Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Pro-Action and Public Relations - In Business and Politics

When it comes to public relations, there are often two competing needs. In one, you want to "get the word out" - to the right audiences, generally as quickly and completely as possible. But for the other, you want to stop "the word" from getting out - generally because of a concern of negative backlash from the release of that news.

From a human perspective, that second need is understandable; but from a PR perspective, it's almost always a bad idea. In our open society - made far more open by the Internet (including Blogs such as this) - it's almost impossible to keep a secret. So instead of trying to keep "the word" from getting out, often the correct PR answer is to manage the way that this "word" gets out. To get it out pro-actively, rather than responding to the news once somebody else "leaks" it. In today's society, trying to stifle the news can only lead to others putting that word out, generally in a context that's less favorable than you'd use yourself.

Sometimes, timing can be an issue. For example, some years ago I was working with a county hospital that - in an extremely competitive labor market - was faced with the need to significantly raise wages. This would, in turn, lead to a rise in rates - something that was sure to play less than enthusiastically among the county's budget-conscious voters. There was a natural desire - among the hospital's executives - to wait until the last minute, hoping this situation would just "work out" - but as the hospital's PR consultant, I didn't think that was a sound long-term PR strategy.

So I proposed an alternative, and it worked.

In March, we announced - as a routine item at the monthly board meeting (covered by the press) - that if the competitive labor market situation didn't change, the hospital would be required to implement the wage increase the following October - six months in the future. The media noted this, but did not think such a long-term measure was particularly newsworthy.

Then, at the October board meeting, we announced that - as we'd said the previous March - stiff competition for key personnel (registered nurses, primarily) had forced the hospital to implement the previously proposed wage increase. The media remembered that we had, in fact, announced this increase six months previously, and decided that this was "old news," not really worth covering in depth.

So, instead of a problem - one that could have become a crisis in this politically contentious county - the necessary wage increase was implemented, in full public view, with only minimal public comment. In both March - and again in October - the wage increase was mentioned, but well down in the routine press reports of the monthly board meetings. In neither case, did the press highlight it, and in neither case did the public raise any objection. The legal and moral requirements of running an open operation at a publicly-owned institution were met, in full, but in a way that strongly limited the potential for public criticism of an action the board felt was fully justifiable.

This same principle has been followed many times - by my clients and by the clients of hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of other PR professionals who understand the value of taking the sting out of "breaking news" by acting pro-actively.

Which leads us to politics, today.

There is a ticking PR time bomb out there - right now - facing one of the two Presidential candidates. If I was consulting with that campaign, I'd advise a swift and pro-active de-fusing of this time bomb, following the pattern noted above.

Here's the background: A week or so ago (as I write this), following a request of the Tribune Media Company, a state judge in Los Angeles ordered the release of previously sealed divorce records of a man running for the US Senate from Illinois (who had been divorced about four years earlier, in California). That the judge was appointed by a Democrat and that the candidate was a Republican may or may not have had anything to do with the decision - it really doesn't matter. What does matter is that judge created a persuasive legal precedent - the public's right to know now "officially" trumps any private reason for a political candidate to keep his or her divorce records sealed.

This state judge's action could now have profound impact on Presidential candidate John Kerry, who's own 1988 divorce records have been similarly sealed. The ruling becomes more relevant because the Tribune Media Company also owns a media outlet in Boston, where the Kerry divorce was finalized. There is current public and media discussion about the potential of a similar media request (from the Trib or other media organizations) seeking to force the release of Senator Kerry's divorce records. Not surprisingly, spokespersons for the Kerry campaign are arguing against any such release, while Republicans are pointing out that this is a media issue (not something they are doing).

Adding to this context, the campaign has already been fighting to keep another generally private record just that - private. Specifically, the Senator's wife has declined to release her own (filed separately) IRS tax records - something that no other spouse of a Presidential-level candidate has ever successfully done. Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro's husband did try to keep his records private, back in 1984, but intense media and public pressure finally forced the release of these records - which showed nothing of any consequence.

As a general rule, I personally and strongly support the rights of free citizens to keep their personal business private. However, when a person offers for election - especially for the Presidency - that claim of privacy seldom stands for long. The public (or at least the media, acting for the public) demands full and open disclosure, and when candidates resist this pressure, they face a negative and repetitive news story that just won't go away.

That is why I would counsel Senator Kerry to pro-actively go public with those divorce records. Chances are there is nothing in the divorce records that would cause more than a ripple of interest - after all, the ex-Mrs. Kerry wrote a tell-all book back in 1996 - and that book didn't actually tell very much, beyond the fact that it's hard for someone suffering from clinical depression to be the wife of an ambitious politician.

That "revelation" is hardly a secret, or a surprise.

At the same time, I would suggest that the current Mrs. Kerry release her tax records - records that have certainly been carefully completed by some of the most astute CPAs in the country, and which therefore certainly contains nothing illegal - and chances are, nothing particularly embarrassing. After all, the current Mrs. Kerry has been the wife of two United States Senators (Senator Heinz died in a tragic plane crash quite a few years before she married Senator Kerry) - she's lived a very public life for more than two decades, and in that kind of fish-bowl life, it is extremely unlikely that she's done anything likely to be problematic. The public already knows she's a billionaire - which is no crime - and I frankly can't imagine anything else in those records that could cause much of a problem.

By going pro-active and releasing all this information, all at once, the Kerry campaign would take a pair of probably pointless stories that are nonetheless sure to nag them every week or two from now until the election - and convert them into a single story that would run a news cycle or two, then disappear forever. If they released this news now, before the upcoming Democratic Party Convention, the story would have already disappeared by that time - well before most undecided American voters begin to make their who-to-vote-for decision.

Just as in my client hospital's experience, something that could have become a serious problem would, instead, disappear from view.

Bottom line: making potentially controversial news stories "go away" - not by covering them up, but by releasing them at the right time and in the right context - is one of the most important (but one of the most mis-understood) roles of professional public relations.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (http://www.barnettmarcom.com), is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Comdex RIP

Comdex has been, for those in high-tech PR - and for those who just like an outrageously huge and ostentatious show - a kind of secular Mecca. It is startling to find out that it's now just a memory ... http://tinyurl.com/3xvd8

Yeah, the god-king of conventions has secumbed to competition - younger, more flexible, more focused shows that earned their own keep while generating more revenue. CES is one that, this year, nearly rivaled Comdex at it's best. Which is to say that I wish I'd worn roller-skates as I made my way through the vast halls, button-holing reporters and doing what I could to advance the business interests of my client (who was paying me such an attractive day-rate to work the press room for them).

Without Comdex, I'm not sure what Bill Gates will do in November to get his annual Christmas message out to his masses of adoring fans - but with $58 billion to help him, I'm sure he'll think of something.

The demise of Comdex speaks to the mortality of all "icons" - if Comdex can become obsolete, what else that we count on is likely to fade, too?

Oddly, the high-tech world is nearly as vibrant as it was during the "bubble" years of Silicon Valley - vibrant, and I think a lot healthier, since it's built on ROI, not HYPE. Don't get me wrong - Silicon Valley hype was very, very good to me ... for several years, it kept a roof over my head (and kept me commuting to San Jose every Monday morning). But it was a house built on sand. What we have now is a mansion being built on the granite of solid business principles.

I suspect that's what helped to do in Comdex - too much sand, not enough granite. Too much hype, not enough solid business follow-through. Like the dinosaurs of old, it may have grown just too big to live - or as Yogi Berra said (of a restaurant), "Nobody goes there anymore - it's too crowded." In fact, Comdex was too crowded. You could get lost in one corner of one of the immense convention halls, and while you'd see a lot of fascinating booths, you'd still miss "the show." Perhaps there's a critical mass, beyond which trade shows cannot grow - not if they want to survive and prosper.

In that, they may be like PR-driven news stories with too much hype, too much of the 15-minutes of fame - stories that burn brightly, and fast, but quickly disappear.

Segway, anyone?

Breaking News-Letter - June 23, 2004 - How Today’s News Will Impact Tomorrow’s Public Relations ™

The full version of this (the version including the calendar - which won't format on the Blog) can be found at my website, http://www.barnettmarcom.com

June 23, 2004

Introduction to This Edition of Breaking News-Letter

“Breaking News-Letter” is intended to help PR professionals focus on those news-making events – at least the ones we can anticipate – which will prove so seductive to reporters, editors and producers that we will find it more difficult to pitch stories. This editorial fixation may be caused by news so compelling – as was 9/11 – that they can’t tear themselves away from CNN long enough to consider their own publications. But this editorial fixation may also occur because of relatively unimportant stories that nonetheless capture the media’s attention – the way the OJ trial did.

Either way, this is bad for those of us in PR, even if only because it’s harder than usual to gain our media contacts’ attention. We can’t always anticipate these events – “news” happens in spite of our best planning – but when we know something’s coming, it’s only prudent to plan ahead. And that’s the point of “Breaking News-Letter.”

There are several things we can do in times like this. One option is to find a tie-in to the news – though there are dangers to that, as reports from a colleagues (below) suggest. Another option is to undertake activities other than pitching during the time that the media is absorbed in the super-story or 800-pound-gorilla story.

When President Reagan died earlier this month, I sent all of my clients a note suggesting that most media pitching efforts would be less fruitful during his funeral week. I then mentioned that, for this reason, I was shifting my focus (on their behalf) to other PR-related activities (developing media lists, drafting case studies, etc.) that would put their resources to better use. I didn't actually stop my pitching activities entirely, but I did shift focus, and all of my clients seemed pleased to know I was pro-active – and considerate of their needs and resources.

That event, my actions and their positive outcome were all part of the springboard that led me to create this newsletter.

News Overview

Pop-Culture Non-News Issues: The role of non-event stories on the media (“celebrity” trials, hot “reality shows,” etc.) has become increasingly important. These events – Scott Peterson’s trial is a perfect example – have no true societal impact, yet the media obsesses over these pop-culture “issues” to the detriment of other news coverage. If we are pitching one of the media obsessing over these non-event stories, be very much aware that we’re competing with a media “pack mentality” that will tend to push even important stories off the news pages.

Cycles in Business and News: There are cycles in Business, and cycles in News. Sometimes these overlap (as in the annual pre-Christmas and post-Christmas business news coverage, which almost seems as if it could be repeated verbatim each year, without modification). Identifying Business cycles (in our, or our clients’ market niches) can be a big help to us in identifying news opportunities – and doing so far enough in advance to give us a leg up in pitching our own story leads.

However, what too often happens is that easily-anticipated cycles reoccur seemingly without warning – and when a down time comes, PR people quietly start to panic, either because there's no business coming in (for themselves or their clients) or there’s no news being generated. What we should do is be aware of the pattern of cycles, in business and in the media, and plan accordingly.

Factoids: One way to work around the down-times in press news cycles is to find ways to “create” news when nothing is happening. “Factoids” – statistical snippets of news that so many in the media find irresistible – can be generated easily, and at low cost, by asking pointed questions in online (i.e., http://www.zoomerang.com –like) surveys, then packaging these factoids for use by the media.

For example, in almost any industry, we could ask:

1. Will your business prospects improve if President Bush is re-elected?

2. Will your business prospects get worse if President Bush is re-elected?

3. Will your business prospects improve if Senator Kerry is elected?

4. Will your business prospects get worse if Senator Kerry is elected?

5. Will your business prospects improve regardless of who is elected?

6. Will your business prospects get worse regardless of who is elected?

The answers to these six questions will certainly generate sufficient statistical “facts” to be the basis of media coverage that will mention our employer’s or client’s name, and position them as an organization that has taken the pulse of it’s own marketplace and knows what’s coming.

That’s an image most businesses and trade associations would be eager to have.

However, we don’t have to go with politics to generate newsworthy factoids – and as long as the information we present seems newsworthy, we can place it everywhere from the front page of USA Today to the news pages of any media we care to target.

Tying our pitches to breaking news: This seems like a slam-dunk idea, and when an 800-pound gorilla seems to be blocking our access to news coverage, it is a strong temptation. However, there are risks involved. A Canadian-based colleague and friend, Duncan Matheson, offers the following cautionary tale:

Duncan Matheson wrote: Ned, I think most of us try to tie our releases into current news to give them more media appeal, but the trick is how to do it effectively. Often we hit, but we have one particular example were we fell dead flat.

Our client had developed an interactive storybook based on Anne of Green Gables, the story of a girl growing up in rural Prince Edward Island. The book is considered a timeless classic is particularly popular among the Japanese. Our client was trying to capitalize on the fact with a product for girls, which we planned to launch in connection with the opening of the Confederation Bridge (the longest bridge ever built, connecting Prince Edward Island to mainland Canada. We had a girl who had professionally played Anne in costume and we were really to get our share of all the international media, and especially media from Japan, who would be there.

However, we hadn’t anticipated the world’s largest traffic jam, thousands of cars ready to cross this amazing 13-mile bridge. “Anne” and I ended up hopelessly stuck, until I stopped a motorcycled cop – they were the only people who could move – and persuaded him to take Anne to the site, in full costume, on the back of his cop motorcycle.

But I digress. The point is, we got next to nil for coverage. The tie-ins that we thought the media might run with simply did not resonate, with anybody. In retrospect, the bridge was the only story. As a PR effort, we would have been much better off if we hadn't seen this big collection of media from all over the world as “fertile ground.” It was anything but.

Super-Story™ 2004

This week’s “Super-Story” seems to be Bill Clinton’s new book. It has monopolized talk shows, and – because of Mr. Clinton’s amazing popularity (and glimpses of that amazing temper, as seen on BBC) – the media doesn’t seem to be able to get enough of him and his story. If you’re pitching political, lifestyle or cultural news, and you’re not factoring the Clinton Impact, you’re making life harder for yourself than you need to.

This story will likely dominate the media (though it will start to fade in about 10 days) until the Democratic Party Convention – then it will either fade entirely or burst into new life. At this point, it looks like it could go either way – in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, all bets are off!

An 800-Pound Gorilla Story™

The Olympic Games in Athens, Greece – later this summer – will be a true 800-pound gorilla of an event. Sporting events and their results may be just part of the story. Much attention will focus on Athens itself, while other attention will look at how unprepared Greece is to host the games to which it gave birth. There are many business stories to be had about corporate sponsors (and maybe those companies that found ways to generate the benefits of sponsorship without the costs of investing in the games). There will be media debates about how the games are timed (or not timed) to play in US Prime Time. And all of that is without the terrorist angle. There will even be stories tying Athens (Greece) to Athens (Germany) – or at least there would be if I was pitching for the University of Georgia (which I helped get involved in the 1996 Atlanta games).

The more I hear about these games, the more convinced I become that this will be the sleeper story of the summer – with the media satiated by American Presidential politics (and their audiences growing bored by the longest campaign in history), they will turn on Athens, Greece and the 2004 Summer Olympic Games with a ravenous hunger.

This will be a great time to pitch Olympics-themed stories, but take heed of Duncan Matheson’s cautionary tale – make sure the stories really do relate. Or, the Olympics might be a good time for that summer vacation you’ve been trying to schedule.

Seasonal Gorilla Stories

There will be a few seasonal “gorillas” – stories mostly of short duration that nonetheless will capture the media’s attention for a bit. Absent any shocking terrorist stories (or an unexpected economic crash), look for the media to briefly fixate on things like:

 Back-to-school
 The Major League Baseball All Star Game – July 13
 Just before the election, the World Series – starting October 23
 The ever-earlier start of the National Football League season – August 9
 That increasingly moving-target event, the fall TV program premiere season

We can also expect the media to continue to obsess over major “trials” – Scott Petersen, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson – that have no real news value (in the sense of breaking legal ground) but which will dominate the media as they attempt to score another full-frontal OJ.

Making use of the Calendar:

You can use this calendar here (not shown in the blog edition of this Breaking News-Letter, but available online at http://www.barnettmarcom.com) as a template to plug in local “gorilla” and “super-story” items for your own use. These might include local mayoral elections, festivals, St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago, etc.). If you’d like a template, I’ll be glad to send you a copy of the calendar in WORD. Just drop me a line at ned@barnettmarcom.com and I’ll send you one as an attachment.

If you use this template, remember that, in WORD, you can color-code events to help make the calendar even more useful for you.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (http://www.barnettmarcom.com), is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

The Other Ned Enters the PR Blogging World

That other Ned in PR - Ned Lundquist (creator of Job of the Week, the hugely entertaining and informative e-newsletter of PR jobs around the world) has now entered the blogging field. I admit it - his looks better than mine (though mine has more words - and better words ). Seriously, check out the Other Ned's new Blog:


About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (http://www.barnettmarcom.com), is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

Recruiting Rape - How to Mis-Handle A Campus Crisis

The University of Colorado Football Team Rape story - one of what I deem the most criminally-inept public relations on the part of the University of Colorado - has re-surfaced in the past week.

The University President (a woman, for gosh-darn sakes) testified under oath that she'd heard the foul four-letter insult (the notorious "c-word"), the one that had been hurled at the female place-kicker by a male team-mate - used as a term of endearment ...

She said that in public, where the press could here her - and Ib believe she said it under oath ... and, well, I just presume somebody's gone and shot all the PR people in the entire state of Colorado, because it's damned sure nobody there is listening to any professional PR advice.

I'd originally written what follows (pre-blog) when the story was first public two months ago. I was offended that the coach and I shared a name (though we're not kin), and I was offended by the incredibly inept way the school was handling this PR crisis (I used to be in college PR, and have some firm views on the right way to handle such crises).

Now that it's back in the news, I thought I'd update my original thoughts and put it out here ...


Rape is a crime. There’s nothing ambiguous about rape. And when it occurs on campus, against students, it’s a crime that cannot be tolerated, condoned or overlooked by University officials.

Handling a rape crisis is – or should be – equally unambiguous. But remarkably, that seldom seems to be the case, even for college administrator who clearly ought to know better.

It wasn’t all that long ago that American colleges were deemed to stand “in loco parentis” for their students. That’s a fancy Latin legal term which means, quite simply, that the college was supposed to assume parental-like responsibility for the students – bluntly, the students were treated as if they were the college’s children.

This all changed during the Vietnam war, when students facing the draft – and others who’d just come home from the war – won their emancipation from this tight, legally-mandated University oversight. However, the basic principle – that colleges have some responsibility for their students’ safety, as well as for the actions of students who are acting under the auspices of the college – remains.

