You can learn a lot from a slow jam

Every once in a while, we in the communications world are hit with a PR crisis that comes from nowhere. Personally, I’ve lived to tell the tale of several “out of the blue” crises. Early in my career, I cut my crisis communications teeth on a run at the savings and loan where I worked in the marketing department. Several years ago, I was the media relations manager for an HMO when a reporter called me at 4:55 pm on a Friday to ask why we weren’t covering an experimental, out of network cancer treatment for one of our patients.

In both cases, we couldn’t have predicted the story. But many times, we can. We know when we’re going to eliminate a program, cut staff or close an office. We know when we’re going to build a new building in an area of town that might not embrace our business. We know when we’re going to close a section of a major street for construction. And when we know these things, it’s vital to get in front of the issue and tell our story before someone else tells it for us, because there’s nothing worse than playing catch up and cleaning up the facts after the public has been misled.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti gets a gold star for getting in front of what could have been a PR disaster this past weekend. A 220-foot section of the deteriorating 84-year-old Sixth Street Viaduct began on Friday morning and was scheduled to end at 2 pm on Sunday…Super Bowl Sunday. The only way to demolish the bridge was to close a 2.5-mile stretch of the 101 Freeway – one of the busiest freeways in the area and the country.

Mayor Garcetti not only got in front of the story by announcing the freeway closure, he let Los Angeles drivers know about the upcoming “101 SlowJam” with…a slow jam.

Garcetti, along with students from LA’s Roosevelt High School’s jazz band in front of the Sixth Street Bridge, recorded a slow jam music video-style public service announcement. The result was not only fabulous, but the response was positive.

Yes, they could have simply issued a news release. Yes, Garcetti could have delivered a similar message in a news conference in front of the bridge or in interviews with the media. But isn’t this music video more entertaining? The video has 1.4 million views on Facebook and over 16,000 Likes and 18,000 shares, as well as more than 87,000 views on YouTube. Plus, the PSA received widespread media coverage across LA, as well as national and international outlets including NPR and the BBC.

If you have difficult news to deliver, don’t panic. Get in front of the issue and tell your story. And don’t be afraid to take a chance like Mayor Garcetti, “because, sometimes you’ve gotta get your hands dirty to make something beautiful.”

And PS – the bridge opened hours ahead of schedule at 10 am Sunday.