Save Big Bird! Will Romney’s Threats Wind Up Boosting PBS Fundraising?

Mitt Romney's comment directed at PBS during a presidential debate could present an opportunity for public broadcast to reach out to donors

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Beloved Sesame Street character Big Bird is in the spotlight thanks to Mitt Romney’s comments during Wednesday night’s presidential debate. “I love Big Bird,” Romney said, before stating his plan to cancel federal funding for PBS because “I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for things we don’t need.”

The masses responded to Romney’s Big Bird threat in predictably goofball fashion. A @FiredBigBird Twitter account was immediately launched (sample tweet: “Mitt Romney will end [Bert] and Ernie’s right to a civil union”), though apparently the account was suspended for a while on Thursday. There were cartoons released, and a bajillion memes appeared out of thin air — Big Bird with a “Will Work for Food” sign, “B Is for Budget Cuts,” Big Bird flipping Mitt the Bird. A “Save Big Bird” Facebook page was created, as well as a “Big Bird for President” page.

Politico noted that celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg came to the defense of Sesame Street’s tallest cast member. “He wants to kill BIG BIRD,” wrote actress Olivia Wilde in a Romney-bashing tweet. A “Save Big Bird” campaign was started at indiegogo.com as well, and “Keep Your Mitts Off of Big Bird!” supporters are hoping to raise $100,000 for the cause.

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Clearly, Romney isn’t the only one out there who loves Big Bird. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate’s comments brought this to light in a way that PBS probably couldn’t have done on its own.

Is there some way that PBS could harness all of this attention and goodwill for its own benefit? Absolutely, say experts. Marc A. Pitman, who runs fundraisingcoach.com, wrote that Romney’s debate comments could be “fundraising gold” for PBS:

Telling people “we exist because of your small gifts” isn’t convincing. But rallying them to “help us save Big Bird” would get lots of support.

Selling “Save Big Bird” T-shirts and requesting donations in clever, tongue-in-cheek fashion seem like no-brainers, especially since media outlets and folks on Twitter and Facebook will do most of the marketing for PBS while the issue is top of mind.

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“Anytime something unexpected happens in the news, especially in a major forum like a presidential debate, there is window for organizations associated with the news to take advantage of the opportunity,” David Meerman Scott, author of Newsjacking, explains via e-mail. “I think that PBS has a fantastic opportunity right now to capitalize. But it has to be now. Next week is too late. Even tomorrow is not ideal.”

PBS wouldn’t be the first organization to benefit from a Romney-related comment this year. In March, Scott wrote about how the Romney Etch A Sketch gaffe wound up being a sales boon for Ohio Art, the company that makes the classic toy.

“The key here is speed,” Scott advises. “PBS should be sending out e-mails to their donors and followers. They should be writing stories for their site and their blog. Their spokespeople should be getting out and talking about this. Again, the key is to be quick.”

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PBS did release a statement on Thursday, expressing that it was “very disappointed that PBS became a political target in the presidential debate last night,” noting that funding for public television “equals about one one-hundredth of 1% of the federal budget” and unequivocally declaring that it has Big Bird’s back:

For more than 40 years, Big Bird has embodied the public-broadcasting mission — harnessing the power of media for the good of every citizen, regardless of where they live or their ability to pay. Our system serves as a universally accessible resource for education, history, science, arts and civil discourse.

No direct plea for donations is mentioned, but the statement did highlight the fact that “for every $1 of federal funding invested, they raise an additional $6 on their own — a highly effective public-private partnership.”

Data from Blackbaud, a software and service provider to the nonprofit industry, indicates that 14% of PBS funding comes from the government, with the rest coming from individuals, foundations and corporations. Small community stations would suffer the most if funding is cut, says Chuck Longfield, Blackbaud’s chief scientist, who agrees that Big Bird’s moment in the spotlight, however short-lived it may be, offers a solid opportunity for PBS to garner support — and dollars via fundraising. “It is important that nonprofits have infrastructure in place to drive and manage interest and donations related to news and to be nimble enough to react quickly,” says Longfield.

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In any event, it wouldn’t be surprising to see plenty of Big Bird T-shirts on the streets in the days to come. Big Bird costumes will probably be quite popular for Halloween as well.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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