Michigan/Wisconsin "Mitten" Gate | Riding the Social Wave of Online PR
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Riding the Social Wave of Online PR

Posted in Insights — December 16, 2011

The online community in the Midwest was buzzing last week with a ‘debate’ that demonstrated the ever-blurring line between social media and public relations, providing us with another example of how the social Web has opened a new world of PR opportunities for brands – some of them unexpected.


“Talk to the hand, Wisconsin.”

Hands Off Our Mitten
Michigan’s lower peninsula, when viewed on a map, bears a resemblance to the shape of a hand – or as some might say, a mitten. Michiganders are often found holding up a hand and pointing to their palm, thumb or finger to indicate where they’re located in the state. As a result, Michigan has come to be known by many as “The Mitten State.”

Early last week, Alex Beaton, owner of a Michigan-themed website called The Awesome Mitten, was engaged in some friendly online banter with a friend in Wisconsin about the football matchup between Michigan State and Wisconsin in Big Ten Championship game. During the conversation, Beaton’s friend sent her a link to Wisconsin’s recently-launched winter tourism campaign, which features an image of the state of Wisconsin in the shape of a mitten.

Taking exception with a neighboring state borrowing her own state’s mitten status, Beaton tweeted a good-natured criticism of the campaign from The Awesome Mitten’s Twitter account. A Michigan news website, MLive.com, saw the tweet, contacted Beaton for an interview, and published a story that evening about Michiganders’ reaction to Wisconsin’s campaign with the headline, “Wisconsin’s use of mitten to promote winter tourism a real stretch, Michigan fans say.” The story touched off a flurry of activity on Facebook and Twitter, launching an avalanche of publicity for The Awesome Mitten brand that likely captured the attention of PR pros from Kenosha to Kalamazoo.

The following morning, the Associated Press interviewed Beaton for a story on the newly coined, “Mittengate,” which it published to its national feed. Beginning in Michigan with the Detroit News, the story soon reached well beyond the shores of the Great Lakes, appearing in major publications like USA Today, eventually going international when it was published by the CBC. Before the week was out, Beaton had conducted interviews with over a dozen media organizations, including radio in Michigan, Wisconsin and Chicago.

Social media users also joined the party with creative graphics and even a music video, creating a buzz that eventually added 400 Twitter followers and over 500 Facebook fans to The Awesome Mitten’s accounts.

Traffic to www.awesomemitten.com, which prior to the mitten controversy averaged about 1,000 pageviews per day, spiked at over 40,000 pageviews as the wave of online sharing and discussion swept from the Midwest to both coasts. Taking advantage of the surge in visitors, Beaton added a link to advertising information to the site’s homepage and promptly received a number of inquiries. From an SEO perspective, adding incoming links from dozens of high-page-rank sites – and from pages rich with Michigan-related keywords – will add significant value to The Awesome Mitten’s search presence.

And it all started with a single tweet. If you work in public relations, you could likely come up with plenty of examples of PR campaigns with months of planning and thousands of dollars behind them that had a fraction of the impact. For those of us who work in social media, it’s the completely organic nature of this chain of events that makes it a fascinating case study.

The Awesome Mitten had cultivated its brand by creating content centered around its core message: Michigan. It then built an audience of social media followers that are passionate about the state and were more than happy to share their opinion with their own audiences. When the groundswell of public opinion – amplified by social communication and sharing – reached the news media, the viral snowball of exposure began to roll downhill.

So what can we learn from the Great Mitten Debate? Well, other than to avoid borrowing an already-established identity for your own promotion?

Identify and understand your audience. Stay true to your brand and core message. Create and share content that is directly relevant to your audience and support it with a consistent voice. With these things in place, you and your brand will be positioned to capitalize on your own opportunity – mitten or otherwise.

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  1. One of the best written articles I have read in some time.

    Posted by Derrick Haslam, December 16, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks for the kind words, Derrick. Much appreciated!

      Posted by Nick Nerbonne, December 16, 2011 | Reply