When Press Is Bad, Should PR Take The Blame?

In a move that surprised no one, embattled CNN CEO Chris Licht stepped down yesterday.  Media-watchers were taking bets on how long Licht could last after a “brutal” and deeply reported profile in The Atlantic. The piece highlighted his controversial year at the helm and was punctuated by the widely criticized decision to televise a town hall with Donald Trump in front of an “extra-Trumpy” live audience.

The post-mortem on Licht’s brief tenure will continue, but I’m more interested in the strategy behind the decision to give The Atlantic’s star reporter Tim Alberta full access for a profile. Word is that two senior CNN communications executives are also casualties of Licht’s fall. Matt Dornic, a 12-year CNN veteran who was also featured in The Atlantic piece, has reportedly left, along with Kris Coratti Kelly, who was brought in by the new CEO only a year ago.

Nicholas Carlson of Insider puts it this way:

I guess the lesson is: when your boss is about to do something really stupid, throw your body in the way. Even if he’s your new boss and seems really obsessed. One, two, three – JUMP – right in their way. Make them walk around your wiggling carcass on the floor. Throw a leg up if they try to go over you.

When to give media full access to the boss

It’s the inside version of “Fire the agency!” But can an internal PR team prevent bad media relations decisions? It’s impossible to know whose idea it was for Licht to sit down with Alberta, but it’s unlikely to have come from the PR team. That kind of access isn’t what you advise when a CEO is mired in controversy, or if his status is uncertain. It’s the kind of profile you want when a business leader is at the peak of popularity or influence.

Full access may also be advisable when a popular founder or CEO embarks on a comeback plan or announces a new venture – think Howard Schultz returning to Starbucks, or Bob Iger coming home to Disney to save the day. Each was a situation where a largely popular and successful leader moved to consolidate support in the face of a challenge.

Licht’s situation was different. He was a newcomer without a base of support. Moreover, he ruffled feathers from the beginning, and the Atlantic feature only emphasized his isolation from his own team. My bet is that he was haunted by the reputation of his popular predecessor Jeff Zucker, and so eager to differentiate himself from Zucker, that he wanted to cement his own reputation with the article.

Who takes the blame for bad PR?

The blame-the-PR-guy reflex isn’t limited to CNN. Government officials often talk about the need to “tell our story better.” And most PR professionals have known a client who’s in denial —  about his organization’s problems, his own reputation, or just reality in general. It’s a challenging and self-defeating situation. Most insidious are those who know the truth but hide it from their communications staff – and themselves. PR pros aren’t magicians, and denial is a dangerous state for a chief executive or public personality.

Clients deserve the truth, but what if they can’t handle it?

We once won a PR and reputation engagement from a company that suffered from harsh online reviews, among other challenges. A little research showed that its customers’ anger was understandable. Our proposal made it clear that if the company didn’t change its practices, our work would be wasted. When the client called to say we’d won the assignment, he said we were up against three digital marketing companies who recommended SEO. “You were the only one who told the truth,” he said.

Sadly, that situation was unusual. A company or executive that’s in denial is impossible to help.  “Good PR” isn’t just the result of skilled communications or media relationships; it needs to have a basis in reality.

When in doubt, fire the PR team

So, does the PR team deserve to go down with their captain? Some might say so. It’s not unusual for senior lieutenants to follow their chief out the door. After a rough patch it can be a useful signal that the organization has turned the page. In this case, Dornic must have known the story was becoming an exposé. That was apparent from the tenor of Alberta’s questions and his own warnings to Licht about what his staff was saying about his leadership.

Yet the CNN situation seems like a case of blaming the PR team for a year’s worth of missteps. Dornic in particular tries to soften Licht’s remarks in the profile. He clearly knew the boss was in dangerous territory. Another problem was timing; the article was months in the making. What may have started out on a positive note grew perilous as the newish CEO opened up in an unfiltered and tone-deaf way. But at that point, it would also be risky to pull access because you’d have even less control over the process.

In most cases, the internal comms team can’t countermand a CEO who’s bent on opening up to the press. A PR adviser can recommend, warn, and prepare. They can do their best to rebut rumors and challenge misconceptions, but background sources are impossible to confront directly. It was an asymmetric struggle from the start.

If the CNN PR team is to blame for anything, it could be for failing to sense what was coming, and to brace for impact.

