Kudos to Kim Mulkey (Sort of) and the Value of Front-Running

Call me a contrarian. But I am not getting on the “Kim Mulkey Made a Big Mistake” bandwagon. As folks may recall, the LSU women’s basketball coach held a presser on March 23 where she upbraided a soon-to-be-published Washington Post profile, calling it a “hit piece” and threatening to sue: “I’ve hired the best defamation law firm in the country, and I will sue The Washington Post if they publish a false story about me.

But there is a “But.” And that’s how Mulkey chose to use lawyers. More on that below. First, though, let’s discuss the condemnations of Mulkey’s presser:

Axios headlined, “Kim Mulkey's media relations strategy backfires.

MSNBC reported, “Kim Mulkey’s Trumpian attack on the press was a huge mistake.” (I do agree her preemptive attack was right out of the Trump playbook.)

The Los Angeles Times said that Mulkey “turned a non-story into a blockbuster. How many more readers will that Post story get as a result of her grandstanding?” (Ironically, the LA Times had to apologize for and edit this piece after being called out for using sexist language in referring to LSU’s players.)

PR pro Tim Valentine drew a similar conclusion: “... it seems clear that Coach Mulkey’s attempt at front running probably hasn’t panned out as hoped. At least, not so far.

(“Front-running” in PR parlance is getting ahead of a story by preempting it.)

I disagree with these criticisms. What measures are being used to conclude that Mulkey’s move was a “huge mistake?”

Valentine looked at sentiment of coverage. Axios looked at volume of coverage reporting on the incident and the Post’s piece.

Did anyone look at reaction or sentiment of the stakeholders important to Coach Mulkey, the LSU basketball program and the university itself?

Did Mulkey’s tirade affect her standing with the school? No evidence of that. Has it affected her ability to recruit and retain players? No evidence of that. Has it negatively affected ticket sales and support from boosters and alumni? No evidence of that. Did it affect television ratings? Well, yes, ratings did increase for the team’s subsequent tournament game, but no telling whether this had any influence.

In other words, there is no evidence that the measures that matter—stakeholder attitudes and actions—were negatively affected.

Two lessons here:

First, it is always dangerous to pass judgment in the moment. Looking out on this a month after the event, I’m not seeing how Mulkey has been harmed. If anything, the longer view on this is that Kim Mulkey was just being Kim Mulkey. Opinionated, and not afraid to speak her mind.

Second, we can sometimes focus on the wrong things. In this case, her presser seems to have bothered more people than the Post report itself.

For the most part, Mulkey’s approach was brilliant (or at least the outcome was). Yes, in the short-term it built anticipation for the Post’s report. But the consensus of subsequent media reports and reactions was that the Post report was a nothing burger—it covered little new ground and it was not as bad as Mulkey warned it would be. In fact, that’s precisely what Barstool Sports called the piece: a nothing burger.

As one Post reader put it, “Maybe I'm alone in my reaction, but I didn't think she sounded as horrible as some people were making this out to be. She is nowhere near Bobby Knight territory.

And while Mulkey’s presser may have caused more people to read the piece, its half-life was very short. So in that respect, by front-running the piece Mulkey might have defused what could otherwise have created far more buzz.

Now, Here’s the ‘But’

But one must question the wisdom of Mulkey’s empty threat to sue the Post and her use of lawyers to take over the job of what her media team should have managed.

As the Post’s Kent Babb told Podcaster Bakari Sellers, Mulkey’s presser did not cause the Post’s editors or lawyers to order any changes. (Though I have to believe it caused them to read it carefully one more time.)

I recall one instance in which a company’s attorneys chose to send a letter to a newspaper’s legal department, threatening legal action over concerns about what kind of story was believed to be in the works.

The response from the newspaper’s lawyers?

Essentially it was “we have been threatened plenty of times by people more powerful than you. If you don’t like what we publish, then go ahead and sue us. Otherwise, don’t bother us with your letters.

Nastygrams from lawyers are ineffective media relations tools. Perhaps there are infrequent occasions where such a tactic worked, but that would be the rare exception, not the rule.

When attorneys assume the role of what the media relations team should be doing it almost automatically turns the reporter/subject relationship into an adversarial one, and can confuse the reporter (“who am I supposed to work with, the PR team or the lawyers?”).

Once the lawyers get involved, the relationship between journalist and media representative can be irreparably damaged, which is particularly complicating when the reporter covers that company as part of his/her beat.

Lawyers can play a valuable role as a source and a resource, but they should not take over the role of managing media relations.

Chris Gidez is Founding Partner at G7 Reputation Advisory.