Published on: November 8, 2011by Michael Sansolo
Remember the old saying: Smile and the world smiles with you. With that in mind, Janet Riley is going to find the world giggling wherever she goes and she deserves it. Last week Janet delivered a classic lesson on the power of a well timed sense of humor and in the process taught business every where a great lesson about modern day media.
Although I am not in the proper age demographic, I am a huge fan of Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show.” His cynical, off-beat and yet insightful way of looking at the news and the shallowness of our nation’s political leaders and newscasters makes me both laugh and sigh at the same time. In fact, I’d do most anything to get on that show to talk about the book I wrote with Kevin because I find Stewart also does informative and interesting interviews.
Yet I know this: back in my trade association days I can’t imagine a phone call I would have dreaded more than one from “The Daily Show.” Sure “60 Minutes” could embroil you in a scandal, but subjects on “The Daily Show” frequently suffer an even worse fate: they are humiliated by their own refusal to listen to what they are saying. They make themselves look ridiculous with their own words, especially when those words are some standard, focus group tested talking points that completely disconnect with the average person and certainly the interviewer’s questions. Believe me, I have done those interviews!
And that’s why Janet Riley is a hero. Last Thursday’s “The Daily Show” dispatched comedian/correspondent Aasif Mandvi to look into a new marketing campaign comparing hot dogs to cigarettes and claiming they are equally addictive and harmful. Mandvi interviewed the earnest looking head of the campaign who laid out his case. Mandvi pursued his story to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council to get to the truth. At this point I’m figuring that an association president in Washington is about to get clobbered.
Only Janet Riley was ready with a plan and a smile. Now for full disclosure, I’ve known and worked with Janet for years and I like her. Yet what I saw her do on television made me change. Now I admire her too.
Riley didn’t sit and give the pat answers or poo-poo Mandvi’s questions, nor did she dismiss the issue lightly. In fact, she handled the substance of the interview extremely well, drawing serious questions about the comparison of hot dogs and cigarettes. Then she went further.
Riley handled the entire interview with a deft comedic touch. Instead of avoiding any joke about running the Hot Dog and Sausage Association, she dove into it, calling herself “the Queen of Wien” (short for wieners) and donning a chef’s hat with that name. She cooked up some hot dogs for Mandvi and clearly looked to the entire world to be having a blast.
Janet told me none of this was accidental. Janet, who is also a senior vice president at the American Meat Institute (the hot dog association’s parent), said the group planned for the interview. They knew it would be folly to joke about a topic like cancer, so they didn’t. But they also knew “The Daily Show” likes comedy so she had the hot dogs cooking in the kitchen and ate one enthusiastically.
Here’s the most important part: the AMI Public Affairs Committee talked about the interview and agreed that the association had to do it. They realized, as so many others should, that the world of communications has changed. No longer are the calls just from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CBS, NBC, Fox or CNN. Now they come from “The Daily Show,” The Onion or Yahoo! News, bloggers or countless other new media outlets. AMI recognized that for a key demographic, Jon Stewart is a trusted news source, so his comedy must be taken seriously.
As Janet said, “while it’s not the comfort zone of those of us in the over 40 crowd, it’s something we need to get comfortable with if we are going to reach the next generation of consumers.”
So with the right attitude and the right approach, Janet took on “The Daily Show” and won. By the end of the segment, Mandvi was openly making fun of the comparison of cigarettes to hot dogs with the over the top humor that is the trademark of the show.
Janet told me she watched the late night segment with the “covers pulled up over my head,” which is the only thing she did wrong. With her sense of humor and with her association’s sound understanding of how to handle the new world of news and communications, Janet shouldn’t duck her head for anything. She should hold it high and get a crown.
She is the queen of wien after all.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at email@example.com . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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