Lessons for PR During Journalism’s Bad Week

shutterstock_107349068You hear it often: PR pros and journalists are linked; they’re part of the same ecosystem. If so, PR pros and journalists have to be hanging their heads a bit lower today.

This page pointed out months ago that it was a sad day for PR when revelations surfaced that a PR executive, Rob Goldstone, apparently arranged a 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. (pictured) and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. The lawyer promised to provide dirt on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

If the Rob Goldstone incident made a down day for PR, a similar low point for journalists is today’s news that Michael Oreskes, a former NY Times reporter and senior editor, and until yesterday the news chief at NPR, resigned owing to complaints against him related to sexual harassment.

NPR said it put Oreskes on indefinite leave Tuesday as it investigated allegations that he harassed two women some 20 years ago while he was at the Times. He joined NPR in 2015.

In a statement Tuesday, NPR said, “We take these kinds of allegations very seriously. If a concern is raised, we review the matter promptly and take appropriate steps as warranted to assure a safe, comfortable and productive work environment.” The Washington Post reported the Oreskes story Tuesday. Subsequent to that report, a female NPR employee said she’d complained to NPR about Oreskes in 2015.

The Oreskes resignation follows the downfall of another journalism stalwart, Mark Halperin, last week. Halperin lost a book deal with Penguin Press, a TV production related to the book from HBO, his Showtime series The Circus and analyst gigs on NBC and MSNBC.

Nearly simultaneously with Halperin’s demise, another prominent journalist, former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, apologized for inappropriate behavior with female colleagues “in the past.” Wieseltier was planning to debut a magazine this week. After his statement, funding for the new magazine was pulled.

Far earlier, on April 19, 2017, TV journalist Bill O’Reilly was removed from his show at Fox News following a NY Times article detailing several sexual harassment complaints against the cable news stalwart. In July 2016, the founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes, stepped down due to sexual harassment allegations.

While these incidents are ghastly, they are too few to label journalism, of this or an earlier era, as the sole cauldron of sexual inappropriateness. On the other hand, these cases should give professionals in any business pause. Clearly, sexual harassment has occurred and continues to in all areas of commerce, as well as in nonprofits, government, academia, sports, religion and entertainment.

Sadly, it is unlikely there is any field that’s not been tainted. For PR pros this means potentially any and every brand is at risk. While sexual harassment policy normally is in H.R.’s purview, PR should be on call. Crisis plans should be in place for assessing harassment allegations and, when necessary, responding to them. Attempting to sweep a situation under the rug, while rarely a good move, will not fly under the current circumstances. NPR likely will need to explain some particulars of the 2015 complaint against Oreskes.

In addition, as allegations arrive, think twice before dismissing a complaint as old. While there are statutes of limitation involved in legal proceedings, the court of public opinion seems unmoved. Witness the reaction Anthony Rapp received with 30-year-old allegations against Kevin Spacey.

Be careful when evaluating if/how to respond to allegations of activities that occurred at a previous company. In this moment such allegations are weighing heavily; the complaints against Oreskes, Halperin and Wieseltier emanated from their inappropriate behavior while working at brands that were no longer their employers.

For firms caught in a sexual harassment crisis, Katie Sprehe, APCO’s director of reputation research, says, “One of the first steps in coming back from an event like this is an audit of the corporate culture to assess how widespread this type of behavior may be. Regardless of the results, it sends a message internally and externally that this is a company that puts its employees first.”

She also recommends addressing internal communications. “Employees are any company’s best ambassador. Externally, employees often are viewed as the most credible sources of information about a company.” She adds, “Communicating clearly on the events and what steps are being taken to employees arms them with talking points to speak on behalf of their company in conversations with friends and family, both in the real world and on social media platforms.”

 Follow Seth: @skarenstein