Elmo story tickled me, the media, my class

OK, I probably shouldn’t be giggling over the story of a man whose life was threatened when he refelmo.jpgused to give up his new Tickle Me Elmo dolls. It happened in a Target store in Tampa, and no one there was laughing. But how can you NOT manage a smirk over some lunatic who risks a felony charge (he claimed he had a gun and would shoot the other customer if he didn’t give up the dolls) for some goofy $40 toy?

I led a discussion about the story in my Media Relations class yesterday at Kent State, and together the students and I explored three different lessons.

The historypt.jpg lesson. Publicity triggered by a shortage of Elmo dolls would have delighted P. T. Barnum, a guy who’s often mentioned in the PR textbooks as a pioneer of press agentry. Press agentry, if you’ll flip to the academic side for a sec, is step one in the evolution of PR practice models. So the Elmo story provided my class a nice opportunity to reflect on the roots of our profession, however unsavory they may be.

The media relations lesson. The broad distribution of the Target/Elmo story is sad commentary onbullseye.gif the sort of trivia that makes headlines today — especially on television news. But I remind students that our job is to serve our clients in the environment as it is. We don’t get to dictate what the media want to cover. We can only suggest. That means celebrity worship and pop culture gimmicks sometimes become part of the marketing/PR arsenal, because it’s clearly what many media gatekeepers are seeking. Of course, the Tampa Elmo story wasn’t orchestrated by PR and was legitimate news at the local level, but its national pickup still reflects a morphing set of “news values.”

The Ethics/Crisis Lesson. We can’t fault Target or Elmo’s manufacturer, Mattel. They just put Elmo on the shelf, a move that’s clearly delighting their customers — one to the point of violence! Fact is, Target is one of the more socially responsible retailers, a badge earned through a generous community giving program and balanced employee-relations philosophy.
So I asked the students how they, as PR pros, might have responded to media inquiries had they been working for Mattel or Target.

Do you express your regrets for anguish of the victims? Do you apologize for something that wasn’t your fault? Or do you make some bold political statement about gun control (remembering you’re in Florida)? FYI, at this writing, nothing about the Elmo story appears in Target’s online newsroom.

The responsible move for Target is to assure that similar melees don’t break out in other stores. And Target, being Target, addressed that problem immediately. Instead of stacking Elmo out where shoppers can battle for them, Target is issuing Elmo gift cards that essentially buy you a spot on the waiting list. When your Elmo arrives, customer service gives you a call.

No more Elmo displays for eager customers to battle over, however, means one great story angle just disappeared, ergo less promotional visibility for poor Elmo.

So I’m gonna ask my class next week to brainstorm this one. We’ll start with a simple question: What would P. T. Barnum do?

Feel free to use the comment box to help us out!

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