Ignore the Rules of PR and Journalism at Your Own Peril
Some reflections on the world around us over the last few weeks.
1. Unconfirmed reports are not news. When did “unconfirmed information” become reportable news? Unconfirmed reports have as much news value as something you overhear a stranger say in an elevator. We depend upon news organizations to CONFIRM information not simply pass on things that may or may not be true.
There were many media flubs and faux pas during the overheated coverage of the Marathon bombers - all very well documented by my good friend the
red hot Chartgirl- but there were few things more annoying than hearing newscasters say: “we’re getting unconfirmed reports of....” more bombs, more bombers, more targets, more deaths, more injuries, more plots, more explosions, more terrorists,... all of which turned out to be untrue. CNN turned itself into more of a laughing stock than it already was by blabbing its unconfirmed reports on the air. John King learned the hard way that Twitter is not a reliable source and the network and others lost a boatload of credibility in their rush to try and beat the competition and boost their ratings by fobbing unconfirmed information onto the air disguised as news.
Actually, as my alter ego recently point out on his Savvy Blog, the fourth estate has a long and storied history of reporting unconfirmed information - Cronkite did it many times while working the Kennedy assignation - but that was long before the Twitterati and Internet media critics could take you apart in a moment's notice. Cronkite-era newsmen could trip and still hang on to their credibility. CNN? Maybe not.
2. In a crisis, tell it all, tell it fast, tell the truth. Yes, it's become a rather tired cliche in flackdom. But it is ignored as often as it is preached. Think how differently the Rutgers basketball coach incident would have turned out had the university taken action the moment it became aware of the coach's ill-tempered remarks and incriminating video. They might have been able to save his job, preserve the athletic director's position, and suffered little or no damage to its reputation. Now, it's an institute of higher learning that tolerated bullying behavior, tried to cover up a damaging video, has had to do a mea culpa, might be losing its credit rating and, egads, resorted to hiring a crisis consultant. Too bad.
And then there's Anthony Weiner. He thinks time and the public's propensity for forgiveness might sproing him back into politics. Had he just remembered the trite crisis counselor's edict he might never have had to resign in the first place. Instead, he thought lying, covering up, and running away might save him. Duh.
It was duly pointed out in a recent New York Times Magazine piece by none other than Barney Frank, who survived a sex scandal of his own a quarter century ago by immediately coming clean, so to speak, that Weiner chose the wrong path. “The instinct is: don’t tell anybody anything other than what they already know for sure,” Frank said. “Well, the problem with that is, if you are caught not being open and honest, you make the press into enemies. They have a vested interest — a legitimate one — in almost destroying you.”
3. The point at which you have nothing to say is not the time to issue a press release. I was fortunate in my career to have sat in a newsroom and been the recipient of some of the most absurd press releases ever issued. They were valuable templates for what not to do once I crossed over into the world of public relations. So you would think an organization like The New York Times would think twice before it started tub thumping when it had nothing to say. As pointed out recently in O'Dwyers, a PR industry newsletter, the Times released a press release in late April with the breathless headline: "New York Times Announces New Strategy for Growth." And what, pray tell, is this new exciting strategy? The Times' new CEO Mark Thompson - who also should know a thing or two about dealing with a crisis - explained: "We mean to grow our business by launching new products and services based on the unique strengths of Times journalism and by investing in the rapid expansion of existing operations..."
No new products or services were mentioned in the release and in fact the new strategy seems pretty much exactly what the old strategy was. But, hey, maybe the times PR department didn't have any better news to report after winning a boatload of Pulitzers earlier in the month.