PR Pros Take On A President


Has public relations finally won the respect of journalists? Sure, PRs and media work together, and we need each other. But the relationship between “flacks and hacks” is an odd and uneasy symbiosis. That’s why a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review about PR professionals and the war between our 45th president and the press was so interesting. David Uberti’s “PR Flacks May Be the Media’s Secret Weapon” outlines the recent confrontations between Trump and two of his favorite targets, alleged “fake news” purveyor CNN and the newspaper he calls the “failing” New York Times.

Trump’s efforts to discredit the press, both individually and as an institution, have a train-wreck type of fascination, and they’re often entertaining. But they’re also dangerous, both for the White House’s own credibility, and for the public who depend on media for news. Uberti makes a subtle but important point about the challenges facing major media companies.

How should the press fight back against a media-savvy president? The fourth estate has the obvious advantages of airtime and ink, yet it has been weakened by the fragmentation of its audience, the changing advertising environment, and a general cynicism among the public. Trust in media institutions has never been lower.

Tensions have escalated since Sean Spicer’s initial press briefing where he attacked the media, and working journalists have responded individually. CNN’s Jake Tapper, for one, hasn’t shrunk from calling out the administration for its own brand of “alternative facts.” When reports hit that he was a GOP target after a tough interview with Kellyanne Conway, Tapper fired back by taking over the #TapperDirtFile hashtag with silly mock-revelations, and it quickly devolved into a gag trending topic.
But it’s tricky for a working journalist to be returning incoming fire.  When you throw mud – even in self-defense, even with 140-character wit – you invariably get dirty.

That’s where the media organizations and their teams come in. We in PR like to talk about how every brand is now a media company, but every major media company is also a brand. Like any other consumer products, they stand for something. It falls to the communications team to protect the integrity of those brands, and to reinforce other attributes that help them stand apart from direct competitors as well as frenemies like Facebook and Snap.

When Trump criticizes Boeing or Nordstrom, their corporate communications teams spring into action; in fact, in boardrooms all over the country, PR people are running through crisis management exercises to prepare for a presidential tweet or an off-the-cuff comment that can cost days of executive time and a few million in stock market value.

There are teams of specialists behind the big media brands, too, and advantages to using PR experts if you’re under attack. It keeps their journalists at arm’s length, so they can focus on reporting and don’t get caught in the crossfire more than necessary. Even more importantly, skilled PR pros are strategic thinkers, and their focus is purely on internal and external communications. They’re trained to issue thoughtful public responses under time pressure and withering scrutiny, and to think ahead to the next move from an often-hostile White House. Like those raised in a campaign war room, they’re accustomed to today’s hyper-accelerated news cycle and bring to the task a deep understanding of how media work. It’s no small irony that the elite-media-as-enemy strategy deployed so well by Trump’s team was born with right-wing radio and honed by Breitbart News Network, whose former executive chair Steve Bannon is the president’s right-hand man and chief advisor.

There are no clear winners or losers in the battle between the press and the president, at least not yet. But the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, and it’s good to see PRs earning credit for a job that’s nearly always invisible and where the work never really ends. Apparently appreciation for PRs among media rises when we’re working on their behalf. The next thing you know, they might even stop calling us “flacks.”

SCOTUS And What It Means When The Media Get It Wrong

Media mistakes happen all the time. Publicists joke about mangled names and massacred quotes, and even The New York Times – especially The New York Times – is regularly skewered over its errors and omissions.

But occasionally media get it wrong in a big way, – an unforgivable, historically indelible, “Dewey Beats Truman” way. That’s what happened when the Supreme Court announced its ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Healthcare Act. Both CNN and Fox News reported the decision inaccurately, and not just for a second, and not only in the details. CNN’s banner blared “Supreme Ct. Kills Individual Mandate” as wire reports from Bloomberg, the AP, and other networks carried a different headline. Within seconds, the story that Obamacare was dead was shared, tweeted, posted, hashtagged and live-blogged. CNN didn’t correct the story until 12 long minutes after its initial inaccurate report.

For a fascinating play-by-play on how this happened, see Tom Goldstein’s account in SCOTUSblog.  Goldstein explains that technology was a contributing factor to the confusion;  the Court declined to email the decision to reporters, confident that its servers would hold up against the onslaught of those with a stake in the outcome. Of course the servers crashed, and the only people in possession of the decision for a full half hour were those holding the paper version in the press room in the courthouse. Incredibly, even POTUS was in the dark.

So, a small group of experienced journalists were in a race to be first to take it all in and report on the fly. If you didn’t read beyond the decision’s first page – where the Government loses the Commerce argument – you might conclude that the mandate was overturned. The next page had the language upholding its constitutionality as a tax. But at least two respected journalists didn’t get there before the wrong story lit up the web.

