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Hamilton and the Power of Narrative

By Mike Kuczkowski


In 2003, I wrote a 367-word biography of Alexander Hamilton for Columbia University as part of the Columbia 250 celebration.

I remember struggling with it and the 30 or so other biographies we had committed to write for the launch of the Columbia 250 web site (an innovative idea back then). How to tell the story in what was supposed to be 250 words of such an accomplished, intelligent, intriguing and comparatively underappreciated figure? So many facts, so little space. Hamilton wasn’t quite Washington, Jefferson, Franklin or Adams, but he was fascinating. I mean, the guy was an orphan from the Caribbean who basically invented the American banking system as we know it. How do you do that story justice?

Thankfully Lin-Manuel Miranda, with help from Ron Chernow, has answered that question. Apparently, it involves 20,520 words, a hip-hop score, a Broadway stage and period dress.

I am, at the moment, obsessed with Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. Miranda started working on the musical in 2009 after picking up Chernow’s award-winning 2005 biography of Hamilton on a vacation (Chernow serves as an historical advisor to the show) and recognizing Hamilton’s potential as not just an interesting biographical story but as a human story (an American story) that would resonate broadly.

Hamilton has been lauded for many things: bringing modern beats to the stage in the telling of an historical tale; redefining the pace of the modern musical; using contemporary language to express 18th century ideas; and fielding a cast of diverse actors as our founding fathers telling the story of our nation’s birth. All of which are remarkable. I find its storytelling to be its most outstanding feature. Here’s why:

  • In “Alexander Hamilton,” we meet a young Hamilton as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” who grows up to join the American Revolution and makes a name for himself as Washington’s right-hand man. Boom, right off the bat, something we are not expecting.
  • He introduces us to Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s contemporary, rival and ultimately his killer, as an entirely sympathetic figure. Even if we know Burr from the history books, Miranda endows him with an intriguing point of view and bearing. “Talk less. Smile more,” he advises Hamilton early on. “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
  • We hear, in “My Shot,” how Hamilton is “young, scrappy and hungry”’ just like his country.

In a recent interview, Miranda described the purposefulness with which he wrote the lyrics for the musical’s first few songs:

“For me, the fun of writing My Shot is, it’s Hamilton’s declaration of purpose and I wanted to demonstrate his intellect and his ambition not just in what he was saying but in the way he was saying it. So, prior to his arrival and singing “my shot,” the other guys in that bar, right – (John ) Laurens, (Hercules) Mulligan and (Marquis de) Lafayette, are rhyming at the end of the line. It’s:

– I’m John Laurens in the place to be! Two pints o’ Sam Adams, but I’m workin’ on three!

We rhyme at the end of the line. And then here comes Hamilton, and suddenly we’re getting a lot of internal assonance and a lot of internal rhyming. And not content to just rhyme at the end of the line, but you know, have these big pun-esque lyrics, you know.

– I know the action in the streets is exciting, but Jesus between all the bleedin’ ‘n’ fightin’ I’ve been readin’ ‘n’ writin’

They’re intricately tied together and if you consider that Hamilton is delivering this in real time, suddenly you’re like, whoa, this is the greatest freestyler who ever lived. And so, that was the fun in constructing that. And it was many days and months of work to sort of make his lyrics just that much more intricate than everybody else’s.”

I’m blown away by the care Miranda took with these choices. That’s art. That’s craftsmanship. (It’s worth noting how long that takes. Many days and months.)

The narrative unfolds with beauty, grit and elegance to match its complexity. Miranda introduces us to “The Schuyler Sisters,” who include Angelica Schuyler, the eldest sister to whom Hamilton introduces himself, her younger sister Eliza, whom Hamilton will later marry, and Peggy. None of it is simple.

  • In “Satisfied,” Angelica’s wedding toast to Hamilton and Eliza, we learn how deeply Angelica is drawn to Hamilton. She recounts their meeting, and how she sized him up “too quickly” (but not wrongly) as a penniless suitor and matched him with her sister, to Angelica’s lasting regret
  • In “Wait For It,” we hear Burr lay out his philosophy of life and power: If there are reasons why he is still alive, he’s willing to wait for it. He lays bare his secret. He’s not standing still, he’s lying in wait.
  • In “That Would Be Enough,” which I find to be the musical’s most moving song, Eliza pleads with Hamilton to moderate his ambitions. Hamilton: “Will you relish being a poor man’s wife, unable to provide for your life?” Eliza: “I relish being your wife. Look around, look around… Just stay alive, that would be enough.”

Hamilton describes the rise of Marquis de Lafayette as Washington’s lead commander, the Colonists’ victory at the Battle of Yorktown and the challenge of independent self-rule. We see it all through the eyes of Hamilton, a singular figure in the early days of our nation. Miranda makes complex events, like the Constitutional Conventions, the writing of the Federalist Papers, Washington’s early cabinet meetings, and the compromise over Hamilton’s economic plan, accessible.

Along the way, Miranda captures both Hamilton’s strengths (his brilliance and boldness) and weaknesses (ambition and his inability to shut up) in equal measure, humanizing a hard-to-humanize figure.

Miranda is a huge talent with the rare ability to pull it off. He has a MacArthur genius grant to his name, two Tony-award winning plays and a Pulitzer Prize. No slouch.

That said, those of us who manage the narratives of the companies we represent, either in-house or as consultants, should take some lessons from Hamilton, which takes a complex figure and finds a way to turn it into something relatable. That’s a challenge many of us confront with regularity.