Fast-forward a generation. A religiously inclined high school student – a candidate for a football scholarship – blew the whistle on the University of Colorado’s use of prostitutes, strip-club visits and wild parties as part of their student-athlete recruiting program. This report triggered an outpouring of other charges – including the charge of rape, made by woman students against student athletes on the University’s football team.

Suddenly, the University of Colorado had a huge, hydra-headed public relations crisis – and like so many other executives in the public and private sectors, the University’s leadership performed a remarkable deer-in-the-headlight performance. That performance did nothing to resolve their PR crisis – in fact, their actions compounded what was already a dismal situation. It got so bad that the University’s mis-handled rape crisis was even mocked in Doonesbury, made fun of on Leno and Letterman, and it made the University the subject of outrage, scrutiny and scorn.

As if this rape crisis wasn’t bad enough, the head football coach – an unfortunately-named gentleman (who is absolutely no relation to this author) – made an intemperate on-camera press statement about one of the alleged rape victims, who was a member of the football team at the time of her rape (or alleged rape, to satisfy any lawyers in the audience).

He said, in effect, that she was a lousy football player whose presence on the team was resented by the guys on the team – in part because of her poor performance as a player. Because she was resented – and by the way, because she was not very good at playing football – the coach made it seem that this alleged rape victim was therefore somehow “asking for it,” especially from the other football players. Those were not his exact words, but that was the impression the coach created with the media, and with the public.

This, of course, created a media firestorm. Attempting to stanch the flow of blood, the University took a series of remarkably lame actions, concluding with putting the coach on leave-with-full-pay while they “investigated” a situation that had been videotaped, and was therefore fairly obvious – even to college administrators. Then, two months later, they reinstated him without penalty - in fact, nobody in authority is being punished, sanctioned or even spoken to harshly - but the University promised to "do better" in the future. Or something like that.

Amazingly, the Administration seemed surprised that their “decisive” actions didn’t do anything to stop the bleeding. So the University President, a woman, came forward and swore that she'd heard one of the foul insults hurled at this woman student on the team (that notorious "c-word) used as a word of endearment. Uh, yeah. Right.

Clearly, the University either had no competent public relations counsel (which I can't believe) – or, more likely, the Administration just wasn’t listening to the PR advice they were getting.

I’m guessing that the college administrators did meet with their senior PR counsel, and that in doing so, they got a full measure of competent advice. I imagine that this meeting – which would have taken place shortly after the Administration first put that coach on paid administrative leave (and were therefore surprised when this “bold action” didn’t make the problem go away) – went something like this:

College President: “This is a PR nightmare, Jack. What can we do?”

Jack Flack: “First, tell me what happened. What really happened.”

College President: “It started when this religious fanatic …”

Jack Flack: “A religious fanatic? Who?”

College President: “This, uh, recruit – a high school student athlete. He objected to some – and I want to make this clear – strictly unofficial recruiting practices. Practices that we knew nothing about. Absolutely nothing.”

Jack Flack: “You knew nothing about University athletes taking high school students to strip clubs, wild parties, or setting them up with prostitutes? You didn’t hear a word about this? Not a hint? Not even a rumor? Nothing? Nada?”

College President: “Well, no, at least nothing official. Nothing – besides, Jack, doesn’t everybody do it? I mean, look. We never condoned any official violations – certainly nothing like this. Our Alumni strongly support the football program – they often help with our team’s recruiting efforts. And of course, the NCAA has its own rules governing recruiting …”

Jack Flack: “You didn’t want to know about what might be going on, did you?”

College President: “We have never had never any kind of recruiting problems here at the University, Jack. Nobody had every complained. Not once.”

Jack Flack: “I’m sure you’re correct. High school aged male student athletes seldom complain about being treated to strip shows or prostitutes or wild parties – you’re right about that. Until this one high school student athlete, who apparently has strong religious convictions, complained. To the media. Then what?”

College President: “Well, we made it clear that any unauthorized recruiting violations which might have occurred were strictly unofficial – and besides, those strip club parties were all off-campus. What goes on off campus isn’t really our responsibility, is it?”

Jack Flack: “OK, you told the media that whatever might have happened was unofficial and off campus. So what happened next?”

College President: “Once this story broke, some women – women students – came forward with unsubstantiated claims about having been raped. They claimed that they were sexually assaulted by football players, or by recruits, or by people supposedly related to our athletic program. Some of these claims were four or five years old.”

Jack Flack: “So then you were faced with claims of rapes perpetrated against students by student athletes. What did you do about that?”

College President: “Why, we condemned it, of course. Rape is wrong, and we said so.”

Jack Flack: “You came out four-square against rape? Very courageous.”

College President: “Why thank you, Jack – we certainly thought so, too. After that, everything should have been just fine …”

Jack Flack: “Just fine for who?”

College President: “Why, for the University, of course. And everything would have worked out, too, if that coach hadn’t shot his mouth off to the press.”

Jack Flack: “Oh? What did he say?”

College President: “He made some unflattering observations about one of the women students claiming to have been raped by one or more members of the football team – she’d been a place-kicker and part of the team at the time of the alleged rape. The coach said she had been a divisive influence on the team, and that she wasn’t a very good football player, either. Can you imagine? And he said all of that during an on-camera interview. Almost immediately, feminist groups from all over made it sound like he was claiming that the young woman had asked for it, or that she somehow deserved it.”

Jack Flack: “And that was a problem?”

College President: “Absolutely! By the time that young woman surfaced, we were all more than ready to just move on. But after what the coach said, the press just wouldn’t leave the story alone.”

Jack Flack: “That’s not good, is it? So what did you do to the coach?”

College President: “We immediately took decisive action, Jack. We put him on administrative leave – paid leave, of course - at least until this blows over. I mean, at least until we can get to the bottom of this painful and troubling situation.”

Jack Flack: “You put him on administrative leave, with full pay, is that correct?”

College President: “Of course. What else were we supposed to do, Jack?”

Jack Flack: “This man – this coach – is an executive employee of the University. As such, he was responsible for the actions of his student athletes. He permitted this young woman to be a place-kicker on his team …"

College President: But he didn’t recruit her – she’d been on the team when the coach came to the University."

Jack Flack: “So she wasn’t his responsibility?"

College President: “Well, no, but – well, she wasn’t one of his student athletes.”

