Has Occupy Wall Street clarified its message?

The Occupy Wall Street movement draws mixed reviews from PR pros. Some say protesters have effectively highlighted financial inequality, but others say its messaging is murky.

Early in the Occupy Wall Street movement that has captured global attention, Adam Nelson dropped by New York City’s Zuccotti Park to visit friends who were protesting there.

“The news story of the day was the decline of Ray’s Pizza, and there wasn’t much messaging coming from the park,” says Nelson, who is CEO of Workhouse Publicity.

Nelson shot photos and emailed them to a list of 500,000 subscribers worldwide. Thus he began his pro bono PR work for the movement that blasts corporate greed—and is dominating the news Thursday with its attempts to shut down Wall Street.

The story is as big as it gets from a PR perspective, and Workhouse isn’t toiling alone. A committee of protesters is handing communications, creating Facebook pages, tweeting, and fielding calls from the media. But is their message hitting home?

A new opinion poll suggests the public is turning against OWS. Support for its goals, at 35 percent, was lower than for those of the Tea Party, at 42 percent.

Nelson disputes the poll, saying the movement is resonating worldwide and drawing thousands to the streets. But PR pros are divided about the success of its communications.

Canny cultivation of the media

Dorothy Crenshaw, CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications, praised OWS’s canny cultivation of the media and public sympathy. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s evacuation of Zuccotti Park seems to have strengthened the movement, she suggests. But she sees risks in the protesters’ tactics of shutting down streets and subway stations.

She adds: “If they start to disrupt the commute or work schedule of so-called ‘regular people’—part of that huge 99 percent who are just trying to get through the workday and earn a living—I think they risk losing the very group that should be most sympathetic.”

The movement’s PR efforts drew derision from Fraser P. Seitel, managing partner of Emerald Partners and author of The Practice of Public Relations. OWS, he says, has “botched an opportunity to capture public opinion and achieve something. Americans, by every measure, distrust the politicians who run Washington and lead major institutions. So public opinion was ripe for the plucking.”

However, the movement blew it by having no overriding purpose, stated goals, or visible leadership, he says, and it is increasingly perceived as a bunch of publicity-hungry complainers intent on disrupting others who are making a living.

“Occupy Wall Street is right about one thing,” he says. “The whole world is watching. And it’s generally repulsed by what it’s seen.”

Workhouse’s Nelson says the on-the-ground movement’s messaging is led by a work group dedicated to PR, and it includes people who have backgrounds in communications. “They’re very savvy,” Nelson says.

Monitoring Twitter feeds Thursday, Crenshaw noted a savvy use of social media by protesters. It wasn’t just slogans and platitudes, she says, but what appeared to be firsthand experiences. Twitter users accused police of roughing up protesters, and @Washingtonpost said officers in Seattle pepper-sprayed an 84-year-old woman named Dorli Rainey.

Messaging through many channels

Reached by phone Thursday, protester Sandra Nurse said the public outreach has been extensive.

“We have great messaging that we’ve put a ton of work into,” Nurse said. “We’ve done social media, we’ve done press releases, we’ve done fliers. We’ve done every outlet we could do.”

The media office of the New York Stock Exchange, which OWS is seeking to shut down, declined to comment.

Peter Himler, of Flatiron Communications, says the movement fails from a PR perspective on a number of basic points. Typically, when a PR firm works with a client, you come up with the tangible business results you’d like to see; then you devise a strategy of press, content creation, or events.

OWS hasn’t decided what specific action it wants to achieve, he says.

“Other than the grousing about we don’t like the banks, we don’t like the government—I don’t know what the specific demands are,” says Himler, who has blogged about the movement from a PR point of view. “It’s a very unorthodox campaign whose primary goal, it seems to me, is just keeping the Occupy Wall Street protesters in the media, on television. … But the coverage is the end for them, not the means to the end.”

On the contrary, says Workhouse’s Nelson. The messaging has caught fire worldwide.

“All of these [protests] are symbolic,” he says. “All of these are to keep it front-page, top-of-mind, international news. And they have accomplished that. What started as youth in a park is now a global movement… in 951 cities and so many countries. And it grows every day.”

Workhouse lists clients such as Virgin Megastore, Interview Magazine, and the Rubin Museum of Art. Some might be shy about working with a firm that takes on a controversial movement, but Nelson says his clients haven’t minded.

“I don’t think that Occupy Wall Street was saying that big brands shouldn’t live,” Nelson says. “I don’t think that they were saying that nobody should shop at Macy’s. What they were really saying that everybody’s entitled to the same things: a job, family, relief from economic injustice. It’s the idea that we’re all one layoff away from joining youth in a park.”

Russell Working is a staff writer at Ragan Communications. Follow him on Twitter @russellworking.

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