Here are some lessons Hamilton holds for communicators:

  1. Start with origins: Miranda’s opening number “Alexander Hamilton” (which he previewed in 2009 at a White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word) summarizes the most compelling aspects of Hamilton’s biography and foreshadows his ambition and resourcefulness. (Note: I’m fascinated to hear the White House crowd’s laughter in their initial hearing of this song. They had no idea what was coming.)
  2. Declare your purpose: The third number of the show is “My Shot,” which is a big highlight of the show, what Miranda describes as Hamilton’s “Disney Princess” number, Hamilton’s declaration of purpose. We learn what he believes the stakes are for him in the Revolution, and life. The song conveys Hamilton’s self-confidence, self-doubt, ambition and recklessness. And, by using an expression that ultimately foreshadows Hamilton’s fatal duel with Burr, Miranda foreshadows a concept with dual meaning that will come back into the narrative in multiple ways over time.
  3. Find the emotional core: Some of the strongest songs in the musical are songs that pause along the path of the narrative to take stock of the emotional aspects of Hamilton’s story. “That Would Be Enough” makes me well up every time, as it highlights the tension between the boundlessness of Hamilton’s ambition and the beautiful life that is being built around him by Eliza.
  4. Embrace complexity: Hamilton is unflinching in its efforts to round out its subject, bad choices, broken promises and ill-chosen battles. He pursues martyrdom, embraces fatherhood, shames his wife with his philandering and ultimately loses his life in an avoidable confrontation. Hero? Hard to say.
  5. Use repetition wisely: There are a number of phrases and expressions throughout Hamilton (“I’m not throwing away my shot”, “The world turns upside down”, “Right-hand man”, “I will never be satisfied”, “History has its eyes on you”, “The room where it happens”) that repeat and recur throughout the musical, often with evolving meanings. This allows a listener to anchor into key elements of the story while hitting them with new developments and concepts. It breeds familiarity while the narrative moves forward.
  6. Dimensionalize tension and conflict: There are multiple conflict vectors throughout Hamilton. The conflict between Hamilton’s intelligence and his social status; Angelica’s desires and her obligations; Burr’s trust-fund-baby status and his desire to be on the winning side; the colonists’ desire for independence and King George III’s sense of divine authority (‘You’re on the own’ he declares, dripping with sarcasm. ‘Awesome. Wow. Do you have a clue what happens now?’). So often corporate narratives try to offend no one, or present propositions as being without risk. That’s fine, but I’m not sure why anyone would read them.
  7. Break forms: There’s no template for a 2 hour and 45 minute hip-hop musical. The founding fathers did not speak in rhymes. Alexander Hamilton was not Puerto Rican. But, it works. Who says a master narrative has to be prose on paper? It can be a video, a web site or a speech. A Prezi deck can outline a company’s story as well as any vehicle. As long as it lives in the world, inspires employees, engages stakeholders… it’s doing its job.

Hamilton shows the power of a creative approach to storytelling that can bring dense, difficult-to-absorb subject matter to life. We can definitely do better with our narratives by grappling with the realities and messiness of our characters, finding the tension and emotional core of the story, and bringing it artfully to the page.

If Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose first public performance of “Alexander Hamilton” in front of a political audience was met with anxious laughter, can turn that into a hit play, what have we got to lose?

What’s Wrong—and Right—With Starbucks’ “Race Together”

By Mike Kuczkowski

Last week, the coffee giant Starbucks launched a campaign encouraging its baristas to engage customers in a dialogue about race. Baristas around the country were encouraged to chat about race with their customers and write “Race Together” on each coffee cup.

It was a bold move, not without risk, and it has drawn both praise and criticism.

How do we evaluate a campaign like “Race Together”? I think it give us an opportunity to think about what we should want from brands and how to think about how brands can authentically lead in areas of social impact.

On the one hand, I want to give Starbucks leadership, particularly CEO Howard Schultz, credit for putting its brand in the middle of a challenging social issue. It takes courage to do that, and the company should be commended for the concept and goal.

On the other hand, I think the backlash shows that the execution of the campaign was not well thought out. The company faced a significant social media backlash against both the campaign and the company. The campaign was criticized for being tone-deaf on several fronts, and the company was criticized for the fact that its executive leadership is almost exclusively white.

So what matters more, intention or execution?

I believe we are living in the Performance Era of Communications. An organization’s marketing and communications efforts only matter insofar as they engage effectively with stakeholders and have an impact.

We have all the tools for this today. Social media provides multiple platforms for real-time engagement with all manner of constituents. Digital technology gives us the ability to create content in an unprecedented number of formats — video, podcast, short-form content, long-form content. Yet, these advantages also raise the bar for brands who want to engage actively with stakeholders.

Personally, I skew toward the strategy side of brand and marketing. Experience has taught me that strategy is incredibly valuable. If an organization fails to understand what its stakeholders truly need, it won’t deliver value to the stakeholder relationship.

But caring about strategy does not mean a bias against execution. The two are linked. As the rules of execution change – less ad-driven, ‘interruption marketing;’ more two-way exchanges – strategy becomes an exercise in execution. In our hyper-transparent communications environment, strategy is on display in every turn of phrase, every response and every action. To perform well, organizations need to build new skills in their marketing and communications operations. They need the ability to create content, master channels, create connections, manage communities and adapt and change based on signals from the environment.