Jack Flack: “I’m not sure other people would agree with you. The coach allowed her to remain on the team, and that made him responsible for her welfare, as well as for the welfare – and actions – of other team members, including those who have been accused of having raped her. As an official of the University, this coach also had a primary responsibility to set an example. His statement, which seems to condone rape of a student he clearly didn’t welcome on his team, is clearly not the example you want your officials to set. Is it?”

College President: “Well, when you put it like that, I guess it wasn’t the best possible example for a University official to set. Perhaps our actions didn’t make this as clear as we might want it to be. So what should we have done?”

Jack Flack: “You should have immediately suspended him – without pay – and said something like this to the press:

“As a University official, our coach had a positive responsibility to not only set an appropriate example, but to protect his student athletes – and high school student athlete recruits visiting our school – from criminal assault. He must also never, ever seem to condone criminal actions, especially those allegedly committed by or against student athletes or student recruits. This man’s press statement was clearly unacceptable, and as a result of his statement, we are putting him on unpaid leave until such time as we can legally terminate his services. As an employee of this University, the coach has certain rights, and we will scrupulously respect all of those rights. But this University has no place for senior employees who do not understand their responsibilities to their students, to the citizens of Colorado, and to the laws that govern all of us.”

College President: “Can we do that?”

Jack Flack: “Absolutely. You’ll want to make sure your attorney vets the actual termination process, but as long as you protect an employee’s rights, you have the right to terminate any employee for cause. And as long as criminal charges are alleged, you have the responsibility t
o ensure that all University employees – especially senior officials – respect the rights of victims, as well as those who are accused of crimes not yet proved. Your University tried hard to sweep these charges under the rug; when that became impossible, your corrective actions were – at least from a PR perspective – too little, too late.”

College President: “So what do we do now?”

Jack Flack: “You need to give more than lip service to the idea that University officials have a positive obligation to protect students and student recruits from criminal activity. You have to actively and aggressively cooperate with off-campus police and prosecutors. You need to protect the potential victims – while making sure that the accused also have their rights protected …”

College President: “That’s a tough balancing act.”

Jack Flack: “Yes it is – and it’s been made much tougher by your actions to date. But it is because of those very in-actions of yours that you now need to go the extra mile. Beyond what I’ve already outlined, you also need to reach out to student groups, the alumni association – and to those who advocate for the victims. Beyond that, you need to enact – and enforce – policies that will make sure this never happens again.”

College President: “And this will make the problem go away? This will rehabilitate our image?”

Jack Flack: “Eventually, but not immediately. If you do everything right – if you aggressively enforce real, meaningful standards – this problem will start to go away in about five years.”

College President: “Start to go away? Five years? Why so long?”

Jack Flack: “When the last freshman now on campus has graduated, the collective memory of your betrayal of your responsibility …”

College President: “Betrayal? Jack, isn’t that a bit harsh?”

Jack Flack: “No, and as long as you continue to think that it’s too harsh, you’re not going to turn this situation around. It will take five years for the last student now on campus to have graduated. And it will take five years for the last of today’s high school freshman to have already selected the college they’re going to – before this problem will really begin to fade. Imagine that you’re the parent of a high school athlete – would you want your son to come to the University to be recruited?"

College President: “No – not when you put it that way."

Jack Flack: “Well picture this. You’re the parent of a high school-aged daughter. Would you want her to come to the University? To an institution who thinks that rape is something to be swept under the rug?”

College President: “No, I don’t guess so. But Jack – isn’t there some other way? Some faster way to turn this around? What you’re prescribing seems like mighty harsh medicine. What would happen if we just let this die down?”

Jack Flack: “Do you remember the Navy’s Tailhook scandal?”

College President: “Of course. Everybody remembers the Tailhook scandal. But Jack, that was years ago …"

Jack Flack: “Tailhook was a dozen years ago. That was also an unofficial activity. It also took place “off-campus.” And it didn’t even involve students, or people presumably responsible for protecting children under their care. They were all consenting adults, attending an adult-only party at a casino hotel in Las Vegas. Sin City, USA. Yet everybody still remembers the Tailhook scandal. The Navy never effectively faced that crisis, and a dozen years later the stain of that scandal still hasn’t gone away. Do you want that to happen to the University? Or do you want to take your medicine, now, and let the healing start?”


Initially, I wrote: "Only time will tell if the University’s leaders were listening when they got this kind of sage, savvy PR advice. In this case, while the right words are critical – and the wrong words, as the coach found out, can be devastating – actions still speak much louder than words."

What's clear, now, is that nobody in power was listening - least of all the University President. Her actions - her words - have made a bad problem much worse. It will be interesting to see if the University's alumni will support her, or the football program. I understand the coach had a winning record recently - but it remains to be seen if he'll be able to recruit quality student athletes ... or if parents will even consider letting their sons and daughters attend the University of Colorado.

There are serious PR lessons to be learned here - beyond not shooting your mouth off - about what a University or college (or similar organization) should do when faced with a crime-related crisis (especially if that crime is rape).

When a crime-related crisis like this comes up, sage PR advice can be summarized in a few simple rules:

1. If a crime or scandal is alleged, take it as seriously as if the victim was your son or daughter, wife or husband, father or mother.

2. Accept responsibility, and take meaningful actions to make amends

3. Move immediately to protect the rights of the victims – and of those who are alleged to have been the criminals – but do nothing that smacks of cover-up or special treatment for athletes or other prominent individuals

4. Ensure that all officials either speak from an approved script, or remain silent

5. Take decisive action at once – don’t settle for lip service or symbolic gestures – make real changes

6. Expect the problem to get worse before it gets better, and expect the reverberations to be heard for years

7. Get professional public relations crisis counsel – and listen to the experts

This list of suggested actions isn’t intended to be a cookbook – it’s not even a road-map – but these broad guidelines will help with a college executive's initial actions and statements - at least until they can bring in effective professional support.

Some crimes linger in the memory, and only really effective public relations can help erase that memory, and replace it with something more positive.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (http://www.barnettmarcom.com), is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

Breaking News-Letter - June 15, 2004

This is the first in a series of newsletters on ways that world-shaking events covered by the news media can impact the way that public relations practitioners can effectively pitch the media.

