Clear Initial Response From Sesame Workshop to Elmo Crisis

Within the last couple of months, Sesame Workshop, the company behind the iconic children’s show Sesame Street, has received quite a bit of press. First, on Oct. 3, Mitt Romney told the nation, “I love Big Bird,” adding that if elected president he would cut funding to PBS, the network that broadcasts Sesame Street.

Now, another character from the show has been thrown in the spotlight: Elmo. It was revealed that Kevin Clash, the voice behind Elmo, is being accused by a 23-year-old man of having an intimate relationship with him beginning when the accuser was 16.

It’s likely that Sesame Workshop communicators would rather be talking about Big Bird than Clash, the voice of  Elmo for 28 years.

But to its credit, Sesame Workshop wrote a blog post on Monday, Nov. 12, that was well-thought-out, transparent yet still open-ended. The post spelled out how Sesame Workshop investigated the allegations, which surfaced in June: 

“We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action. 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.”

At press time, there was no clear evidence that Clash’s accuser was underage during the relationship. TMZ did report on Nov. 13 that e-mails have surfaced between the two parties.

At the end of the post, Sesame Workshop clearly kept its options open in how it would handle the future of Clash as the voice of Elmo: “Elmo is bigger than any one person and will continue to be an integral part of Sesame Street to engage, educate and inspire children around the world, as it has for 40 years.”

So far so good for Sesame Workshop in terms of crisis messaging. The organization has clearly and honestly spelled out its position on the Clash matter. Here are five more tips (from the PR News Crisis Management Guidebook, Vol. 6) for crisis message clarity, from David Hamlin, partner at Weisman Hamlin PR in Los Angeles:

  • Junk the jargon: While attorneys and legal beat reporters know exactly what a “TRO” is, the rest of the world doesn’t. Use “temporary restraining order” instead, at least for the first usage.
  • Illuminate: Saying “...the First Amendment will be violated...” is less effective than saying “...the First Amendment right to freedom of assembly will be violated...”
  • Fill in the blanks: Don’t assume that strangers exposed to your statements share the same base of knowledge.
  • Craft carefully: A simple preposition can lead to significant misinformation. A “demonstration in Chicago” is not the same as a “demonstration through Chicago.” One stays put with modest disruption, and the other is a traffic snarling, logistically challenging parade.
  • Share and share alike: Before you release anything, make sure you have communicated with strangers effectively—as a test, share your communication with someone outside the communications team.

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About Scott Van Camp

Scott Van Camp is editor of PR News, an executive-level, reader-supported publication that helps enhance the business impact of PR. Scott has a rich background in both journalism and PR/marketing. He has more than 15 years of experience as a writer/editor at various consumer and trade publications. Scott was with VNU Business Publications for five years, including stints as managing editor at IQ News and Technology Marketing magazines and senior editor at Brandweek. In the PR/marketing sphere, he has served as corporate communications manager at MarketBridge, a marketing and sales consultancy, and as editorial director for the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council. While at the Council, Scott led several high-profile marketing research projects. He has also operated his own communications and media consulting firm, SVC Communications.

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