In that context, Starbucks’ Race Together campaign falls short. Here’s why:

  • Content creation: Starbucks created some solid content around the campaign. If you check out their website, you’ll see compelling stories about baristas for whom race is a deeply personal issue. These kinds of stories stand out, and I think they have real substance. Schultz did a video that was distributed to their 200,000 employees via Starbucks’ intranet, another good move. They are publishing a special supplement to USA Today. All good. Still, I think it is unlikely that scrawling “Race Together” on coffee cups, which baristas were being encouraged to do last week, will change any minds. And the fact that the stock imagery for the campaign (used above) shows a pair of white hands holding a “Race Together” cup struck an off note. Which underscores how important it is to think through every symbolic aspect of brand-created content.
  • Channel mastery: On the channel front, I think the campaign scores poorly. The campaign is a multi-channel effort, as described above. But the campaign has performed atrociously in social media. AdWeek argues that the Internet hates “Race Together”, and I think they’re right. Twitter erupted on the issue, attacking the effort and individual executives. Starbucks Communications SVP Corey duBrowa briefly deleted his Twitter account Tuesday after what he described as personal attacks. (He’s back, and in a move demonstrating social media savvy, he wrote a Medium post about why.) That overall Twitter sentiment was harsh should have come as no surprise. The social network has not exactly been known for fostering thoughtful discourse. But duBrowa’s response, and the overall state of the hashtag discussion suggests that Starbucks did not have good rules in place to guide its engagement in its own conversation.
  • Creating connections: Seth Godin, whom I’ve come to admire greatly, talks about the Connection Economy. I’m fascinated by the concept that mass marketing, the kind Starbucks has mastered, is dying and that micro-marketing is on the rise. A real Connection Economy requires courage – like the core idea of having a conversation about race – and the desire to find and engage with people with whom you can have a real dialogue. Schultz did this extremely well with internal town halls last year, with some 2,000 employees. But the very notion of trying to create a dialogue at the cash register with baristas whose primary job is to (quickly) fulfill orders for venti vanilla lattes seems flawed.
  • Community management: Here again, a debate in America on race is going to show a sharply divided community, and rightly so. We’re a fairly divided nation on the issue. Engaging in the campaign is going to require navigating lots of mine fields. What happens if an in-store exchange goes poorly? A barista doesn’t have the ability to shut off the store like a Twitter account. They need to be adept enough to respond to potentially tough questions. Schultz has indicated that baristas have received no special training to equip them for this campaign, and I happen to think that’s a huge mistake. Conversation guides, we’re told, are coming. Perhaps that will help.
  • Adaptation: This is a critical aspect of the Performance Era of Communications. And what I mean by it is: Can you change based on feedback from the environment? This isn’t just about communications activity, it’s also about real substantive issues and actions. And here, while the jury is still out, there are troubling signs. The campaign has not yet articulated a plan for adding more diversity to Starbucks’ executive ranks, or bringing more Starbucks to minority areas where stores themselves are far between. Starbucks has not, to my knowledge, yet pledged to address many of the substantive national issues on race that continue to keep us divided. From a communications perspective, chatting about a heavy-duty issue like race around the espresso machine when people are rushing off to catch a train isn’t practical, but there’s still time. Starbucks can create forums to take the debate away from the cash register and into its lounges. Shutting off a Twitter account isn’t adaptation, it’s surrender – but by coming back, their communications executive has a shot at showing he’s able to weather criticism that doesn’t come remotely close to matching the kind of institutionalized bias, hate and bigotry blacks in America face daily, and throughout their entire lives.

In sum, the campaign’s operations don’t appear to be strong enough to match the campaign’s aspirations. They didn’t think it through, on a number of important fronts. There’s probably still time to address that, but doing so will require a conscious effort and real resources.

Yesterday, Starbucks told its baristas that it was no longer encouraging them to write “Race Together” on cups, a move the company claims it had previously planned. Other aspects of the campaign are still in place. Is this an example of adaptation, or just further evidence that this was always a marketing ploy? Only time will tell.

Honestly, I hope they do turn it around and get it right because Schultz is correct. It’s an important issue, and there’s no reason a for-profit corporation can’t join the debate. Race is the most troubling of American issues, and the events of the past year in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere suggest that our nation still has a lot of progress to make on this issue.

[disclosures: I know lots of people who have worked on the Starbucks account at Edelman, invariably smart folks; I have met duBrowa and Schultz on a couple of occasions; I drink a ton of Starbucks coffee.]

Don’t Call It A Comeback

By Mike Kuczkowski

A couple of weeks ago in Cupertino, a huge brand put everything on the line to try to re-establish its relevance in the face of doubts about its ability to execute. Its actions were beyond innovative — I’d argue they were revolutionary and hold the potential to transform the industry going forward.

I’m not talking about Apple. I’m talking about U2.

If you haven’t heard the entire story, here’s a quick synopsis. At the close of Apple’s big Sept. 9 event, where it revealed the new iPhone 6, the iPhone 6 plus, Apple Pay and Apple Watch, U2 took the stage to play its first single off its new album. Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that all iTunes users would receive a copy of U2’s new album.

I happen to like U2’s Songs of Innocence, but this isn’t an album review. The music industry has been greatly disrupted by the rise of digital technology in the past two decades in very interesting and unpredictable ways. In that context, U2’s promotional arrangement with Apple is a stroke of marketing genius that shows that the band is thinking like a brand.

Apple paid U2 for the privilege of giving the album away — a combination of unspecified royalty fees and a marketing campaign worth up to $100 million, according to The New York Times.

What’s brilliant about the deal is the unprecedented scope and scale of distribution. For context, the best-selling album in the history of popular music is Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which has certified sales of 42.4 million since its release in 1982.

With U2’s iTunes deal, the band distributed its album to 500 million users worldwide overnight. Three days later, Apple reported 2 million users had downloaded the album. Within a week, 33 million users had accessed at least one song.

This is one innovative approach, and it pits Apple as a music distributor against its clients, the record companies themselves. It’s not the only one either. Another band brand worth watching is Radiohead, who surprised markets by offering an “honor system” download of its In Rainbows album in 2009. Radiohead continues to experiment in this space, recently releasing music via its app, PolyFauna.

For bands that will undoubtedly make most of its money off a massive stadium tour, the impact of global exposure to its new music is extraordinary. Fed by publicity surrounding their novel approaches, both U2 and Radiohead are defining their brands by actions. Specifically in the case of the U2-Apple partnership, it’s a win-win. U2 gets immediate access to a global audience and proclaims its return with authority; Apple gets an iTunes subscriber base grateful for the gift of new music.

That said, there was a very interesting backlash among non-U2 fans for finding Songs of Innocence in their iTunes libraries. Apple had to create a tool to remove the free album. On one level, it’s an astonishing case of looking a gift horse in the mouth. On the other hand, it’s an important lesson about the iTunes platform as a distribution network — people want to know they have a right to opt out. Some critics said Apple violated its social contract with iTunes subscribers by operating as a music publisher, but I think those critics are simply late to recognize new industry realities. But, there is something to this: Users expect to have control their experience, rather than have something unwanted (even free) forced upon them.

What fascinates me is how U2 leveraged the changed nature of music distribution at a system level. There have been a lot of complaints about how digital music has destroyed the music industry, but iTunes is now a distribution channel like none that ever existed. The U2 deal shows that if Apple and an artist want to make themselves known, they don’t need radio stations or brick-and-mortar stores to do it.

U2 is both a fantastic rock and roll band and a savvy publicity machine. As last week’s story in Time Magazine shows, they’ve been thinking long and hard about how to return to the music scene with a splash five years after their last studio album. They are reportedly working on even more new music, plus a plan — with Apple — for a new digital music format that they hope will encourage people to buy more music and boost revenue for struggling artists.

I have no idea what that means, but the Songs of Innocence deal shows that Apple has the ability to transform music distribution. If there were a way to shift the economics of the industry such that songwriters and performers get a significantly bigger share of royalties from digital downloads, that would be truly revolutionary.

That’s a big lift. But then again, U2 has never been known for small ambitions.

Brand Scorecard | Rating Jeter’s Tribute Ads

Two major brands, Nike’s Jordan brand and Gatorade, have produced tribute ads to Yankees Shortstop Derek Jeter, who retires this week. Which did a better job of expressing Jeter’s brand? Here’s our scorecard.


Produced by Nike’s Jordan brand, the spot features celebrities, athletes, firefighters, police, doormen and fans appropriating Jeter’s signature hat tip, under the line R2SPECT — integrating Jeter’s uniform number into the headline in an iconic manner. It debuted in July, at the time of Jeter’s 14th and final All-Star Game.


Produced by Gatorade, Jeter helped conceive of the ad as a ‘thank you to fans.’ The ad takes a narrative approach, following Jeter on his path to the stadium as he interacts with fans, signs baseballs for kids, walks on the field and — you guessed it — tips his cap to the stadium crowd. It debuted last week, in advance of Jeter’s final home games at Yankee Stadium.


Team-orientation B Jeter’s in uniform, at bat, in Yankee Stadium. Beyond that, not much here that connects him to his teammates. But he’s at the center of the broader community of baseball and New York. A- By focusing on fans, the ad makes them part of the team; the use of ‘My Way’ connects it to Yankee lore; the stadium and its environs highlight to his (rare) single-team career.
Effort B+ The entire ad, with celebrities, athletes, police and everyday fans tipping their hats to Jeter, seems hinged on the premise that people are acknowledging him for how he has played the game. It’s a bit of a hidden way to express the value, but it does come across. B Jeter’s engagement with fans shows him to be real, accessible and appreciative; he’s clearly making an effort to engage with his supporters.
Respect B+ As much as it’s the title of the ad, it does little to showcase Jeter’s respect for the game and its history. It does feature “Voice of God” announcer Bob Shephard introducing Jeter at bat, which is a nice touch. (And will be missed now that Jeter is retiring.) A The ad is full of little touches that convey Jeter’s sense of reverence for the game and his place in it: The way he pauses and looks at the crowd before he enters the stadium; the scene in monument park; the way he taps a sign with a quote from Joe DiMaggio before he steps onto the field.
Consistency B Even Red Sox fans tip their caps to him, which must mean he did something right. A- The tempo of his gait, tone of voice in engaging with fans in video is low-key, humble.
Clutch C He never swings the bat. Which is probably a good thing. Clutch is hard to convey without resorting to highlight reels, of which we’ve seen plenty. B+ When the owner of Stan’s says “I’ve been waiting for you to come in here since ‘98, at least,” Jeter quips dryly “You never invited me.” And then he signs a photo of himself. Cool under pressure!