Included in this newsletter is a calendar that, however, won't show up on a blog like this. To see the full calendar, go to http://www.barnettmarcom.com - and while you're there, take a few moments to check out the website ...


And now to Barnett Marketing Communication’s Breaking News-Letter©

How Today’s News Will Impact Tomorrow’s Public Relations©

June 15, 2004


What’s breaking?

News. Lots of news. And that news is going to impact how we practice public relations in the days, weeks and months to come. Sometimes the news will have just a small impact on PR; sometimes the news will have a profound impact on what we’re able to do.

The death and funeral of President Ronald Reagan demonstrated the power of breaking-news events to disrupt the normal flow of both press coverage and the activity of public relations professionals. Reporters and editors are human, and are as susceptible as the rest of us to distractions caused by fascinating and compelling news stories. So for a full week, from Saturday through Friday, the business of public relations slowed dramatically.

This ability of news stories to slow – or stop entirely – PR efforts really hit home to me in the aftermath of the terrorist strike on September 11, 2001. For weeks after we all witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers and the deaths of 3,000 Americans, reporters and editors were as shell-shocked as the rest of us – and at least until the first week in October, efforts to pitch business-as-usual news stories largely fell on deaf ears. This shocking event, and its unanticipated PR backlash, began to crystallize in me an awareness of the impact of both unexpected and “scheduled” news stories. As a result, I began to track, measure and evaluate the impact of these on the practice of public relations.

The result of this is “Breaking News-Letter©.”

This news-letter (pardon the pun) is intended to help those of us in public relations to plan ahead. In each issue, we’ll consider upcoming scheduled (and anticipated breaking-news) stories that have the potential to directly or indirectly impact our ability to place our news.

Some of these big-foot stories will impact all of the media, but most of them will only selectively limit our ability to reach reporters, editors, producers and webmasters. But when the news intervenes, all we can do is go with the flow. These are, after all, the people who are the defacto gateways between public relations practitioners and the public at large, and when something in news or society catches and holds their attention, we either climb on that particular bandwagon or wait patiently for the parade to pass.

News Overview

Every season has it’s “super-stories©,” over-arching 800-pound gorilla society-wide events that transcend their own niches and effect all of us – as well as the media that serves us. The balance of this year will have more than its fair share of super-stories. As we face the balance of 2004, it would do well for all of us in PR to consider how these 800-pound gorillas will impact, shape or limit our abilities to pitch stories to the media, and to generate positive coverage for our clients or employers.

We're now facing, in addition to the annual summer family-vacation season, two Presidential conventions, the 9/11 anniversary and the Presidential election. Then we’ll be facing the annual holiday season, but this one particularly important because of the outcome of the election and the potentially shaky nature of the economic recovery. All of these super-stories will tend to slow down PR’s ability to effectively pitch – our news contacts will be on vacation, or distracted, or even involved in the super-stories themselves.

Although it’s been three years now, the 9/11 anniversary will still have an impact, one that will be enhanced by the focus brought on that tragedy’s remembrance by the Republican National Convention, held in New York the week before the anniversary. One “hidden” reason why this date will have an impact – many of the nation’s media offices are located in Manhattan, some just blocks away from the Twin Towers. On 9/11, I was in a hotel room in the SF Bay area, getting regularly-updated bulletins from the editor of a niche-market business journal, based on what he could see out of his window. Even though not all media are in New York, and not all businesses will be directly effected by 9/11, count on many of them to look for ways to tie in this national disaster to their breaking-news coverage.

Presidential election years always capture a greater portion of the media’s attention, all the more so when the elections are close. This year will see an election that most pundits predict will be extremely close, and signs are already clear that the election will be hotly contested. New election-financing laws, the scheduling of the political conventions, the ongoing war in Iraq (and the related war on terrorism) – and the tightness of the 2000 election – will all tend to focus media attention on this election.

This media attention will spill over into the business media – touching issues of trade, interest rates, taxes and increased governmental regulations – as well as into the entertainment and popular culture media. Let’s take a quick look at a few of them.

Hollywood is lined up on one side; defenders of the cultural status quo are arrayed on the other side; and both seem to see this election as a near-apocalyptic referendum on truth, justice and their vision of The American Way. There is not a business issue or market niche that won’t be touched by the election, and this will both shape coverage over the next four months, but will directly impact PR’s ability to pitch stories. Just getting reporters to care about your “new” v.6.5 release of software, or the upgraded, redesigned widget will be a real challenge.

All of the negative impact of these 800-pound gorillas will change if, in some way, you can tie your news to one of the season’s dominant super-stories. For example, many almost-unrelated businesses – especially those with corporate histories that date back to the 1940s – made PR capital out of the long-planned dedication of the World War II Memorial. In the war, wood-workers made assault gliders or landing craft and sewing-machine manufactures produced machine guns – and all of them had the chance to reflect on that faded glory with self-congratulatory press releases and PR outreaches that found fertile ground in the media.

Super-Story© 2004

The super-story for 2004 has got to be the US Presidential Election. No election has begun so early – the Democrats front-loaded their primaries, and the Republican President had no in-party challenger – which means that the final candidates were both selected by March. That’s a full four months earlier than usual. This could lead to voter burn-out, it seems certain that as the polls show candidates locked in a statistical dead-heat, the campaigns will get ever nastier … and ever more newsworthy. Which means that in the next four months, the media – not just the political media, but almost all of the sub-sets of the media – will become more caught up in the election battle.

There will be at least four media “high points” in this election cycle, time-centered events that will suck all the oxygen out of any media that covers national politics:

 The Democratic Convention in mid-July

 The Republican Convention in late August
 The three scheduled debates in late September and early October
 The final two-week “sprint” to the ballot box

If your pitches are targeting reporters, editors or producers who follow the election as a major news story, these four time-periods might be good times to take a break. Update your CRM databases, clear out your e-mail in box, clock out early to catch a round of golf with the boss, or just kick back and relax. However, if your media targets are less professionally focused on politics, you should still be aware that their interest may be distracted during this time period.

PR Tip: Find ways of tying your news pitches into the election – directly or indirectly. Be very creative – remember that lots of your PR colleagues will be trying the same thing, too.

