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Feisty the Seal: Anatomy of a Duluth Flood Meme

22 Jun

Meme \`meem\ n:  an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture 

Figure 1 – Feisty the harbor seal captured on June 20th on Grand Avenue in Duluth by Elli Buchar.

The lens by which the world viewed the Duluth flooding disaster this week was actually viewed through a sympathetic set of eyes.  Never mind that they belonged to a nearly blind harbor seal named Feisty.

When 10 inches of rain fell on the bluffs that anchor the city of Duluth, Minnesota the runoff cascaded down its hills with the force of a dozen rivers at spring break-up.  The rushing water in the middle of the night on June 20th swallowed cars, roads, homes and even the Lake Superior Zoo.  The raging floods drown eleven animals and flooded out the pen holding two aging and sight impaired seals named Feisty and Vivien.  At the height of the disaster in the middle of the night, no one knew the plight of the zoo animals until Ellie Buchar saw something unusual along Grand Avenue—Feisty.  She snapped a picture, shared it online, and within a matter of hours this nearly blind seal became the vision by which the rest of the world viewed the disaster. (Figure 1)

Just how powerful was this meme?  I was standing along Olney Street interviewing Gene Swanson who was in danger of losing his house to the raging King’s Creek when my phone rang.  It was one of my news producers at her computer monitor from 170 miles away wanting to know why I wasn’t at the zoo?   Never mind the people desperately trying to save their homes and lives.   “What about the animals?” demanded the producer.  (I could give a dozen journalistic counter arguments–but that’s another post at another time.)

Feisty’s story is a case study in contagion and memes in this new age of social media.   It provides a unique pathway for understanding why they become so powerful.

In this case, social psychologist Jaap van Ginneken would argue that Feisty served as what he calls a strong replicator.  Such replicators evoke an emotion that cause people to take notice and share.  Image plays an essential role—the strongest replicators have child-like images with large eyes.  Finally, the replicator must be positioned in an unexpected way—a surprise.

Feisty’s image on Grand Avenue fit perfectly into the model:

  • Strong Replicator: stressed animal
  • Child-like face: helplessness
  • Surprise: found in middle of street 

    Figure 2

The image served as a critical signal to viewers, especially women that something was happening.  This signal is the beginning of a cognitive cycle where the viewer forms a positive association with Feisty and in context forms a negative association with the floods.  (Figure 2)  When the viewer hits the “send” button on their computer and others share, a meme is born.

That’s essentially what happened on July 20thand why a helpless animal has become the face of such a human disaster.

Figure 3 – Feisty in her new temporary home at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, MN

It should come as no surprise that Feisty’s viral picture is exactly why she and her half-sister are now safe and recovering at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul.  When Como’s zookeepers saw her viral picture they immediately called the Lake Superior Zoo offering help.  Several hours later both seals and a polar bear were traveling to their new temporary home.  (Figure 3)

Como’s Sr. Zookeeper Alli Jungheim says they’re all feeding and adjusting well to their new home.  “We’ll take care of them like they are our own,” said Jungheim.

For now the seals are safe.  But, there’s so much more work to ensure the rest of Duluth is safe, too.


Picture This — A Cure Community for Diabetes

5 Mar

Hopes and dreams don’t just hang in our minds, sometimes they hang in picture frames.

Blotz Family - OutFOX Diabetes 2012 Walk Team

At the recent Minnesota JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes, the hopes and dreams spilled from the pictures taken and pictures displayed on shirts and posters all across the Mall of America.  Almost all of them were of children.   Each one shouts a story, each one begs for someone to listen.  But the one picture that doesn’t exist is the image reserved for the empty frame that sits in each of our homes.  That’s the frame waiting for a picture of a cure.

Kim Bailey, an adult living with diabetes since her childhood once told me she envisions the frame as a picture of nothing.  “Let’s get rid of it.  It exists no longer.  Let’s get it done and put ourselves out of a job.”


