This week’s New York Magazine includes an intriguing profile of a crisis response team that’s been in the news quite a bit lately: the PR group representing Sesame Street puppetmasters The Sesame Workshop. The profile seems even more relevant given the ongoing Elmo-related drama that culminated in puppeteer Kevin Clash’s abrupt resignation this morning.
Protecting the interests of Big Bird, Cookie Monster and the press-averse Snuffleupagus seems like a fairly low-risk job, but Sesame Street deals with more PR challenges than you’d expect–even if we leave out the Elmo kerfuffle. Day-to-day crises range from longtime fans’ “sellout” accusations to a multitude of unlicensed usage cases involving trademarked and extremely valuable characters.
This year, for example, the team had to do its best to “clamp down on” a glut of sexy Big Bird costumes—and we didn’t even mention the Change.org petition demanding that the company force Bert and Ernie out of the closet. Must have been hard to write a serious press release about that one.
Ironically or not (depending on your political sensibilities), the team’s leader is whip-smart Sherrie Rollins Westin, a veteran of the George H.W. Bush White House and former wife of longtime Republican strategist Ed Rollins (who briefly managed Michele Bachman‘s amazing 2012 presidential campaign). The team also includes former Newsweek CEO Tom Ascheim and Myung Kang-Huneke, who previously represented the New York City Housing Authority (an organization that’s perpetually defending itself against lawsuits). In other words, these guys do NOT mess around.
Like true professionals, group members only spoke to New York on condition of anonymity. Most interestingly, they pointed out the fact that Sesame Street is much, much more than a children’s television program: It’s a non-profit organization and a merchandising monolith with a significant presence in pretty much every country around the world. Its PR team juggles responsibility for everything from educational projects to licensing deals, philanthropic projects and political engagements (which we take to mean awesome guest appearances like this one, in which Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor dispenses career advice to an ambitious Muppet named Abby).
Seems like almost everyone wants a little piece of that Sesame Street magic. So what did we learn from this brief profile? That the interests of the Sesame Street brand are no laughing matter–and that The Sesame Workshop hired some of the best in the business to defend them. Will they overcome the latest obstacle to fall in their path? We have no doubt that they will. As one of the team’s anonymous members put it on Monday: “Elmo is bigger than any one person.”
Indeed he is.