« Passive Voices, Passive Minds, PR Failures, and the Teacher Who’s Actually Taking Credit for “Heidi Cee” | Main | Fans Want More Gay Kissing!! What Can a PR Person Say to That?? Seriously… What Do You SAY? »
By letterhead | March 4, 2008
A recent “60 Minutes” story, originally aired on February 24, claimed that the prosecution of former Alabama governor Don Sielegman was politically motivated and directed from the White House by His Evil Eminence Karl Rove.
On the Huntsville TV station WHNT, most of the 13-minute story was lost in an 8-minute broadcast interruption. The station first blamed CBS, but the network ran full speed in the other direction, telling Harper’s:
“There is no delicate way to put this: the WHNT claim is not true. There were no transmission difficulties. The problems were peculiar to Channel 19, which had the signal and had functioning transmitters.” I was told that the decision to blacken screens across Northern Alabama “could only have been an editorial call.”
Then the station changed their story and said it was a technical glitch on their side. No surprise that the blackout, in the very state where the prosecution took place, caught the eye of viewers and regulators alike.
“Stoopid” Rhetorical Outburst?
The station quickly tried to make amends, getting special dispensation from CBS to air the segment the next day, and a second allowance the following day. It ran promotional crawls during news shows. It posted the piece to its website.
But the big dogs were loose and sniffing for blood. The station was “bombarded” by complaints about sabotage, and the FCC is considering an investigation.
The station’s exasperated news director, Denise Vickers, posted a long detailed blog post about what happened. In the station’s defense she asked:
“Who would invite such a public relations nightmare on themselves??”
Hmmm… Coach, Walmart, Target, Facebook, FEMA, HP … the list is not short; need we go all the way back to “New Coke” or even “there’s no proof smoking causes cancer?”
My Transparency Can Beat Up Your Transparency Anyday
Crisis spokespeople should take note of two big “don’ts”…
1) Open-ended rhetorical questions are a poor choice for crisis defense.
2) Given the history of U.S. business’s recent PR disasters, claiming that no one would be stupid enough to provoke a PR disaster makes you look… well… a bit stoopid.
In her 1500-word blog post – no doubt vetted by management and legal – Vickers claims that the station experienced technical problems, but she never actually explains what those problems were. She alludes to a problem with a CBS feed the day before, but that is a red herring, considering that she admits it was not the problem this time.
It may yet prove to be an innocuous technical glitch, but the lack of “transparency” struck a raw nerve with the public.
Her post included these two telling comments from viewers, which raise the larger issues related to “transparency” of interest to this blog:
I have honestly gotten to the point where I question everything I read and hear. My cynicism has become most acute during these last seven years and networks like Fox News have conditioned me to expect the worst.
For me personally, after seven years of our current pitiful administration and it’s [sic] equally, willing to be deceived, pitiful supporters’ actions, I’m just not surprised any more by anything they may try to do in order to fool, scare, lie to, or keep from the American people. Sometimes (and unfortunately) honest folks get run over because of all the mistrust that the administration has caused. If you are some of those honest folks, then I sincerely apologize for making your life slightly more difficult. If not, well then I’m sure there are plenty who are keeping an eye on you.
This Is What We Mean By “Literal Mayhem”
Vickers was encouraged by viewers’ anger. For her, it was testament to their high expectations for free speech and journalistic integrity. She says:
My resolve is reinvigorated to do what the First Amendment protects journalists to do – give a voice to the voiceless and to seek the truth and report it as fully as possible.
But the only part of her entire blog picked up by Reuters was the dumb rhetorical question — the FCC threat got top billing. The FCC is using the entire incident for political haymaking. Bloggers are making unfounded assumptions based purely on suspicion. The public is exceedingly pissed-off, cynical, and in the mood to believe anything, nothing, and everything.
This whirlwind – with everybody believing his or her own spin and agenda – is a microcosm of our modern culture. And the pissed off people of Alabama un-pinched their noses long enough to put their finger on it. Spin stinks. Politicians and their handlers are most culpable. But in general, PR as a profession will be called to account for what the public mind has become: “conditioned to expect the worst,” in terms of manipulation and deceit.
This is one of the wider social consequences of PR. It goes well beyond skepticism, which is healthy. Our work engenders the purest form of cynicism, which is corrosive of the spirit, an assumption that people are basically assholes and up to no good. Guilty until proven innocent.
Cynicism also encourages intellectual laziness. If we disbelieve and dismiss everything equally, we abdicate the responsibility to engage in critical thinking and factual analysis.
I will say again: The consequences of what we do are societal and cultural. Our deliberate and continual undercutting of the idea of objective truth — or “truth” at all, never mind the “objective” part — is having tangible consequences with respect to the way people think and behave. In many cases it quite literally is causing “mayhem.”
Our profession needs to rethink its priorities and its approach to ethics, because there is a very unpleasant backlash brewing… Wherein we offer philosophical approach to thinking about PR, which highlights the ethical implications and responsibilities involved. I am interested to know how this strikes you:
PR is not just a business, or even a profession… PR is an epistemological assertion.