Until then, I still fill my frames with hopes and dreams for my daughters Maddy and Emme.  Maddy was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes at the age of three, Emme at the age of eleven.  It’s not an easy disease for children, or their parents.  Manageable, yes.  Easy, no.  Besides the constant blood sugar tests, carb counting and needles sticks, there is the worry and many times the feeling of isolation and exasperation.

Alyssa Kapaun was diagnosed in 2011 with Type-1

At this year’s Walk there were two girls who know both the isolation and exasperation.  Alyssa Kapaun is a fifth grader who every day eats lunch by herself because she returns late to the cafeteria after getting her insulin shot in the nurse’s office.  To a parent, it’s a crushing sight; Alyssa on one end of the cafeteria all alone, her class on the other end.  I recently had the chance to meet Alyssa at her school—she didn’t eat lunch alone that day. 

Hailey Stark of "Hailey's Army" Walk Team

                            And then there’s Hailey Stark, a high school freshman I first met at last year’s Walk hobbling along on crutches.  She was having a hard time of it.  The struggles of being a teenager, in addition to one with diabetes AND a broken leg were written on her face as plain as a low blood sugar reading.  She didn’t give up then, and she hasn’t given up now.  What a thrill it was to see her again at this year’s Walk without the crutches and with a team of friends.  The message that I hope Alyssa and Hailey took home from the 21,000 people at this year’s walk is that you’re never alone. 

The stories of those two children drive what is both an essential function and brand for JDRF.  At its core JDRF is a charitable organization that drives and funds essential research to cure, treat, and prevent Type-1 diabetes.  Since a group of mothers founded JDRF in 1970, it has contributed $1.6 billion toward research to find a cure–$116 million in 2011 alone.  In many ways, it is invisible work conducted in laboratories and clinics around the world.   But as Alyssa and Hailey show us, it is JDRF’s visible work of programming the Walks and fundraisers that provide a core social purpose and create a powerful brand.

Figure 1 - JDRF Mental Model Map

Two years ago I conducted a communications research study to identify leverageable consumer insights into the Walk to Cure Diabetes.   Part of the study’s methodology utilized a Zaltman-style elicitation analysis that had a number of people affected by Type-1 diabetes assemble a series of pictures that best describe their feelings and thoughts about the disease.  The elicitation study produced a mental model map that started with diabetes and its burdens and laddered up to JDRF, the Walk, and finally, a cure. (Figure 1)  The subjects in the study produced two important and equal mind models of the Walk, one of support, and one of togetherness.  In the togetherness model, the concepts of “empathy” and the thought of “not being alone” stood out among the participants.  To all of the study’s subjects, the Walk represented the possibilities of a cure and the higher level values of happiness, innocence, and freedom. 

Together, this mental map produced a number of important take-aways.

Consumer Insights into Diabetes:

  • Diabetes is hard on families
  • Exceptionally hard on parents
  • Physical and emotional struggle for the patients of Type-1 diabetes
  • Lives are ruled by medicines and machines

Consumer Insights into JDRF:

  • Represents a means to a cure
  • Finding a cure means a return to innocence for our children

Consumer Insights into Walk to Cure Diabetes:

  • Family
  • Coming together
  • Support
  • Reinforces the sense of not being alone

What became very clear from the research is that people with ties to JDRF viewed it as a community.  Not just any community—A Cure Community.

JDRF has done extensive work in the past year to rebrand itself as the Type-1 diabetes organization.  It’s certainly one way to differentiate itself from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) which also supports research but has a core mission of helping people with diabetes live better lives.  The people who continue to support JDRF with their dollars want something more.  They want a cure and a return to the freedom and happiness it represents.  That’s why the consumer insight into JDRF as a cure community is so powerful.  It is the foundation to a brand for JDRF that has real meaning.

2012 JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes at MOA

The 21,000 people who raised $2.1 million at the recent JDRF Walk know it.   Now Alyssa Kapaun and Hailey Stark know it, too.  They exist in their parents’ picture frames just as Maddy and Emme exist in my own.

And then there’s that empty frame, too.  I’m holding out to fill it with one giant group-shot of all the people we cure.

