Gail Miller Bisher | Interview with Westminster Kennel Club’s Director of Communications, with topics about this years coverage of Westminster from Lyndhurst, shows long 145 year history and more.
This year’s media coverage of Westminster from Lyndhurst was seamlessly presented. How did WKC and FOX pull it off?
Gail Miller Bisher : We have a great working relationship with our media partner and this year, due to the pandemic, they were able to begin planning earlier in the year. FOX Sports works at remote, outdoor sporting events year-round, so being at Lyndhurst was similar to a golf tournament for them. As the Group tent was going to be on-air, the design was handled by FOX so that it would look good on television. However, the WKC Operations team worked closely with them on the layout to ensure a proper dog show experience was had by the exhibitors and all safety protocols were in place.
Of course, having Lyndhurst as a backdrop this year attracted Media attention because of the club’s 145-year history in NYC. Even though we had to reduce the Media attendance to 10 percent this year, we supplemented our content (videos, photos) through an online portal for the Media who could not attend. Westminster is an institution in the eyes of the Media, a historic brand and a NYC sporting event. Once they attend the show or interview an exhibitor, the Media quickly learn that, at its core, the events are about the love of dogs and the dedication to the well-being of the dogs. Making dog events relevant and understandable to the Media—and thereby to the general public—is my personal and professional mission.
Each year, I seek to fulfill the club’s mission, which enhances the lives of all dogs, celebrates the companionship of dogs, promotes responsible dog ownership, and breed preservation. Using that guideline, we seek story features for the Media that will promote purebred dogs, the sport, and the WKC. We are fortunate that there are so many great stories about our exhibitors, filled with love and passion for dogs, that oftentimes prove how purebreds continue to contribute to our communities today. Presenting relevant stories through the Media to inform and interest the general dog lover is an ongoing journey that is necessary on event days and beyond in today’s dog-owning climate.
Was there ever any doubt that the show wouldn’t go on as it has for 145 years? Surely this was uncharted territory.
Gail Miller Bisher : The club was very fortunate that we had time on our side. The world shut down literally weeks after our 2020 event, giving us months to monitor the progression of the pandemic. Starting in March 2020, the club and staff researched several scenarios for the 2021 events, with safety being the North Star. The task was to prepare for a variety of outcomes as the world changed daily, so it was a long summer of research and preparation. When the time came to make commitments, the club, with safety in mind, decided to postpone the event and take it outside.
The daytime live-streaming of Breed judging is an extraordinary gift to the fancy. Is this an essential part of the show’s programming?
Gail Miller Bisher : Thank you for your comment. The daytime streaming is part of our annual coverage from FOX Sports. The Digital team at FOX has said many times that our sport is by far the most complicated one they have worked on! Baseball and football are a “walk in the park” next to multiple rings, multiple days, High in Trial, All-American dogs, Smooth Collies vs. Rough Collies, 13″ Beagle, etc. It’s a new world for them, but the WKC Communications team and Press Crew work closely with all of the production folks at FOX pre-show, and on event days, to try and get all the verbiage and competitions correct.
The incredible WKC Press Crew is made up of longtime dog people who do a fantastic job year after year:. They are Lisa Peterson, Karl Stearns, Suzi Szeremy, Norma Smith, Jack Grassa, Tilly Grassa, Christina Frausini, Steve Surfman, Antoinelle Vulpis, and Haleigh Mansfield.
On television, the tent that was erected for Groups and Best in Show “felt” just like Madison Square Garden. Was this intentional?
Gail Miller Bisher : Yes, this was intentional. FOX Sports designed the interior of the Group tent, and it was meant to be a miniature Madison Square Garden with a slight art deco feel to complement our setting at Lyndhurst. We think they did a fabulous job to make the telecast and the exhibitor experience exceptional.
What’s it like to work with co-hosts Chris Myers and Donald Sturz? You three make a great on-air team.
Gail Miller Bisher : As with many elements of the show, this year felt more relaxed, in part, because we have a few years under our belts. But also because Chris was in Tarrytown earlier and I switched my role from PR person to analyst earlier in the weekend, allowing for more time together pre-show. Don and I had a little time to discuss the breed results in advance and just have “dog show talk” together before the telecast. Everyone is so busy coming into the events that finding time to just catch up with each other is often limited. This year was different. It felt so much better. Our Executive Producer at FOX Sports has reminded me that doing four hours of live TV is tough work for a seasoned broadcast professional, so the fact that Don and I do it two nights in a row—just once a year—is an accomplishment. The same is true for Kimberly Meredith and Jason Hoke who handle the daytime coverage live. We know that we have two audiences watching (the fancy and the general dog lover), so sharing information that educates and entertains is
Working in the booth with Chris and Don is a great experience as they both bring different strengths to the team. I value Chris’ experience and leadership in the booth, and Don has such a great calm about him… and then when he flashes that awesome smile, it lifts me up. Promoting the club and events all year long to lead up to the Group nights is an overwhelming crescendo for me. I’m living and breathing WKC as my regular job, so watching all the elements come together for those two nights is a unique experience.
A special “thank you” to the women who support us in the booth. We have a fabulous team of broadcast researchers who work behind the scenes and in the booth to ensure accurate, fun content. This is the team I want to go into battle with. They’re a smart, resourceful crew: Katherine Wright, Anna Gracie, Natalie Hollinger, and Rachel Robertson.
Where do you find the energy to accompany the Westminster winner on the media tour that follows BIS? Have you gotten any sleep?
Gail Miller Bisher : This is something most people don’t know, but I am generally working on 1 to 2 hours of sleep on the Best in Show Media Tour day! After BIS, we have a press conference, then the after party, and then I get back to the hotel to wake up for hair and makeup at 3 a.m. for a 4:30 a.m. departure. It is such an important day for the club and for the sport because the world is watching the winner. It is our opportunity to share our great story with the world, and so we work all day with the Media to introduce them to our winner to talk about the breed and the sport. I know the handlers are exhausted as well, but they too understand the importance of the moment—it’s not just for them, but for the entire sport.
How important is it to showcase the enduring legacy of the sport of dogs as the nation re-emerges from the global pandemic?
Gail Miller Bisher : I see an opportunity here: The story of dogs helping people in times of stress; the story of people wanting to add dogs to their families. These storylines are about companionship, and companionship is one of the major themes we use in PR at WKC because it is relevant to all audiences. Loving a dog is Step One. Then, wanting to do something fun with your dog is Step Two. And, finally, learning and engaging in competitions is Step Three. The sport and dog clubs offer a lot of activities that may appeal to new dog owners. And as the workforce is re-shuffling and more people are permanently working from home, this will allow for those daily 15-minute training sessions in the backyard!
A huge thank you goes out to all the dog owners who supported the club with pre-show Media appearances, the Press Preview event, FOX promo shoot, and on-site interviews. We know this can be tiring, and sometimes an inconvenience, but we are all ambassadors for the sport, and we appreciate having dog owners’ ongoing support.
Gail Miller Bisher | Interview with Westminster Kennel Club’s Director of Communications.