There is such a thing as bad PR

Although it seems strange to launch a new blog with an entry on bad PR, today’s news about MSNBC’s decision to pull Don Imus’ TV show off the air is too salient a topic to ignore. If you have been living under a rock, you might not have heard that the radio and tv veteran made some disparaging, and what some would deem racist, remarks about the Rutger’s women’s basketball team. (See story in NY Times.) Although most of our clients are not caught up in a controversy that would have everyone from Rev. Al Sharpton to presidential candidates commenting about it, they do on occasion stick their foot in thier mouths and get into trouble. So what do you do when it happens?

The first, and most difficult step, is to decide whether or not you should stand by your guns or admit that you have made a mistake. This is not an easy decision. Although many Imus defenders are waving the flag of freedom of speech or the ‘comic’s bill of rights’ to insult whoever they deem funny, executives also need to consider the business implications of being ‘right’ or being right with their customers and the industry. It can be very costly to be ‘right’ and sometimes backing down from a position maybe a much wiser decision, even when you think you are right.

The second step, is to set your strategy. If you are going to apologize, do it immediately, without hesitation and in a public forum. If you are going to stand by your words or actions, do it immediately, without hesitation and in a public forum – but also, be ready for a fight. If you are standing up to defend yourself, you need to have all of your defense weapons in order (in PR terms this means, facts, figures, statistics, statements of position, quotes from leading authorities and organizations etc.).

Jet Blue’s CEO David Neeleman decided to publically admit his company’s mistakes (after the debacle of the March 16th storm weekend which kept Jet Blue passengers imprisoned on their plane for hours on the tarmac and others stranded for days on end). After a little tap dancing and weather blaming in the first few days, Neeleman stepped up and took full ownership of the crisis. Publically, and more importantly, sincerely apologized directly to the public on national television and through a video on YouTube. When someone admits wrongdoing, it is hard to continue attacking them.

But Neeleman also carried though to the next step. The third, and most important step, is to put action into your words. Jet Blue’s Customer’s Bill of Rights put power behind the company’s commitment to right their wrongs and rebuild the trust and faith of their customers. And, they were promptly forgiven for their sins.

Imus’ apology wasn’t necessarly clear or sincere. In different forums, he gave varying responses. Sometimes dismissing the uproar and calling his comments ‘silly’ and other times admiting that he recognized that he hurt individuals and was wrong. This seesaw reaction gave both critics and supporters more fuel for the fire and kept the controversy burning. Eventually, this drew in political groups, religious groups and more importantly for Imus – his advertisers. As advertisers began to take sides and shun the radio show host, it was clear that it was going to end badly for Imus.

Sometimes the best way to end a crisis is to stop talking about it – neither to defend it nor to apologize. Once your position has been stated, your action has been taken, if there is no benefit to keeping the controversy alive, it is best to make it go away by stopping the discussion. When the key players no longer comment, participate in interviews, issue statements or provide more controversial content, the media eventually run out of new news to print and the story just dies.

Update: Later the same day, CBS fired Imus from his radio show.

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