Natalie Strand and the Power of “I Can”

21 Nov

                Amazing things happen when you put your mind to it.  Natalie Strand has proven it for most of her life.  Diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes when she was just 12 years old, she didn’t let it hold her back.  At an age when most adolescents would view such a diagnosis as a barrier, Strand viewed it as an opportunity.   

             The changes to her body brought on by diabetes led to an intense curiosity about medicine.  That curiosity led to medical school.  Medical school led to Oxford.  Oxford eventually led to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and then to the faculty of UCLA.  These days most American television viewers don’t know Dr. Strand by her title, they know her by her victory—winner of The Amazing Race.   

             Dr. Strand shared her story and her secrets to success this weekend with the families connected to the MinnDakotas chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.  Each step along her journey Dr. Strand says she’s succeeded by eliminating the words “I can’t” from her vocabulary.

            “I think it’s a very simple thing.  You just have to decide to do it,” Strand said.  “Whatever it is that you are doing, if you decide at the onset that no matter what comes up, you’re going to do whatever it takes.  You’re never going to say I can’t.”

              For most of us, the keys to success are not that simple.  To be sure, they weren’t for Dr. Strand either.   Social psychologists have come up with a unique model to explain how we approach personal obstacles.  In their Theory of Trying, Richard Bagozzi and Paul Warshaw explained that people evaluate goals based upon their attitudes of success and their attitudes toward failure.  (Journal of Consumer Research, 1990)  Failure combined with fear can be powerful motivators—we are often more afraid of loss than we are motivated by success.  (Kahneman, 1979)  It’s all about framing.  Dr. Strand has succeeded by continuously framing her life in terms of success.  Failure is not an option. 

             How refreshing in an era of unemployment, stagnation, and polarization.   At a time when our economy and our political system prove “it can’t,” along comes an amazing winner who shows that as individuals “we can.”

Nixon and Vietnam, A Veterans Day Legacy

15 Nov

(UPDATE – 9-29-12: our documentary segment on Geoff Steiner has just won the 2012 Emmy Award for best single military story)

*          *          *


The past collided with the present this week and the crash reminds us of the tragedy that was Vietnam.

On the eve of Veterans Day, the Nixon Presidential Library released a recording of the former president dictating his account of talking to Vietnam War protestors at the Lincoln Memorial in the pre-dawn hours of May 9, 1970.  The president had a sleepless night after giving a nationally televised news conference a few hours earlier on the progress of the war.   By Nixon’s own account he went to the Lincoln sitting room in the White House to listen to some Rachmaninoff when he was approached by his personal attendant Manuel Sanchez.  Sanchez was a recently naturalized Cuban refugee and new to Washington and the White House.  Feeling melancholy, Nixon asked him if he had ever seen the Lincoln Memorial at night.  Sanchez admitted he hadn’t, so Nixon gathered a small group of secret service agents and off they went—into history.

What Nixon didn’t anticipate was running into a group of wide-eyed college students who had driven all night from upstate New York to protest against the war.  Just five days earlier National Guard troops opened fire on a similar group of protestors at Kent State University and killed four students.   In his Dictabelt recording Nixon admits he awkwardly tried to make small talk, but it quickly turned to the war:

“As I tried to explain in my press conference that my goal in Vietnam was the same as theirs, to stop the killing and the war, to bring peace… I know most of you, that probably most of you think I’m an S.O.B., but I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.”  – Richard Nixon, 1970


On the very morning Nixon was trying to justify the war, a 19 year old Marine from Minnesota was performing his duty to carry it out.  Geoff Steiner landed in Vietnam prior to the Tet Offensive in 1968.  Sixteen thousand U.S. soldiers lost their lives that year.   By 1970, he was a battle scarred survivor of a war with seemingly no end.   Coming home was hardly any easier.   Like many Vietnam veterans Steiner suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.   The scars ran too long and the pain too deep.   Finally, one day he put a gun to his head, but instead of finding a bullet, he found God.