An 800-Pound Gorilla Story

The commemoration of the 9/11 Terror Attack will again capture the media’s attention for the week leading up to that date. This will have some impact on your pitching, but won’t skew coverage in the way it did in 2002. However, if terrorists try to revisit their “success” of three years ago – something that seems to be keeping the FBI burning the midnight oil – then expect this story to become much bigger, even if the terrorists fail.

In fact, the potential for terror attacks later this year may prove to be the sleeper “800-pound Gorilla” story. This potential will be a major focus of coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; the Olympics in Athens, Greece; the three Presidential-level debates, and the election itself. Then, if no terrorists strike during these events, we can expect to see a replay of concern over terrorist strikes during the holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year. Whenever this highly-focused attention comes up, opportunities will be created for those of us whose clients in some way touch security – or the economic or social impact of terror attacks – but the rest of us can use the time to catch up on our filing.

Seasonal Gorilla

This year, the “seasonal” story – how well products are selling, how many jobs are being created, things like that – will have a rebound in interest. This will reflect, first, a return to “normalcy” after the endless coverage of the Presidential campaign. But intensive coverage will also be focused here as the media – in all segments – tries to read economic tea-leaves for 2005. This year has been a year of recovery, but polls show that people don’t really believe that the economy is bouncing back; in those kinds of “official” (i.e., media-determined) economic insecurity, count on an increased level of media coverage.

Offshoots of this intense media focus will be the new perennial stories on whether or not e-commerce has come of age, as well as a careful tracking of those dinosaur industries (department stores, catalog operations, other “traditional” sources of Christmas spending). There will be lots of opportunities for savvy PR folks to cash in on this predictable media obsession – but for those of us with no tie-ins to the holiday season, it will be an exceptionally quiet period, one in which pitching efforts will bear few fruits.

Breaking News-Letter – How Today’s News Will Impact Tomorrow’s Public Relations
Editor, Ned Barnett; Research Director, Karol Ann Barnett
© 2004, Ned Barnett, Barnett Marketing Communications
http://www.barnettmarcom.com – 702-696-1200

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (http://www.barnettmarcom.com), is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

Martha, My Dear … How Disastrous PR Paved Martha’s Road to Hell

By Ned Barnett, APR
Fellow, ASHMPR

She's back in the news - a Secret Service agent lied under oath in her trial, and she might now get a new chance for public humiliation ... and it could have been so easily avoided.

Martha Stewart is living proof that incredible wealth, undoubted talent and real power mean exactly nothing – at least, nothing without effective public relations. She’s now facing jail time.

Even though she's not in jail - yet - she’s already been to see her parole officer. Viacom dropped her program from CBS and UPN. Her corporate board voted her right out of her own company.

And all of this could have been avoided – if she’d listened to (and acted on) solid public relations counsel.

I say “listen” because Martha is reported to have retained no less than four different high-powered PR agencies (leading to some interesting behind-closed-doors “negotiations” about what she should say to the press). Assuming that her high-priced PR counselors were competent, they had to have been giving her sound advice – wise counsel that she refused to act on.

There is, quite literally, no other rational conclusion.

But what would a competent, high-powered professional public relations counsel have advised Martha Stewart?

Let’s review the facts:

1. Martha Stewart got some information about ImClone stock. Was it “Insider” information, or just good advice from her broker? The prosecutor and the courts ducked this issue, so nobody really knows for sure. However, from a PR perspective, it really doesn’t matter. The appearance of impropriety was there, right from the beginning, and that’s what did in Martha Stewart.

2. Martha Stewart apparently acted on that information about ImClone, selling off 4,000 shares and saving the half-billionaire a whopping $50,000. Put into perspective, this savings represented .0001 of her net worth – one one-hundredth of one percent of the wealth she owned and controlled.

3. As soon as her actions became public, Martha Stewart began to take flak on her actions, and began to act the way guilty people do. First, she deleted a message (then realizing that this was destroying evidence, she restored the message); then a few days later, she apparently lied to the FBI about this message (among much else).

4. Then there’s the arrogance thing …

Let’s stop right there.

As soon as Martha Stewart realized that she had a PR problem – as soon as the media began to apply “heat” to her for what already appeared to be insider trading – she should have sought out her high-priced public relations counsel, Jack Flack, and asked for his help.

The conversation might have gone something like this:

Martha Stewart: “Jack, the media is coming down on me – hard – about this ImClone thing. What should I do?”

Jack Flack: “Before I can help you, I need you to tell me what happened. What really happened.”

Martha Stewart: “I got this call on the plane. My broker said ImClone was about to tank. All the big boys were bailing. So I sold. What else was I supposed to do?”

Jack Flack: “There’s got to be more, Martha. Tell me the rest of it.”

Martha Stewart: “Well, when I got back to my office, I found records of a phone message that – if you didn’t understand it in context – would look bad. So I had my assistant delete it. Then I realized that deleting the message might look like an admission of guilt, so I had the guys in IT jump through a few flaming hoops and get it back. No harm, no foul, right? That’s the whole story, Jack. So what do I do?”

Jack Flack: “It’s simple, Martha. We’re going to go public. You’re going to admit that you made a mistake – that you reacted on the spur of the moment, without thinking. Then, realizing how it bad that stock sell-off would look, you panicked – just for a moment – and destroyed evidence. But as soon as you calmed down, you knew that was wrong, so you restored the message.”

Martha Stewart: “You want me to admit a mistake? You want me to say that I panicked? Jack, do you know who I am?”

Jack Flack: “Yes, I know who you are, Martha, and that’s why you need to admit this. But you need to go farther. You need to say that, because you know how this all looks, you want to apologize. To America. To the stockholders of ImClone. To all the stockholders in Martha Stewart Living. To your fans, those who watch your show, and those who buy your product.”

Martha Stewart: “Apologize? But I – Jack, I did nothing wrong. At least not technically. Not if you look at it the right way.”

Jack Flack: “You’ll do more than apologize, Martha. You are going to offer – to everyone who bought any of your ImClone shares, to anyone and everyone who bought ImClone right after you issued the sell order – you’re going to offer to make them whole. You’re going to offer to buy their stocks back, at full market value – plus 10% for the trouble they went through. Ten percent – maybe fifteen.”

Martha Stewart: “Buy the stock back? Are you crazy? Why, I’d lose fifteen, maybe twenty dollars a share. Jack, I sold 4,000 shares – if I follow your advice, I could be out $50,000 – maybe even $80,000! Are you out of your mind?”

