As my daughter’s second birthday approaches on December 5, on the top of my shopping list written a few weeks ago is a well-known, furry, lovable character – Elmo. In light of recent allegations against Kevin Clash, the now resigned voice of Elmo, the question asked by many including the Wall Street Journal becomes will she be receiving any Elmo presents this year?
My answer is a resounding yes, which makes me wonder: where is PBS’s support for the character Elmo, and the lessons he represents?
My daughter doesn’t understand there’s a voice behind her furry pal. To her, the character is all that matters. Much like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, Elmo is real. And Elmo is Elmo. Clash isn’t Elmo. Elmo will have a new voice – a voice to continue to teach children life lessons and skills. After all, isn’t that the message PBS has always been trying to send?
Two months ago, rumblings that Romney would pull the plug on PBS – thus Sesame Street funding – resulted in outcry and support of our lovable friends, calling PBS “America’s biggest classroom.” Today the voices of both PBS and the producers of Sesame Street are relatively silent, with exception of a short statement thanking Clash for helping them achieve their mission for 28 years.
As we are entering the busiest shopping season of the year, is this the best crisis communications approach? Will it help the long-term potential stigma fade away? Or will this ultimately result in Elmo’s downfall alongside his iconic voice?
To answer these questions, let’s look at some of the crisis communication basics:
Don’t remain silent. PBS was quick to issue an initial suspension sharing that Clash had made poor judgment and misused the company internet. However, as allegations continued to surface, their communications have quieted. Proactive support of the future of Elmo is a necessary next step in his reputation’s recovery. There were three Elmo voices before Clash and he certainly will not be the last.
Forego misdirected support. Sesame Workshop’s statement, “This is a sad day for Sesame Street,” lends support to Clash. Much like the lessons learned from the Penn State scandal, the statement should have also focused on the victims and allegations at hand, rather than Clash’s past work.
Get your message out on your terms. Hasbro, the main toy licensee, has released a statement in support of Elmo: “We are confident that Elmo will remain an integral part of ‘Sesame Street’ and that ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Sesame Street’ toys will continue to delight children for years to come.” But PBS and Sesame Workshop have yet to vocalize their support of Elmo’s future. They should be spearheading this outlook, giving a more positive perception to the fate of Elmo for parents and children alike.
So as PBS looks for sunnier days – sweeping these clouds away – it must separate itself from Clash, instead remembering that it’s Elmo who teaches right from wrong and how to get from here to there. Clash’s alleged actions are deplorable and inexcusable, but those are his actions and NOT those of Elmo. As the search for a new voice begins, PBS must remember that its message – not the voice behind it – is what matters.