OUR TAKE: “R2SPECT” is a brand testimonial ad. It works because it leverages familiar faces and team symbols. While it has a somber tone, it uses humor to good effect, particularly when the San Diego mascot realizes he’s a friar and lacks a hat. But it won’t age well, as kids will wonder who those people are. Ultimately, it delivers the message that the world respects Jeter.

“Made in New York,” on the other hand takes a “show, don’t tell” approach, conveying a lot through Jeter’s journey to and into the stadium. The Jeter brand comes through in a way that is timeless.

WINNER: Made in New York

Pouring Cold Water On A Viral Movement

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his five sons share in his #icebucketchallenge video

By Mike Kuczkowski

We know the story by now: On July 31, 29-year-old Pete Frates, of Boston, filmed a 52-second video that sparked a movement.

The video itself is unremarkable. Frates stares into the camera, moving his head back and forth to the beat of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby.” He says nothing. He writes a message naming nine people in it, tags it #icebucketchallenge and posts it to his Facebook page.

The story behind it, however, is incredibly moving. Frates was a former star outfielder for Boston College’s Division I baseball team. As team captain, he had led the 2007 team with five home runs and 19 stolen bases. In April of that year, he set a modern BC record with eight runs batted in in one game.

Yet, like the Hall of Fame Yankees star Lou Gehrig, Frates’ baseball career was cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an incurable progressive neurodegenerative disease. Frates was diagnosed in 2012 and is now confined to a wheelchair. He cannot speak. He eats through a feeding tube. He types using ocular recognition technology.

Frates’ Facebook post was a flash, and the tinderbox of social media channels ignited in response. Athletes, celebrities and ordinary people were tagged by their friends and acquaintances.They heard Frates’s story and were inspired. They began filming #icebucketchallenge videos, posting them to Facebook and Twitter, giving money to ALS and challenging their friends to do the same. It works essentially like a chain letter: if you accept the challenge and film a video, you give $10 to the charity and nominate three others to do a video; if you don’t film a video, you pay the charity $100.

The roster of those who have doused themselves reads like a list of the Forbes Most Powerful. Bill Gates took the challenge, as did Oprah. Jimmy Fallon and the Roots took the challenge, as did Justin Timberlake, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Martha Stewart, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim McGraw. The list — and the elaborateness of the contraptions involved — grows more impressive by the day.

As has the volume of donations to the ALS Association: $7.6 million in two weeks, compared to $1.1 million in the same period last year, including gifts from more than 100,000 new donors. On Aug. 15, Facebook reported that 1.2 million ice bucket challenge videos had been posted, and 15 million had posted, commented or “liked” a post about the challenge.

Is this a lesson in social media virality? Is Frates a one-man maven and connector?

This chart, released by Facebook, supports the notion that the #icebucketchallenge is a viral, social media phenomenon (worth noting, the Facebook charts are based only on Facebook data).


And here’s a graphic shows the spread of the ice bucket challenge across the country, with a clear epicenter in Boston, where Frates lives.


In fact, the story is more complicated. The ice bucket challenge had actually been around for more than six weeks before Frates posted his video. My 13-year-old son received the cold water challenge on his Instagram account from a classmate on June 16. (He ignored it; there was no tie to charity at the time.) The challenge started as a dare.

And, as it morphed and added a charity component, it received significant mainstream media attention. On July 14, two weeks before Frates’ post, golfer Greg Norman challenged Today Show host Matt Lauer, who filmed his challenge on air. Lauer gave a donation to Hospice of Palm Beach County. Ironically, now that the phenomenon has become so closely associated with ALS, Lauer has been criticized for not mentioning the charity.

Frates also wasn’t the first person with an ALS association to post a video. A golfer in Sarasota, Fl., dedicated his video to an ALS patient July 14. Dan Quinn, whose brother Pat also suffers from ALS – posted a video to his brother’s “Quinn for the Win” page on July 26, urging people to learn more about ALS. Quinn’s and Frates’ networks overlap, and Frates tagged #Quinnforthewin in his July 31 post.[i]

But what can this tell us about social movements? Could anyone in marketing, public relations or fundraising, have predicted that Frates would be such an influential figure in this movement?

Doubtful. Because while Frates was definitely influential in all of this, he had a lot of help. There are four major factors of influence that matter when it comes to understanding how an idea can become a social movement: context, consensus, catalyst and calls to action.

Contextmay be the most important part. How are the environmental conditions right for this movement to take off? This is difficult to assess in the context of the ice bucket challenge. It would appear that the challenge had been around for a while, and that ALS awareness is lower than it perhaps should be (only 50 percent of Americans apparently are familiar with the disease. I guess, unlike in my own household, “Pride of the Yankees” is no longer required viewing.)

It’s also a hot summer in many parts of the country. From my standpoint, I don’t think the context is aligned with the challenge, and that’s part of why I and many others may feel some dissonance around it.

Consensus: There must to be some momentum around a need that audiences or stakeholders feel must change. And, I think there’s a latent consensus that something should be done to cure ALS: more research, better drugs. But again, nothing that has much of a ‘wow’ factor in this aspect.

