PR Roundup: Smokey Skies, the PGA Surprise and Licht Leaves

The Empire State Building disappears in an orange haze due to the Canadian Wildfire smoke clouds drifting over the Northeastern U.S.

Orange skies and disappearing skyscrapers, major sporting leagues going back on their moral promises and another upheaval of executives at a major news network made for a chaotic week in the latest PRNEWS PR Roundup. 

PGA Surprises Everyone by Merging With LIV Golf

What happened: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. 

After two years of public sparring between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, the two agreed to combine assets, including players, to form a new, yet-to-be-named, for-profit company. 

According to CNBC, LIV Golf is “backed by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, an entity controlled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Critics of LIV, who also include PGA players, have accused PIF of “sportswashing”—using the league to distract from the kingdom’s history of human rights violations.”

Everyone from sports journalists to members of Congress had reactions to the merger—and not many of them were positive

Many PGA players only found out through Twitter, resulting in furious reactions. 

Communication lessons: PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, was originally one of the most vehement spokespeople against LIV Golf. In 2022, he said PGA players that left for LIV were no longer welcome back to the PGA Tour. 

Monahan also publically invoked compassion for the families of 9/11 in 2022, when asked about the implications for players that went over to Saudi-backed LIV. 

“As it relates to the families of 9/11 … my heart goes out to them. I would ask any player that has left or any player that would ever consider leaving, have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?”

Monahan acknowledged his “hypocrisy” in interviews this week. 

This creates a real trust issue for an organization who will need all the support it can get, as its own players (who even though highly paid are still employees) reel from the lack of communication from the PGA.

Clyde Group Managing Director Matt House says the PGA Tour made three big mistakes that turned a tough announcement into a disaster

  • claiming then abandoning the moral high ground
  • ignoring its most important constituency
  • and failing to adequately prepare for the most obvious questions. 

"First, they tried to claim the moral high ground in the fight with LIV by involving the 9/11 families, House says. “If you're going to bring them into the fold, you have to stick by them until the end. Second, they failed to communicate the deal to a key constituency until far too long after the deal was public: the players. Upsetting a bunch of athletes with combined tens of millions of followers was a self-inflicted wound. Third, they've either done no media prep or the worst media prep in history before selling the deal on TV. Anyone with a brain would know Jay Monahan is going to be asked about the moral argument he made for months—and its shocking to watch his unprepared and bumbling responses.”

Rick French, chairman and chief executive of French West Vaughan, which works with a number of PGA partners, told The Wall Street Journal that sponsorship may also become an issue. 

“The brands behind professional golf have generally not had to worry about a tremendous amount of reputational damage,” French says. “On the other hand, as a corporate partner, you don’t want to support a government, or even an independent investment fund of a government, that has questions about…the way it treats its citizens and how it looks at humanity.”

CNN’s Leadership Shakeup

What happened: On June 7, CNN announced it would be parting ways with now-former chief executive and chairman, Chris Licht, after a brief year in the position. The move comes after a rollercoaster year of anchor firings, reprogramming schedules, layoffs, low ratings and more. 

But an article published on June 2 in The Atlantic may have been the catalyst to ignite the decision. The extremely thorough, 15,000 word profile highlighted Licht’s missteps in great detail, including the impressions of his employees. 

The top two leaders of CNN’s communications department, Kris Coratti Kelly and Matt Dornic, who reported to Licht, will also be leaving the organization.

Communication lessons: Good media relations is about trust and access. However, PR leaders must also be the gatekeepers and managers when it comes to exactly how much access. Max Tani, media reporter, Semafor, noted that CNN gave The Atlantic unprecedented access to Licht for almost a year, which may have been just a little too much. 

“If the plan was to humanize Licht, it backfired, instead painting a picture of an embattled and isolated chief executive bogged down by poor ratings and multiple crises,” Tani said.

Brian Hart, Founder and President, Flackable, says the lack of narrative framing and transparency became the root of Licht’s downfall. 

“Bold organizational decisions require an extensive and deliberate comms strategy to support them,” Hart says. “[Licht] allowed the narrative to hover around “woke” vs. “anti-woke” journalism. Whether that was behind his decision making is debatable, and the reason why that debate happened in the first place was his lack of a coherent comms strategy behind his moves.”

Hart also says Licht inflicted damage to the reputation of a news organization whos reputation took decades to build. 

“Licht showed he was incapable of maintaining reputation management for the network, and over time he even became a threat to it, which further tarnished CNN’s credibility,” he says. “And credibility is a big deal for any organization, but for a news organization, it’s everything.”

Hart notes that leaders everywhere should look at Licht’s exit as a warning.

“[It] emphasizes the need for adaptability, transparency, and a focus on delivering results while preserving core values,” he says.

U.S. Smoked Out by Canadian Wildfires

What happened: Midweek, much of the northeastern U.S., particularly New York City, felt the effects of Quebec’s massive wildfire spread. A gigantic cloud of hazardous smoke, the result of over 450 fires currently burning in Canada, settled over the Atlantic states, closing schools and canceling outdoor recess, postponing major league sporting events and erasing skylines. 

Air quality warnings advised over 75 million Americans to stay indoors or wear a mask outdoors if planning to commute or run errands. 

Hazy, orange, apocalyptic images of New York City populated across social media, alarming many who had never before dealt with such a climate incident. According to CNN, “New York City had an Air Quality Index of 484 at 5 p.m. on June 7, which is classified as hazardous. In a press conference, NYC Mayor Eric Adams said…That’s the highest level on record in the city since the 1960s.”

Communication lessons: Many organizations took steps to keep the public safe, particularly children and the elderly. The New York Yankees organization postponed its Wednesday evening game. Philadelphia Public Schools distributed updated information regarding the rescheduling of outdoor athletics and field trips, as well as the importance of masking up students on the commute to and from school. It also placed a highlighted banner on its homepage, acknowledging changes for scheduling and learning. The district announced a shift to remote learning for June 9, after air quality failed to improve. 

Lori Perlow, Public Information Officer, Haddon Township School District Communications Consortium, says it’s important during a crisis, especially an unfamiliar one like the current air quality event, to share simple facts in a timely manner. 

“Keep communications brief, clear and free of technical terms,” Perlow says. “Always include the steps being taken to remedy the situation and provide as much reassurance as you can without overpromising. Overpromising can lead to trouble if the situation changes.”

Weather forecasts show smoke lifting from the New York tri-state region beginning June 9. Until then, stay safe.

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal