Unlikely PR genius: Big Bird

Brands can learn from PBS’s response to Mitt Romney vowing to cut government subsidies for the network.


The last time Big Bird made this much of a splash in the political world, he had just appeared on “The West Wing.” But in Wednesday night’s presidential debate, the “Sesame Street” favorite entered the real political fray and not the fictional one spun by Aaron Sorkin.

The fallout—a social media uproar and a savvy PR move from PBS—is something brands should note.

Nearly 30 minutes into Wednesday’s debate, Mitt Romney vowed to cut government funding for the iconic character and all his pals at PBS (including Jim Lehrer). “I like PBS, I like Big Bird, I actually like you, too,” Romney said to Lehrer. Ending subsidies to PBS and NPR is one way the GOP candidate plans to help fund his proposals.

The comment touched off a social media frenzy, with “Big Bird” grabbing 17,000 times per minutes and “PBS” getting 10,000 tweets per minute. The Los Angeles Times noted that “Big Bird” was the fourth-highest-rising search term on Google.

Naturally, a series of fake Twitter accounts popped up within minutes, along with an enduring #SaveBigBird hashtag.

The surge in attention wasn’t entirely organic. To sustain interest, PBS made a series of strategic tweets and comments, as well as an opportune ad buy on Twitter.

It began with a tweet from Big Bird, who said:

It was retweeted more than 12,000 times and favorited by more than 2,000 people.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street,” followed up with this tweet:

Later, Sesame Workshop tweeted a link to its blog, which offered this longer statement:

“Sesame Street has been a proud partner of PBS for 43 years, and is dependent on PBS to distribute our commercial-free educational programming to all children in the United States. At a time when improvements in school readiness are recognized as being much needed for a significant number of America’s preschoolers, PBS’s ability to connect Big Bird and Friends to these children is essential. We highly value that connection. Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization. We do not comment on political campaigns, but we’re happy we can all agree that everyone likes Big Bird.”

PBS, meanwhile, issued this strongly worded statement:

“Governor Romney does not understand the value the American people place on public broadcasting and the outstanding return on investment the system delivers to our nation.”

Behind the scenes, PBS made an ad buy on Twitter for the phrase “Big Bird.” Mashable reports:

“Those who search for the ‘Big Bird’ on the social network will see an advertisement for PBS at the top, which says, ‘PBS is trusted, valued and essential.’ The ad then directs users to check out valuepbs.org, a website full of statistics about the network’s reach, public service initiatives and how much it really costs taxpayers ($1.35 a year.)”

Mashable said that companies could learn from “Sesame Street” about how to “turn a meme into a marketing opportunity.”

According to ABC News, roughly 15 percent of PBS’s funding comes from government subsidies, although that percentage is much higher for rural PBS stations. An executive at the station told CNN last week that if the government zeroed out subsides for PBS, “Sesame Street” would continue to exist.

President Obama tried to make political hay from Romney’s statement, saying in a press conference on Thursday:

“Thank goodness someone is finally getting tough on Big Bird. We didn’t know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit. That’s what we heard last night.”

Later, during a rally in Madison, Wis., the president fired up a large crowd of supporters with this line: “But I just want to make sure I got this straight. He’ll get rid of regulations on Wall Street—but he’s going to crack down on Sesame Street.”

Since at least the 1990s, government subsidies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have been a part of the culture wars, according to the L.A. Times.

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