The lapse may be unforgivable, but it’s certainly understandable. Yet, what’s more interesting is how CNN and Fox handled their respective gaffes. Fox, led by Megyn Kelly, was quick to spot the error, and Fox’s less integrated digital machine didn’t run with the story as swiftly. And Fox had a different, almost casual attitude about the reporting of the story on their air. This is breaking news, breaking news is dramatic, confusing, breathless, and this is the way the story comes out. No embarrassment, no apology, just real-time reporting. (Kind of a Republican attitude, some would say.)

NN, on the other hand, felt more married to its reporting given the tight integration of its digital content and what seemed like a fear of having to flip-flop right back again if they were wrong in their correction.

So the on-air talent simply vamped, hedged, and filled time, promising more information as it happened, pointing out “conflicting reports” and using words like “may have been struck down” only to correct its report at last. The reaction internally was said to be “apoplectic.” (Isn’t that just like Democrats, always beating themselves up?)

The whole thing was more exciting than an episode of “The Newsroom” and will be parsed and debated for years. It tells us a lot about ourselves and the news business today, – the highly questionable premium placed on being first (if only by seconds) to break news, our distaste for complexity, for waiting, or even, it seems, for reading.

We were also biased. Not for the outcome we wanted, but for the one we were sure we’d already figured out. Just about everybody, from the talking heads to the insiders, both progressives and conservatives, actually believed the mandate would be ruled unconstitutional, based on earlier arguments and weeks of aggressive punditry. It was overkill.

I was embarrassed for CNN and Fox. Jon Stewart’s sendup of the gaffe is particularly painful, and particularly hilarious. But then I read why this would never have happened in Canada, according to The Edmonton Journal.

The Canadian Supreme Court holds lock-ups for journalists, where they can read through the decision and write their stories at a non-frantic pace. All the cell phones go into little Ziploc bags for the duration and the reporters all file at the same time.

File at the same time? How un-American! Where’s the fun in that? Despite the sturm and drang over the errors, I prefer the mess and the drama, the incoherency and the backpedaling – and, yes, the recriminations and self-analysis. Lessons have been learned, and they’ll need to be learned again. To paraphrase Comedy Central, let’s not make a federal case out of it.

The Social Media Revolution That Wasn’t

In the wake of controversial election results in Iran, there’s been much discussion about the role of social media in communicating popular sentiment among the rank and file there. Mashable reports “mindblowing” statistics on Twitter, claiming evidence that social media has been at the nexus of the Iranian unrest.

But, does Tiananmen Square + Twitter = Tehran? It’s very cool to think that #Cnnfail – the protests of the Twitterverse about what it viewed as insufficient coverage of the election and its aftermath on CNN – might have accelerated the traditional media’s reporting on the events in Iran. But, social media’s being credited with much more. Some have hailed “the end of totalitarianism.”  The Vancouver Sun describes #TwitterIran as “the central battlefield for the early stages of what looks like a revolution in Iran.” That’s exhilarating stuff.

Yet, it’s not true, at least not in the way we would wish. Social and digital media have sharpened the focus of the world outside Iran on the massive post-election demonstrations, and the pictures and text messages that have emerged are very moving.  The fact is, however, that the overwhelming majority of those living in Iran lack access to those reports, and it’s naïve to think they’re fomenting protest.
For Iranians, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Friendfeed, and other social networks remain blocked.

Transmission of SMS text messaging through mobile phone networks is impossible. Internet access via satellite is shut down. Some within Iran have been able to get messages out through proxies, and the real heroes may be the hackers.  But, it’s a narrow slice at best. There’s also the fact that, even in ordinary times, social media is used by the young, urban, and privileged…not the masses.  The tweets and texts that have emerged from Tehran represent a very narrow slice of the Iranian population.

So, where’s CNN in all this?  It’s there, of course. But, since its journalists are forbidden to leave their bureau, it had to make do with Christiane Amanpour’s stand-ups, re-runs of her last interview with Ahmadinejad, and assorted talking heads. (Many don’t realize that the protests 20 years ago at Tiananmen Square were captured by CNN because it had permission from the Chinese government to report on a schedule visit by Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a lucky break – if you can call it that – that the cameras were rolling as the tanks rolled in.)

No such luck in Iran. And while the CNN-watching Twitterers demonstrated its ability to harness and focus media criticism, it also proved that the real credibility still rests with “traditional” media – yep, the journalists who actually travel to the site of the action, often at considerable risk and expense, to try to get their story.