Jack Flack: “I’m not out of my mind, Martha, and that’s exactly what you’re going to do. You’re worth a half-billion dollars, maybe more. And to salvage your image, your influence and your marketability, you’re going to be out maybe one one-hundredth of your net worth. Isn’t your reputation worth that?”

Martha Stewart: “When you put it that way – I’ve already spent more than that on attorneys, Jack …”

Jack Flack: “And you’ll spend a lot more than that on lawyers if you’re not careful.”

Martha Stewart: “Well, maybe.”

Jack Flack: “One more thing, Martha.”

Martha Stewart: “Oh, good god, Jack, what else?”

Jack Flack: “You’re going to admit, publicly, that what you did was probably wrong. Maybe even illegal. And you’re going to say that you want to make amends. That you want to meet with the SEC and in that meeting you'll offer to pay any fines, or to do whatever else they ask, to make this right. You'll offer to turn state’s evidence if they need you to.”

Martha Stewart: “Why on god’s earth would I want to do that, Jack?”

Jack Flack: “Because if you admit you were wrong BEFORE the SEC can formally charge you with anything – or before they can even turn the FBI loose to begin to investigate you – they’ve go no where else to go. Instead of being a suspect, you’ll become an icon of corporate responsibility. A poster girl for doing the right thing. You’ll be a hero, and people will love you.”

Martha Stewart: “Love me? For admitting I was wrong? But I’m Martha Stewart. I’m never wrong … Jack, there must be some other way.”

Jack Flack: “There is, Martha. You can stonewall. You can proclaim your innocence. You can lie to the prosecutors, and you can tell your investors that this is all a witch hunt. You can spend $400,000 a week on attorneys – probably for years. And when it’s all done, you’ll face 12 people who’ve never made – or lost – $50,000 on a stock deal in their lives. You can flash your wealth and power in their faces. And when it’s all over with, you can wonder what the hell happened. When they find you guilty of being arrogant, then find some kind of crime to attach to that verdict, you’ll wonder if your pride is worth the price you’ve had to pay.”

Martha Stewart: “What? Nobody would do that to me!”

Jack Flack: “Martha, they’d love to do exactly that. To you. They’ll be sticking it to a corporate fat cat – a Ken Lay in a designer dress. They’ll be on Larry King and they’ll all write “as told to” books about being on the Martha Stewart Jury. They’ll be heroes, triumphant victors over the last of the Robber Barons. And when they’re done, you’ll have lost everything you have – your wealth, your company – your freedom. And like any other convicted felon, Martha, you’ll go to jail.”

Martha Stewart: “Jack, I can’t go to jail. For god’s sake, I’m Martha Stewart. I’m an icon, a diva, a goddess. They – those people – can’t do that to me.”

Jack Flack: “Can’t do that to you? They can – and they will – and they’ll love every minute of it. There is only one thing more powerful in the human psyche than the desire to bring low those who would put themselves above others. To bring down people just like you.”

Martha Stewart: “Two things? What’s the other.”

Jack Flack: “Forgiveness. The desire to embrace the prodigal, to forgive all – especially the mighty who have fallen. But forgiveness only goes to those who sincerely apologize. Martha, listen to me. If you want to keep your wealth, your power and your company – if you want to keep your butt out of jail – you’ll apologize. Sincerely. You’ll make good the losses of everybody who even might have bought one of your shares of ImClone. You’ll beg for the opportunity to pay fines and turn state’s evidence and wipe the slate clean. And in the end, you’ll be more popular, more powerful and wealthier than ever before. And you’ll be loved, Martha, loved and forgiven by the very people who’d otherwise be so eager to put you in jail.”

Martha Stewart: “You’re sure about this, Jack?”

Jack Flack: “Absolutely.”

Martha Stewart: (sigh). “OK, where do I sign. Let’s get this over with.”

That’s all she needed to do. Admit that, like everybody else, she reacted without thinking. Faced with a big stock loss, she instinctively sold her shares without considering the consequences – or the law. And, when the issue went public, she got scared – she panicked for just a minute – then she reacted in fear. Only after she’d done that did she realize what she’d done. Finally recognizing what she’d done, a repentant Martha Stewart set out to make a clean breast of things. To set things right.

If she’d done that, she would never have been charged, tried and convicted. She would never have lost her company or most of her once-vast wealth. She would never be facing prison time, her reputation forever in tatters.

That’s how PR could have saved Martha Stewart.


Of course, Martha Stewart made other PR mistakes. Given that she was going to trial where she’d face a jury of a dozen citizens who were as unfamiliar with her lifestyle as she was with theirs, she clearly did not listen to competent PR counsel. While wearing Martha Stewart-brand K-Mart clothes was not necessary, she should have worn off-the-rack from Lord & Taylor or Saks – and she should have carried a bag any woman on the jury could imagine buying for herself. Instead of bringing Rosie O’Donnell and Bill Cosby – two people who made it clear to the jury that Martha wasn’t like “other people” – she should have brought her hourly employees to support her, to show that she was in touch with everyday Americans.

Those were all PR gaffes – but they were tactical, not strategic. One of them might have been decisive – we’ll never really know. But an apology, delivered within the first week or two after the news broke, could have stopped all of the legal problems – stopped them dead in their tracks. An honest (even if in her heart she knew it was insincere) effort to make whole those who lost money by buying her stock would have made her look like a corporate hero, instead of a female Ken Lay. And a willingness to pay legal restitution and turn state’s evidence – that’s all it would have taken to make all these criminal charges go away, two years ago, and at minimal cost.

That’s what any skilled and honest PR counsel would have advised Martha Stewart. She had very high-priced PR counsel, so I have to believe that she heard something like this.

In most crises, what you do at first has far more impact than what comes later. And in any crisis – if you’re guilty (or at least not innocent) – a swift and complete apology, coupled with an offer to “make good” on any damage done, that is often all that’s needed to make the crisis go away.

That’s not only good PR, its good common sense. And as Martha Stewart proved, common sense – like clients willing to follow savvy Public Relations counsel that runs against the grain of their own human nature – is
that most uncommon of virtues.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (http://www.barnettmarcom.com), is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.