Car Chase Tragedy Creates PR Crisis For FOX News

A recent mid-day car chase that FOX News was covering took an unexpected and tragic turn on Friday, Sept. 28, and created an immediate PR crisis for the network.

The cable news giant showed a man commit suicide live on television after he was being chased by police in Phoenix. The suspect who was being pursued got out of his car, began running erratically through a field where he eventually pulled out a handgun and killed himself. FOX News had been showing the action live via a helicopter shot from an affiliate station.

Shepard Smith, who frequently gives “play-by-play” of the chases, tried to get his producers to cut away from the shot, which apparently was on a five-second delay. Smith apologized to viewers afterwards.

"We created a five-second delay as if you were to bleep back your DVR five seconds ... so that we would see in the studio five seconds before you did," Smith explained. "So that if anything went horribly wrong, we'd be able to cut away from it without subjecting you to it. And we really messed up. And we're all very sorry. That didn't belong on TV. We took every precaution we knew how to take to keep that from being on TV, and I personally apologize to you that that happened."

Almost immediately, the buzz from social media took off and viewers who were watching live tweeted in shock at what had unfortunately unfolded before their eyes. In addition to Shepard’s on-air apology, FOX News later issued its own apology.

Live television always runs the risk of creating a crisis that an organization may not have been expecting. Even in a delay, FOX News could not avoid the mistake that left it scrambling to soften the blow that the network was taking. The apologies from Smith and Fox came quickly and without any hedging. This was a page right out of the crisis management 101 handbook.

Tressa Robbins, vice president, media contacts and social media solutions at BurrellesLuce offers the following steps PR pros should take when faced with an unexpected crisis: 

  •  Recognize it, own up to it and accept responsibility: This is the first step in any crisis situation—to acknowledge that it’s not going away. You need to do this very quickly and without hesitation.
  • Respond and apologize: The key here is to show real concern for the public and to apologize in plain language—not ‘legalese’.
  • Tell what you plan to do in the future to prevent a similar situation: Telling isn’t always enough. If possible, demonstrate how you’re going to take responsibility and change.

Follow Jamar Hudson: @jamarhudson