The third factor is a catalyst. And, whatever the origins of all this, Pete Frates appears to be that. Some event or actor galvanizes public opinion that prompts some action. It’s interesting to note that Frates seems to have been extremely focused on raising awareness for ALS this year. He wrote a moving piece for the sports website Bleacher Report — with no mention of ice — about his diagnosis and experiences on July 2 to mark the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s famous “Luckiest Man” speech. He is also well-connected on social media, with hundreds of followers and a family actively supporting his awareness and fundraising efforts. Critically, his personal story provides a great hook to turn a nascent movement into something more powerful.

Calls to Action: Ultimately participation in a movement requires something people can do. And, this is where I think the ice bucket challenge wins big. As this post explains, the challenge involves something that is easy to do (film a video) and something we have been programmed to do since we were toddlers (play tag). And we all like to watch people do silly things, which is why so many of us have played these videos, whether from friends of celebrities, over the past three weeks.

Even given all that, there are three significant factors that have been extremely influential, but are getting far less attention than the ‘man who sparked a movement’ narrative:

Mainstream media: In terms of reach, Facebook says 15 million people were exposed to an #icebucketchallenge post on social media, an impressive figure. But let’s take a look at other channels. Lauer’s Today Show segment alone reached 4.2 million. Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 19, some 996 unique print articles are listed in the Factiva database with the term “ice bucket challenge.” The number of broadcast mentions probably dwarfs that figure. This may well be a case where the number of people exposed to mainstream media coverage of the challenge is 10 times the number of people exposed to it on social media.

Celebrity: A remarkable number of celebrities, each of whom has a greater than average number of followers, were caught up in this. As mentioned earlier, this challenge has been taken on by tons of athletes, musicians, politicians and business leaders. Today, each of those has his or her own followings on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Jimmy Fallon’s YouTube channel has four million subscribers, and his ice bucket video has been viewed two million times. Bill Gates’ video has been viewed 9 million times. Those two alone nearly match the Facebook engagement of #icebucketchallenge to date.

The Law of Numbers: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the math. As a challenge like this gains participation, the number of participants grows exponentially, just as a consequence of each challenge spreading to three more people. We modeled the rules of the ice bucket challenge in an Excel spreadsheet and charted the results below in what we call the “chain letter effect.”

Looks a lot like the graph Facebook released on the #icebucketchallenge.


So what does this all mean? What appears to be a social media viral phenomenon may just be a phenomenon. One where a catalyst and a call to action — facilitated by social media, boosted by mainstream media and the special sauce of celebrity participation — caught on and ultimately conformed to the chain letter effect. A young man suffering from a terrible disease did a good thing and gained attention for an important cause. And lots of people got wet. Cold and wet.

It’s unclear whether the boon of fund raising for ALS will sustain itself or pass. Studies show that many people give roughly the same amount of money to charity each year, suggesting there may be some cannibalization of nonprofit resources in ALS’s funding increase. What would really help, to state the obvious, is progress toward a cure.

In this respect, it is as it was in 1939, when Gehrig, one of the most famous men on the planet, retired suddenly from baseball after an astonishingly successful career, and gave one of the most moving speeches in history, one broadcast around the globe and celebrated to this day. He died two years later. Let’s hope today’s contributions lead to a cure long before we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Pete Frates’ viral ice bucket moment.

[i] John Frates — Pete’s dad — taped a video July 29, in response to a challenge from his son Andrew, of his own ice bucket challenge. You can see Pete in the video next to him. In contrast to Elon Musk’s sophisticated 5-bucket contraption, Frates’s dad has a friend dump a wheelbarrow of ice on him. Old school.

Ferguson & The Power Of An Effective Spokesman

By Mike Kuczkowski

The events in Ferguson, Mo., last week have not been a proud moment for America.

On Aug. 9, a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old. Since then, the world has seen pictures of protests, looting and confrontations with police. The police — armed with military-grade rifles, body armor and mine-resistant vehicles — have been criticized for a ‘militarized’ response. Disputes hang over the details of the shooting itself. (Vox has a good summary.) Debates about the state of race and justice in our country have become front-page news, yet again.

Against this backdrop, Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, has given a master class in what it means to be an effective spokesperson in a crisis.

In our experience, being an effective spokesperson is a combination of art and science. There are elements that can be evaluated objectively, such as the use of key messages and proof points, taking questions and maintaining credibility as a voice and source of authority. There are also things like tone, style and body language that contribute strongly to ones effectiveness, and are harder to quantify. In a way, giving the press briefing in a crisis situation is a performance art.

We reviewed the press conferences held Friday by Ferguson Mo. Police Chief Tom Jackson, whose officer was involved in the fatal shooting, and Johnson, who was dispatched to Ferguson by Gov. Jay Nixon to maintain order in Ferguson.

Here’s a breakdown of how they did on what we believe are key dimensions of effective spokesperson-ship:

                                  Missouri State Highway Patrol
Capt. Ronald S. Johnson
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson
Demeanor Calm Calm
Body language Stands with confidence at podium, shoulders square Dons reading glasses, holds paper at a distance
First comment “Good afternoon. If you can’t hear me, I’ll step out into the crowd a little bit.” “I brought some notes this time, so I’d get it right.”
Engagement Invites community to come closer, takes questions, listens Says he will not take questions
Messaging Has key messages, the goal of maintaining people’s right to free speech while maintaining peace. Offers proof points to bolster argument that things are going well. No key messages, says he is responding to information requests, creates confusion by releasing name of officer involved in shooting and tape of robbery simultaneously
Accessibility 39:56 minute press conference, takes questions 4:30 minute press conference, no questions
Tone Clear, accessible, candid Technical, language pulled from police reports
Control Shares control of briefing with other leaders and with protestors Maintains firm control throughout

SOURCE: Orangefiery analysis

Johnson is a voice of calm in an extremely tense situation. He listens. He uses effective messaging. He is patient. He doesn’t hide his own concerns or dissatisfaction. He’s real.

