PR Lessons from Steve Bannon’s Dis-Invitation to the New Yorker Festival

It may be difficult to separate personal feelings from professional and political ones when considering the story of Stephen Bannon, the former Trump White House strategist, being dis-invited to appear during the New Yorker Festival next month (Oct 5-7). Giving Bannon a public platform boils the blood of some; rescinding the invitation smacks of censorship and lets Bannon scoff at the "gutless," liberal and fake media, others argue.

Once word of Bannon’s appearance at the festival began trending on social during Labor Day, numerous celebrity guests started pulling out in protest, many within minutes of each other. The list of departures, announced on social, included the comedian Jim Carrey, comedy writer/director Judd Apatow, musician Jack Antonoff and comedian John Mulaney.

In an email to staff on Labor Day eve, The New Yorker editor David Remnick noted that a bevy of staff members was also upset with Bannon’s announced appearance at the Festival. Bannon was to be on stage with Remnick, who’d promised to conduct a hard-hitting interview. In the fallout, Remnick appeared to be a crucial part of inviting Bannon. The editor believed an on-stage session would best either a written interview or a podcast with the controversial figure, which was Remnick's original intention, the NY Times reported.

As you know, part of the PR pro's job involves programming events for brands. The Bannon situation offers a few lessons there. In addition, it provides takeaways for crisis communications. Here are a few:

The Good

Remnick rightly listened to his staff and his social channels. As he said in a note to the magazine’s writers, “I don’t want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns.” He also acted promptly, within several hours, which is another good crisis management move.

As Hill + Knowlton Strategies crisis lead Kevin Elliott likes to say, “If you treat a crisis like a bad day, you’ll make it worse. If you treat a bad day like a crisis, you’ll turn it into one.”

Elliott and other crisis veterans will acknowledge, some reluctantly, that deciding when to admit something has crisis potential is as much art as it is science. While it’s doubtless that Remnick could have found replacements for those who pulled out, it appears now he, the Festival and The New Yorker brand would have been weakened further had he insisted on honoring the invitation to Bannon.

The Bad

With 20-20 hindsight, you can argue Remnick, or Festival communicators,  should have at least anticipated Bannon’s appearance as being controversial and taken steps to deal with potential fallout before announcing the lineup on Labor Day. Alerting other guests far ahead of time might have been a good move. Of course, you could argue that a communicator, intent on protecting The New Yorker brand, might have argued for keeping Bannon off the speaker list in the first place.

In addition, a savvy communicator could have alerted Remnick to the potential danger of a staff revolt with Bannon on the program. (Goodness knows there have been enough examples of those recently.)

While it might have done absolutely no good, alerting magazine staff of Bannon’s invite ahead of it being announced publicly would have been the strategically correct move.

Loads of Questions Ahead

It's a generalization to say the media rarely covers itself with the vigor it uses to report on others. That said, will The New Yorker report on this story in its next print edition? If so, how accommodating will Remnick be? Since Remnick is the boss, and he seems to be a key player in the Bannon affair, how hard-hitting will the reporting be?

If The New Yorker opts not to cover the story in depth, will other publications jump into the fray? Should other publications decide to report on the incident, how forthcoming will Remnick be in granting access?  And how much will leak from The New Yorker's newsroom? One also wonders how staff at The Economist will react to its editor's announcement late today that Bannon remains a guest at the publication's festival later this month.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News.  Follow him: @skarenstein