MEDIA CASE STUDY: Walsh's credibility captures 'Most Wanted' viewers

With the help of PR efforts touting host John Walsh as a trustworthy authority on crime, America's Most Wanted regularly enjoys high TV ratings in its bid to find fugitive criminals..

With the help of PR efforts touting host John Walsh as a trustworthy authority on crime, America's Most Wanted regularly enjoys high TV ratings in its bid to find fugitive criminals..

There's no shortage of TV shows today claiming to deal with "reality." At 16 years and counting, America's Most Wanted (AMW), one of the longest-running shows on television, is arguably the genre's most successful enterprise. But as any viewer can tell you, the reality AMW portrays is decidedly different than the one that's come to define the term. "I don't know how realistic it is when you take someone and put them on an island and starve them while the rest of the crew is sitting behind the camera eating nice meals," says Avery Mann, AMW's director of media relations and personal publicist to host John Walsh. "We deal with real reality at America's Most Wanted." For anyone not familiar with the show (which seems unlikely given its consistently high ratings and a format so familiar it was satirized on The Simpsons more than a decade ago), Walsh, who gained notoriety after his son's mysterious 1981 murder, profiles fugitives from the law in hopes that it will lead to their capture - or at least America's entertainment. An alleged criminal's story, crime, and last-known whereabouts are presented to the viewer, putting the eyes and ears of the public to work for the police. Of course the odds of any single viewer having information about a particular fugitive are astronomically small, but the show's imminent tone and air of suspense make even the most sedentary couch potato feel personally deputized in a national manhunt. The formula has met with remarkable success in terms of ratings and arrests (778 to date). But from a PR standpoint, it's treading in dangerous waters. There's a reason police work isn't generally broadcast to the public, particularly on Saturday night TV shows. Inevitably problems arise, and it's Mann's job to fix them. "We've made mistakes in the past," he says. "One time law enforcement gave us the wrong picture of someone - two guys had the same name. They were both really bad guys, but one was a drug dealer, and we called him a rapist," Mann remembers. "But those things don't happen very often," he continues. "We have so many people checking and double-checking. We don't want to be sued. And realistically, we have been doing this for 17 years. Obviously we're doing something right." The role of PR For Mann and his associate publicist, Kim Newport, that something involves much more than the occasional crisis resolution. At AMW, PR is an integral part of the search - a way to extend a virtual long arm of the show. Walsh films in a different locale every week, depending upon the scene of the crime or the fugitive's supposed whereabouts. Mann travels with Walsh to each city, while Newport stays behind with a well-utilized intern to concentrate more on the show's day-to-day needs. Together, all three coordinate with local law enforcement and Fox stations to amplify the show's message. "On a daily basis we are reaching out to Fox affiliates and letting them know when we have cases coming up or captures in their markets," says Mann. "We are always working on getting the message out." Public liaison is also a major part of the show. Newport handles all inquiries from viewers, and Mann decides what material to put out and what is appropriate to respond to. Tending to Walsh's personal image is the other half of Mann's job, and it is a task central to the success of AMW. The show draws much of its credibility from its host - credibility that Mann is aggressively, constantly cultivating. Most of that cultivation takes place on outlets like the Today show or Larry King Live, where Walsh will appear to discuss the search for an abducted child or a high-profile criminal case. Another vital part of his credibility comes from Congressional appearances. He has testified in support of a number of pro-victim or child protection bills, including the Child Protection Act of 2003, which led to the national Amber Alert system. Those efforts have helped brand Walsh as the go-to guy for a number of high-profile news outlets when a child is kidnapped or someone flees the law. "We recognize that not everybody is watching AMW on Saturday night," says Mann, "but I would say if you poll most people in this country, they would say they have heard of John Walsh and AMW. A lot of that is because of the ancillary PR we do." Walsh is a frequent guest on CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, appearing recently to discuss cases like the abduction of 14-year-old Carlie Brucia in Sarasota, FL, and the Scott Peterson trial. Blitzer told PRWeek why Walsh - a private citizen with no formal authority or law enforcement experience - is so often his choice to discuss such sensitive topics. "John Walsh has incredible access to law enforcement," says Blitzer. "They trust him, and they like him. Our viewers trust him. So when there's a story on the agenda that cries out for him, I call Avery Mann and ask if John can come on the show. He usually can." Garnering that sort of credibility is an impressive story of image making. But Blitzer concedes there are limits, times when calling on Walsh would be inappropriate or even crass given the fine line he walks between entertainment and the law. "He's got a pretty narrow area of expertise, looking for criminals and child abductors, given his own personal tragedy," Blitzer says. Relating to the audience Macon Morehouse, a Washington reporter with People, believes Walsh's personal story goes a long way with her audience. "He lived through the heartbreak himself, and that strikes a chord with the reader," she says. "Also, he's very quotable. He's got strong opinions about what's right. He's got strong convictions, and that comes through." Morehouse, who first worked with Walsh during the 2001 search for missing White House intern Chandra Levy, has equal praise for Mann. "One time I needed to speak to him about something, and he was on his way to Canada for a personal trip," she remembers. "Still, he was perfectly pleasant and was able to get me exactly what I needed." Blitzer agrees. "[Walsh is] lucky to have him," he says of Mann. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the 33-year-old in any other position. Mann has been leading the show's PR since 1997, but he started part-time with AMW two years earlier while he was still in grad school. "I didn't go to school for PR or communications. I went for criminology," he says. "I wanted to do something socially redeeming, and this has been more than a dream come true, to work with a highly rated national TV show that fights crime." Mann almost didn't get the chance. As successful as the show has been, it presents some problems for the Fox network. For one, mucking around in amateur police work is always risky, which is to say nothing of the programming difficulties presented by a show that doesn't lend itself to reruns. In 1996, after nine seasons, Fox canceled AMW. Walsh even did a final show recapping the series' accomplishments, and for the first time, profiled his own son's case. It was a poignant end to a powerful series. But 200,000 viewers were irate, as were the FBI and 37 governors. They flooded Fox with complaints, and it quickly recanted. AMW was back on the air in two weeks, making it the most briefly canceled show in TV history - an appropriate testament to what the public can do when a man goes missing. -------- PR contacts Media relations director Avery Mann Associate publicist Kim Newport

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