The irony is, by ceding control of the flow of the press briefing, Johnson establishes himself as the person most in control of the conversation.

Both in front of and away from the podium, Johnson has used symbolism to his advantage. He has walked amid protestors, cameras in tow, earning their trust. At his Friday press briefing, when asked what people should do, he related a story he told his daughter about Jesus and Peter in the New Testament, urging people to have faith.

He’s also disarmingly candid. At Chief Jackson’s press conference, where he released the name of the police officer involved in the shooting along with a 19-page police report about a robbery in which the victim was apparently a suspect — a move that mixed two unrelated issues — Johnson said “I would have liked to have been consulted.”

He didn’t have to be that honest. In fact there’s risk in him doing so. If he’s not being consulted, how can he have any real influence? Yet by highlighting an area where things did not go as he expected, he showed he could handle the situation calmly and rationally without turning angry.

This realness makes Johnson credible and trustworthy, which is exactly what the community of Ferguson needs at this moment — a credible, trustworthy leader with a badge. It’s telling to note that Johnson is originally from the Ferguson area, and his knowledge and empathy for the people there is evident. The fact that Johnson, like the victim and many of the protestors, is African-American may be a comfort to some locally. Any critics who point to his race as a source of his authority and effectiveness are simply wrong.

Johnson has managed to increase trust with the community and reduce tensions. He’s earned widespread praise by media organizations, including a piece in The New York Times.

A good spokesperson isn’t going to make a crisis go away, and outcomes in Ferguson are still uncertain. But an effective spokesperson in a crisis can improve communication, increase information flow, ease tensions, and bring clarity to situations where confusion could be a spark for violence. More importantly, by executing the role of a spokesperson well, Johnson is bringing a level of calm to a volatile situation. He’s giving the people of Ferguson evidence that a person in uniform will listen, at a moment when people feel at odds with the police.

Ferguson is still in a state of unrest, and it’s impossible to predict how things will resolve themselves. Sunday, Johnson had to backpedal on his open stance, as a 5-hour curfew was imposed. Still, by maintaining a posture of firmness, empathy and engagement, he greatly increases the odds that things in Ferguson will improve, something the whole world would like to see.

The Least-Heralded Greatest Actor of His Generation

Photo Credit: Andrea Raffin /

Did the Media Hype Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Life at his Death, or Did It Miss The Story?

By Mike Kuczkowski


There he is, as vital as ever, impossibly alive in character: Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a John LeCarré spymaster in “A Most Wanted Man.” Another great Hoffman performance, punctuating our loss of his presence in cinema.

In February, when I heard Hoffman had died, I experienced that odd range of emotions reserved for those who have touched us but with whom we have no personal relationship. Surprise. Shock. Sadness. A sense of loss. A sense that something pained and vulnerable must have been behind those pained and vulnerable characters he played with such consistent excellence on the big screen.

I recalled his turns as the bratty snitch in “Scent of A Woman.” And as Ben Stiller’s gross sidekick in “Along Came Polly.” And Scotty J., Lester Bangs, Father Flynn, Capote, The Master… a long line of characters, all of whom were made more remarkable by the craft Hoffman brought to the roles.

Then came the claim “the greatest actor of his generation.”  Was he? Maybe so. He was a fine actor, no question about it. But the greatest of his generation? I really didn’t know.

As someone who sees a fair number of movies each year and consumes even more movie reviews and film industry media coverage, I felt like I should have known the answer to that question. Had I missed the memo from the critics, or was this something that was just unsaid before his too-early passing. And, if it was the latter, how does that square with our relentless, 24/7, gossip-tinged media coverage of Hollywood, in which the least significant celebrity sighting can get top billing from

Rating a Generation

Let’s break it down. The first step is to define what constitutes Hoffman’s ”generation” of actors. This is trickier than it might appear. He’s clearly not part of the Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino cohort, all of whom are 70+. Is he in the same generation as George Clooney? Or Leonardo DiCaprio? If so, how does he compare?

I looked at the 66 actors who have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Performance as an Actor in a Leading Role from 1997. Of those, 21 actors are between the ages of 39 and 50. Let’s say that’s Hoffman’s “generation.” (Clooney, at 53, misses the cut.)

Using data from, I looked at how many awards these actors have been nominated for and won. I created a metric, which I’ll call “Awardscore.” The Awardscore gives each star 10 points for an Oscar win – whether in a supporting or leading role – and five for an acting Oscar nomination. Wins and nominations for less prestigious awards were given two and one points, respectively.

The results (see chart below) make a strong case that Philip Seymour Hoffman was indeed the greatest, or at least the most decorated, actor of his generation.