Vietnam Veteran Geoff Steiner with producers Rod Rassman and Mark Anderson

Today, Steiner is a Chaplain who quietly passes the time on 40 acres of land near Cushing, Minnesota.   He is a loner who is hardly alone.  Several times a week Steiner walks through the early morning mist with a shovel, a seedling, and a prayer.   He plants trees in honor of the men who never came home and those who did come home but never found their inner peace.

“When I bought this land, there wasn’t a tree in sight,” said Steiner.   “Now, I have thousands of them.”

This is exactly where Nixon and Steiner collide.  Nixon wanted to end the Vietnam War through “peace with honor.”  Steiner simply wants honor with peace.   He lives it every day.

And that’s exactly why we met on Veterans Day among the living memorial now growing on his rolling Minnesota land.  I teamed up with producers Mark Anderson and Rod Rassman to profile Steiner for part of an upcoming film on veterans called “11-11-11.”  The film will portray a day-in-the-life of veterans on the very day that we honor their service.   We think Steiner not only has a great story to tell, but is an American worth knowing.

That’s why it’s so ironic that on Veterans Day this year we heard two voices on Vietnam, one from the present and one from the past.  The oxides on Nixon’s tape recording have faded with time, the scratchy audio a reminder of a reel that only plays in the echo chamber of history.   Geoff Steiner needs no recording; the legacy of Vietnam is on permanent replay in his mind.  He has his trees, but they will never completely hide the horrors of war.

*               *               *


The Power of the Narrative

27 Oct

Every good story has a beginning, middle, and end.  This story begins with a note from a long lost friend needing a small favor.

My old colleague Cortney Napurski always had sharp skills and big ambitions.  She’s more than proven it in the past four years, no longer the young journalist just out of college.  During that time she’s chased dreams while the rest of us chased paychecks.   And all the while she became the kind of young woman who no longer fits on a one page resume: a Londoner, master’s graduate, and a mother.

Now, she’s chasing another dream called a PhD.  It’s also where her note fits in asking for a letter of recommendation for a research grant.  What Cortney hopes to prove is that literature is a better tool at teaching history than by forcing kids to memorize dates, facts and names from a text book.   In other words, she’s attempting to prove what her journalism background has instinctively taught her—the instructional power of the narrative.  The best journalism has always been a collection of verifiable facts woven into narrative form.   Narratives are the glue by which humans cognitively communicate and connect with one another.  There’s a reason why the Anasazi carved petroglyphs, why Homer wrote poems, why Jesus told parables—because they work.

We use narratives to sell and define products, presidential candidates, even ourselves.  They tell the story of our lives, even our careers.  As a reporter, I’ve written hundreds of narratives.  But ask my colleagues about the one that perhaps best defines me as a storyteller, and they’ll most often say it’s a little ditty called Motown.   It’s a memorable gem I had the honor to co-write with NPPA National Photographer of the Year Andy Shilts.


What Motown Adams teaches us is that we all have a story to tell.   Motown’s story is one of redemption.  Watch it once and you’ll remember him forever.

And that’s exactly why my friend Cortney is onto something.  If literary narratives from the early 20th century can elicit the same connection and emotion, then Cortney is hypothesizing they can also become an effective teaching tool that connects students to the people, culture, events, and higher level values of that time.

In the process, Cortney is writing her own narrative.  She has a great beginning.  I can’t wait to see where she goes next…

Steve Jobs and the Power of Self-Actualization

15 Oct

            Search the Apple Apps Store on a brand new iPhone 4S and one will find 424 applications to “create.”  There are no apps for “conformity.” 

            Mark it up to the lasting legacy of Steve Jobs.

             The Apple co-founder who lost his battle with cancer last week developed technology devices that allowed people to easily create things.  He dared us to be different.  Nothing expressed it more than Apple’s ad copy when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” (Apple Inc.)

             What Jobs tapped into was the psychological notion of self-actualization.  Everyone has the power to change themselves and those around them, what Jobs and Apple did was design the technology to make it happen.  In the process he asked us not only to think differently, but to create differently.  Break out of the box. 

