Pitching the end of the world: The comms challenges behind promoting the Doomsday Clock

Despite the nuclear deal with Iran and the Paris climate accords, the world hasn't staved off disaster. How Hastings Group pitched that morbid story to members of the media.

WASHINGTON: The Hastings Group had a morbid job last week: deliver the bad news that despite the Paris climate summit and the Iran nuclear deal, the threat of a global apocalyptic disaster is still at hand.

That threat is represented by the Doomsday Clock, which represents how close humanity is to destroying itself, with midnight symbolizing the apocalypse. On January 26, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said the time on the clock will remain at three minutes to midnight. It was last updated in 2015.

Hastings has assisted the Bulletin with the past five clock updates.

"The goal of the Doomsday Clock is to get people to focus on something difficult to focus on, which is the risk of humans being responsible for their own doom," said Hastings Group senior principal Scott Stapf.  "At the same time, the Bulletin used the opportunity to outline in their release what needs to be done to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock away from midnight."

Stapf referred to events such as the Paris climate summit and Iran nuclear deal as "small bright spots." He explained that this time, the Bulletin wanted to quash any "exaggerated optimism" about those events and give people a "sober, no nonsense" look at the big picture of global threats.

"The Bulletin [is using the clock] to say, despite those bright spots, it is still a very dark world we live in, and things  have not materially improved in terms of reducing the risk of being annihilated by our own hand," said Stapf. "The concern is that bright spots will create the illusion that the overall situation has improved, but in fact it hasn’t, and it still remains very dire. So that is the cautionary note they wanted to get out there." 

The PR campaign for the clock primarily targeted people who have the ability to directly impact change, such as elected officials and policy makers. Hastings also wanted to connect with the public to give it an overall sense of where the world stands in terms of security.

Seven Hastings staffers worked on the campaign, which started three months before last week’s announcement.

The firm was up against several challenges, the biggest being that the Bulletin avoids the spotlight, outside of its own publication that covers global security and public policy issues.

"The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is very visible for a short period of time, and then they disappear for a year, and then they are back again," said Stapf. "That is an interesting challenge from a comms standpoint. People have to be refocused in a major way because they are not out there in the intervening months."

The firm also questioned how much people would care – this was an announcement about the clock’s time staying in the same place, after all. Yet the media ate the story up this time around.

Last year, Hastings tracked about 2,070 stories in the first month after the Doomsday Clock announcement. This year, 2,006 stories were written about it in the first 72 hours.

Stapf attributed the increase in coverage to a "much more vigorous" social media component in this year’s campaign. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has its own social media push, for which it partnered with Hastings.

A week before the announcement, it also established a countdown campaign, featuring a video clip to tease the event. The organization also promoted a live stream of the reveal.

Total social media mentions to date were 42,199, and original mentions totaled 23,750. It also registered more than 11,000 unique shares of mentions, and reshared mentions totaled more than 18,000.

The news was mentioned by CNN’s Twitter account, which has 22.6 million followers, while that of Reuters has 11 million, according to Stapf.

The Doomsday Clock trended on Twitter before the press conference, and continued to do so on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was also featured in a skit on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

"Unlike a lot of social media campaigns related to events, this one was very coverage driven," he said.

Major media outlets including the Associated Press, USA Today, The Atlantic, Time, The New Yorker, The Economist, Fox Business, Vice News, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and The Guardian covered the event.

Hastings also focused on international media relations, pitching outlets in the UK, Germany, and Australia.

As the day of the announcement arrived, a major winter storm hit much of the East Coast, and many events in Washington, DC, were cancelled on Monday and Tuesday, the day of the announcement.

People from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which is based in Chicago, and speakers from California and Arizona, were "just barely" able to make the event because airports didn’t open up until late on Monday night, Stapf added.

"We did consider cancelling, but we decided to go on social media and say

‘Snowzilla’ won’t defeat Armageddon and went after it that way," said Stapf. "We got a lot of interest and traction that way, including media retweets. That was the hairiest aspect of the whole thing – the concern about having to cancel."

In addition to an event at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the Doomsday Clock was unveiled by a panel at Stanford University featuring California Governor Jerry Brown, former Secretary of State George Shultz, and former Defense Secretary William Perry.

The Doomsday Clock has been adjusted only 21 times since its creation in 1947, moving from two minutes before midnight in 1953 to 17 minutes before midnight in 1991.

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