Best Actors of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Generation

Actor Age Noms Wins Oscar Noms Oscar Wins Awardscore
Philip Seymour Hoffman 46 64 88 4 1 270
Javier Bardem 45 53 91 3 1 260
Leonardo DiCaprio 39 122 50 4 0 242
Brad Pitt 50 84 54 3 0 207
Johnny Depp 51 80 54 3 0 203
Heath Ledger 35 36 71 2 1 198
Will Smith 46 87 48 2 0 193
Christian Bale 40 56 58 2 1 192
Jamie Foxx 46 58 49 2 1 176
Russell Crowe 50 52 43 3 1 163
Matt Damon 43 80 33 2 0 156
Chiwetel Ejiofor 37 52 47 1 0 151
Joaquin Phoenix 40 70 32 3 0 149
Robert Downey Jr. 49 69 33 2 0 145
Nicolas Cage 50 45 39 2 1 143
Don Cheadle 50 77 30 1 0 142
Matthew McConaughey 45 38 40 1 1 133

SOURCE: Orangefiery analysis of data from, search conducted Aug. 4, 2014, updated Aug. 23.

I also looked at Metascore, from the review aggregator site “Metacritic.” On this metric, which measures the quality of the films in which he appeared, Hoffman again outperformed his peers with a lifetime Metascore of 67, five points ahead of Bardem, Damon and Renner, who lead the rest of the pack. Given the volume and range of films in which he appeared, from “Almost Famous” to the forgettable “Patch Adams,” I was surprised that his lead was so pronounced. He’s a full 11 points above the average, 20% better than the mean. This suggests Hoffman took the films he was in and made them better.

Assessing the Critics

So, there is a strong case that Hoffman was his generation’s greatest actor. Which leads to my last question: Was this something unsaid, or something I had missed?

The Factiva media database shows were 338 articles published between January 1, 2000 and January 31, 2014 using the phrase “greatest actor of his generation”. Of those, most referred to Sir Laurence Olivier (20+), Marlon Brando (20+ times, mostly focused on his death in 2004), Robert DeNiro (15), Sean Penn (12) and Daniel Day-Lewis (8). (Note: Day-Lewis, at 57, has a very strong claim to being today’s greatest actor with five Oscar nominations and a record three wins and an Awardscore of 332 in just 29 credited roles).

Of Hoffman’s contemporaries, DiCaprio was mentioned eight times. Robert Downey Jr. also had eight articles mention him with that phrase, often immediately contrasted with his drug problems. Russell Crowe received five mentions, including two lengthy examinations of his career in his native Australian press. Ryan Gosling was associated with the phrase four times. Ed Norton and Kevin Spacey, three each.

Hoffman was mentioned in four articles, always in passing. Once by Sean Penn, in an interview with Piers Morgan (Morgan replied, “Really?”). Once James Corden, in his 2012 Tony Award acceptance speech (Hoffman had been nominated for his performance in “Death of a Salesman.”) New York Times critic A.O. Scott mentions Hoffman as the second-greatest working actor, behind Day-Lewis, in a 2013 Oscar preview with Charlie Rose. No in-depth appreciation, no feature piece on his body of work in a major publication. It’s as though he was appreciated by his peers as a great actor, but the media just wasn’t interested.

A similar search for the phrase “best actor of his generation” yielded 278 articles. Many more mentions for Norton, Crowe, Spacey, DiCaprio. New mentions of Johnny Depp and Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman? Not a single one.

Perhaps the most prescient, if not ironic, piece of coverage is a 2012 New York Times blog that asked the question, “Is Mark Wahlberg the Greatest Actor of His Generation?” The piece explores how many Oscar-worthy roles Wahlberg had, compared with the likes of Matt Damon, DiCaprio, Paul Giamatti and (describing him as the “big gun”) Hoffman. Tongue firmly in cheek, author Adam Sternbergh says “raise your hand if you thought the Greatest Actor of His Generation title bout would come down to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mark Wahlberg.” Huh.

So there it is, like a needle in a haystack. The clearest declaration that Hoffman was the best of his time came at 4:12 pm on February 2, 2014, when The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson declared, “Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Greatest Actor of His Generation.” Just less than 6 hours after the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Hoffman had died in his Manhattan apartment. After that, 17 additional unique pieces echoed the sentiment. Suddenly, a critical consensus had formed.

Parting Thoughts

So, yes, Hoffman was one of the greatest actors of his generation. And, no, we didn’t say so while he might have heard us. One wonders if it would have made a difference. To Hoffman, and equally to us. I suppose it’s an unfortunate human tendency, to save the kindest words and most meaningful critical appraisals for obituaries.

It’s also easy, but accurate, to say that media coverage of an actor’s untimely death represents us at our worst. The media said so little when it might have mattered, and then pried so much when tragedy struck. It’s a phenomenon best described by the singer-songwriter Marc Mulcahy in “Where’s the Indifference Now?” — a song inspired by media coverage surrounding the death of Heath Ledger:

Get a picture of his girlfriend crying

Flowers strewn around the entrance

His parents are asking for some time to grieve

Even better can’t just everybody leave

Still, it does make me feel as though we could do better when it comes to appreciating the cumulative contributions being made by our great artists. Some stars, like Crowe or Downey Jr., seem to attract media star treatment, perhaps because they are bold enough to declare their ambitions aloud. Others gain coverage for their striking handsomeness, if not their public trials and travails. Perhaps Hoffman was overlooked because he was not as attractive, generally, as others on this list. One way or the other, we missed a big story.

One thing I would urge the media to do: assign a major piece on Javier Bardem. He wasn’t mentioned a single time with the phrase “greatest actor of his generation.” And with Hoffman gone, there’s a compelling case that he is.

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