             On the day of Job’s passing, we did just that at Fox 9.  We left our $30,000 video camera in the trunk and instead pulled out our iPhone and iPad. 

            The genius of the culture Apple has created is in the loyalty of its customers.  If Jobs created any legacy it’s in the notion that people want technology that easily helps them be who they are.  The proof is in the web traffic scores since the announcement of the iPhone 4S. 

Web page traffic for Apple, Verizon, and ATT

            Visits to Apple’s site are up nearly 50%, 24% at ATT, and 19% at Verizon Wireless, two of the dominant service providers for the iPhone.   All three expect record sales.

            Admittedly, it creates an interesting paradox that the company which has pushed people to become individuals has them lining up like Lemmings.  But what this is really all about is a dominant brand idea.  In a world that too often settles for “me too,” Steve Jobs taught us to say, “I am…”

The Price and Weight of Freedom

5 Oct

            If it’s true that freedom bears a heavy price, then it comes in a heavy box, too.

            In this  case freedom’s box weighs 135 pounds and is delivered by UPS.  Sixty years ago, it was delivered by the U.S. 8th Air Force.   A B-24 crew member by the name of Wally Grotz was among the brave airmen who delivered freedom to the people of Poland in the form of heavy bombs raining down on the Nazi’s.   For his bravery, he paid an equally heavy price: shot down, captured, and imprisoned.

U.S Airman Statue by Polish Artist Zygmunt Wujek

               “Freedom is a wonderful thing and you don’t know what it really is until you don’t have it anymore,” said Grotz.

            The German Luftwaffe sent Grotz to the infamous Stalag Luft IV near Koszalin, Poland.    By the end of the war it would house 7,000 American POW’s.   He spent two months there before the Germans forced him and hundreds of other prisoners on a 500 mile march to Berlin.  Grotz was among the few to survive the march.  The Russians and British finally liberated him as they closed in and the Third Reich collapsed.

            Grotz never forgot the experience.  Neither did Poland.  When the Pomerania region of Poland dedicated the old Stalag Luft IV site as a memorial in 2006, Grotz was the only living American POW to return.  They raised a statue to the airmen of the U.S. 8th Air Force but the sculptor, Zygmunt Wujek, wanted to give Grotz something more.  This week if finally arrived—the box of freedom.

            It took two hammers and a crowbar for Wally and his son Jim to pry open the box’s green wooden slats.  They pulled at the packing Styrofoam like curious kids on Christmas morning to finally reveal the surprise.  There, gleaming in the October Minnesota sun was a bronze bust of an American airman.  An exact replica of the statue dedicated at Stalag Luft IV in Poland.  To the Pole’s it might as well be their version of the Statue of Liberty.

            When the artist told Grotz of his gift, he was stunned.  “I asked them, how so much appreciation after 60 years?  He said, ‘it took us a hundred and 25 years to get our freedom and we appreciate it.’”

            As a former POW, Grotz is one of the few of us in America who uniquely understands.  “There’s just a few of us left who actually remember what these poor Polish people went through,” said Grotz.  “Five years under the Nazi’s and then from 1945 until the end of the cold war under the communist rule.”

Former POW Wally Grotz, UPS Sales Representative Lisa Anderson, and Wally's son, Jim Grotz
Former POW Wally Grotz, UPS Sales Rep Lisa Anderson, and Wally’s son, Jim Grotz

                 Grotz has accepted the sculpture on behalf of all his fellow 8th Air Force veterans.  He intends to display it in the lobby of the Veterans Hospital Minneapolis.  Then, on Veterans’ Day he and his family will drive it to the 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia where curators will display the sculpture among its permanent collection.

            Grotz’s family, especially his son Jim could not be more humbled.  “I think it’s a very fitting tribute to all veterans of this country that people of a small region of the world would come back after the fact and say, ‘Thank you veterans for having made us a free nation,’” said Jim.

            Yes, freedom has a price.  In this case it comes with deep gratitude, and a box that can no longer carry it.

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