The Boy Not in the Balloon & Sky-High Publicity

By now you’ve heard about the “Balloon Boy” incident in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have seen the footage of the Heene family, of the large Mylar balloon without the boy in it, of said boy, Falcon, throwing up on the Today Show.  Falcon also let slip during Larry King Live on Oct 15 that he didn’t respond to his parents’ calls when they were searching for him because: “You guys said we did this for the show.”  The media is skeptical, the general public is at once amazed and appalled, and TLC is presumably chomping at the bit since Jon & Kate’s show is now a ratings bust.  The word at the water cooler is that the family is getting great publicity and that’s what they wanted all along.  (Update:  on Oct. 18, the Colorado police announced they’d be charging the parents on various counts of fraud.)

The Heene family’s stint on “Wife Swap” this past March only got them so far and their latest ploy was an attempt to get more attention (duh).  Probably the most over-used expression about being in the spotlight is that there’s no such thing as bad press.  The public relations profession needs to change this thinking and make sure that this type of press is a mistake and not an intention. And, writing here as someone who covers PR as a trained journalist, I’d say the media as the messenger might want to resist over-exposure of this “story.” Then again, if they don’t cover it, the citizen journalists will steal the show. Just check out YouTube.

PS: If you were the PR firm representing the Heene family, what would your communications strategy be right now?

— Diane Schwartz

  • Jason Karpf

    A PR strategy would be to proclaim the parents as publicity addicts and create some sort of “detox.” Of course, that process would only garner more attention. I’m sure a psychologist will coin a term and classify a syndrome.

  • Abby

    I agree with what you said about public relations professionals needing to change the thinking that ‘there is no such thing as bad press’. Simply reporting on unfortunate events that would lead to bad press is legitimate when it is news worthy, but using these events to grow popularity for the parties involved is not ethical.

    The public relations industry walks a fine line as it is when dealing with ethics and promoting that the idea of bad press being a good thing directly plays into the ethical dilemma.

    The Heene family tried to use a fake publicity stunt to gain popularity and they have been paying to consequences ever since.

    As a journalism student, I hope that by the time I enter the industry the ideals about press and ethics have changed for the better. This may be a long shot though.

  • Katie

    I agree that the media needs to change “that there is no such thing as bad press.” The public needs to know the difference between ethical press and unethical press. There should be consequences for creating such a hoax. Instead the family is getting exactly what they want, media attention. The Heene family’s press on the situation will eventually die down and they will have to come up with another hoax to keep their name in the media.
    If my PR firm was representing the Heene family I would have them on every network talk show and hold magazine interviews. This way they would be on two different communication sources. The talk shows would be on numerous different network stations, allowing at least everyone to see one interview. This way the Heene family could be in the media as long as possible.

  • Dave Monroe

    If the Heene family were my clients I think I’d consider switching to an easier profession– perhaps defense attorney or mortgage broker. So many varied, negative impressions were created during the unfolding of this media event, it’s difficult to know where to start to repair the Heene’s image. They’re liars, reckless publicity seekers, child-endangering parents who committed criminal acts. It’s a gross understatement to say they’re suffering from overexposure right now, so I agree with the detox idea- off to rehab in China for them all. When they are ready to rebuild their image I would like to see them do it under the “umbrella” of talk shows like “The View,” rather than a standard news show. We need to be able to see people giving them hell before we consider forgiving them.

    The most potent form of defense for them is to shoot the messenger. The media, that is. But the media can’t be blamed totally. We live in a culture that blurs the line between entertainment and news because that’s what we want! Whoever gets the job should start by reading Frank Rich’s piece in the NY Times Oct. 24.

    For amusement, you could check out my videoblog at , assembled a few days ago when it was easier to smile at a media event imploding– before it became a family tragedy.

  • Meagan

    “There’s no such thing as bad press”

    As much as I agree that the public relations profession needs to change this thinking and make sure that this “hoax” type press is a mistake and not an intention, I also think that it is true that there is no such thing as bad press. An incident like the Balloon boy hoax is just one example of how this is true – Most of the world had never heard of the Heene Family before this incident and within hours of the event “Balloon Boy” became the number one search on Google. As much as this event raised questions and concerns about the separation between news and reality television, if something becomes the number one search on a website like Google, is that not news? I think the problem lies more in the fact that in today’s world, it doesn’t matter if the incident is a tragedy or a hoax, it will be talked about because both are newsworthy.

    If I was the PR firm representing the Heene Family, I would try and turn the bad press into good. An idea like the “detox” is a perfect example because it would keep the Heenes in the news. (Updates on their progress, life after the hoax, etc.) I think this could potentially turn into the reality show that the Heenes have been waiting for.