[Editor's Note: This is the third year that the author has written a column for PRNEWS called “Headlines That Young PR Pros Should Learn From." Parts II and III of this series will appear later this year.]
The initial lesson learned appeared quickly in 2018. On January 1 the New York Times published a story that everyone in our business should learn from and remember.
The story, “TV’s Revival, From Trump to #MeToo,” chronicled the ups and downs of TV stars.
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: The story noted how the firings of Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Bill O’Reilly had little effect on their networks. “These guys were stars and, the theory held, brought in big ratings,” the story said. Much in this story is easily transferable to PR. Many so-called PR stars believed they were indispensable. Termination surprises them. So, always be nice to people you supervise when you’re on the top, because you might meet them in a supervisory position at another agency when you’re job hunting.
"Furious Trump Snaps at Bannon Over His Ridicule in Book” (NY Times, Jan. 4).
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: The story was about “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” , the book where Stephen Bannon, the president’s former strategist and campaign chief, criticized members of the president's family and advisors. The article noted that Michael Wolff, the book's author, used information that informants thought was off the record.
The lesson is obvious: Unless you want them included in a story, never make comments to a reporter. (During my journalism career, I always interrupted people when they said, “This is off the record.” I'd say, “If I’m not supposed to know it, don’t tell me because I can’t guarantee that at some time the information might have to go on the record. If the information is important enough, my responsibility as a reporter is to report on it.”)
“Intel Chip Security Is Scrutinized After Disclosure of Hacking Openings” (NY Times, Jan. 8)
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: “The Register,” a tech pub, revealed a problem in Intel’s compressor chips that made it easy for hackers to steal valuable information from computers. The Times’ article mentioned that Intel had a similar problem in 1994 and had downplayed it. Intel knew about the current problem since June 2017 and didn’t go public until after it was revealed in the media, the story alleged. Intel's CEO sold $39 million in company shares just before the story broke, adding to the PR crisis.
Similar to the above example, the lessons are obvious: A company's reputation declines when a news organization uncovers negative information before the company makes it public. It gives the impression of an attempted cover-up. Another lesson: Bad press always results when a CEO sells company stock before making negative news public.
“Faced With Abuse Scandal, U.S.O.C. Does Nothing” (NY Times, Jan. 21)
Lesson to remember and relevance to our business: The article detailed the sexual abuse scandal involving gymnasts and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. It notes USA Gymnastics (USAG) disregarded complaints about the doctor and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) blinded itself to the situation.
The article quotes Paul Parilla, then-chairman of USAG's board: “The entire leadership...shares the U.S.O.C.’s commitment to promoting a safe environment for athletes, and we take its views very seriously.”
Boilerplate statements like this, devoid of empathy, admission of guilt or corrective measures, are an obvious PR error, though some communicators continue to recommend using them. It's a mistake. Such statements position a person or entity as uncaring and unsympathetic to those injured.
Arthur Solomon was SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. A frequent contributor to PR News, he is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee.