has become a distraction that none of us want, and he has concluded that he can no longer be effective in his job and has resigned from Sesame Street.
Sesame Workshop released a statement when the story about Clash and his accuser first broke, indicating the organization takes “the allegation very seriously and took immediate action.”
It then described the actions:
“We met with the accuser twice and had repeated communications with him. We met with Kevin, who denied the accusation. We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated. Although this was a personal relationship unrelated to the workplace, our investigation did reveal that Kevin exercised poor judgment and violated company policy regarding Internet usage and he was disciplined.”
Clash was put on leave as the company sorted it out.
magazine, which profiled the Sesame PR team this week
, joined other media outlets and commentators in praising the response. Despite the praise and well-written response, an employee at Sesame Workshop told New York
’s Reid Cherlin, “You’re never prepared for this type of situation.”
2. The team is packed with experience (and includes former GOP operatives).
Credit the “measured response,” as Cherlin described it, to the experience of the people running Sesame Workshop’s PR team. According to New York magazine
“At the center of Sesame Street’s crisis responses since 1998 has been executive vice-president Sherrie Rollins Westin, a veteran of the first Bush White House and a former assistant secretary of HUD … it’s an irony of her current position that she applies combat skills learned in Republican politics to prevent conservatives from turning her fuzzy charges into symbols of big-government excess or sexual depravity. She’s joined by general counsel Myung Kang-Huneke, previously a litigator for ABC and the ever-challenged New York City Housing Authority. The team also includes former Newsweek CEO Tom Ascheim. A puppetry club this is not.”
As the story mentions, “Sesame Street” has taken regular flak from small-government conservatives who want to ax federal funding for the children’s show. The matter became a hot topic in the 2012 presidential election when during the first debate GOP nominee Mitt Romney said he’d put the show—mentioning Big Bird by name—on the chopping block. President Obama used his statement in an attack ad.
3. They’ve embraced social media in a big way.
Big Bird went viral on Twitter moments after Romney’s threat, grabbing 17,000 mentions per minute. Naturally, fake Twitter accounts for Big Bird popped up, along with a #SaveBigBird hashtag.
Sesame Workshop grabbed the online buzz
and rode with it.
First, @SesameStreet issued this tweet, which has garnered nearly 13,000 retweets:
The @SesameWorkshop feed followed up with this tweet:
Later, Sesame Workshop tweeted a link to its blog, which featured a longer statement from the organization.
That wasn’t the only time Sesame Street has sidestepped a brewing crisis with the help of social media. In the summer of 2011, a petition on Change.org urged Sesame Workshop to let Bert and Ernie marry each other. The petition read:
“We are not asking Sesame Street to do anything crude or disrespectful…. It can be done in a tasteful way. Let us teach tolerance of those that are different.”
Sesame Workshop responded, with a hint of jest, on its Facebook page:
“Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves.
“Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most “Sesame Street” Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
The snappy remark helped put the topic to rest.
4. They’re looking for interns.
Aspiring PR professionals interested in working with Sesame Workshop can get their foot in the door through one of the organization’s internships.
You can learn more about them here
Also, you can read how one young PR pro leveraged her connections, and LinkedIn, to land an internship gig at Sesame: “Finding My Way to Sesame Street