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Counselor Commentary: Get In Front Of PR Pitfalls

(5/22/2014)

Public relations nightmares tend to come somewhat slowly. There’s the initial news of a problem, then the discovery of why the situation occurred and who was at fault, then some realization about who knew what and when they knew it. Finally, there’s the arrival at a solution – which is sometimes accepted by recipients and other times mocked, criticized, and the driving force for a backlash.

Just ask The New York Times, which has been in the news the last couple of weeks because of a PR situation that didn’t have to become as public or incendiary as it did. The company learned a lesson that’s quite valuable for businesses right now: News travels very fast today and if you’re not in control of the messaging, it can quickly take on a life of its own.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher and head of the family that owns the newspaper, fired The Times’ executive editor, Jill Abramson. While he thanked her for her service to the company upon naming her successor, Sulzberger also publicly said that the newsroom and the company’s editorial staffers needed new direction. But, initially at least, that was all the company really announced about the changes at the top of the newspaper’s editorial staff.

Thus began the newspaper’s PR nightmare. Without any further explanation about Abramson’s firing, the Internet gossip mill began churning. Stories quickly surfaced about Abramson claiming gender discrimination and pay inequality. Suddenly, The New York Times was being criticized for discriminating against female workers, and even the company’s own media columnist wrote this story about the unfortunate situation and its internal impact.

Feeling compelled to quell the gathering storm, Sulzberger issued a statement to the company’s newsroom 23 hours after news first broke about Abramson’s firing. That was last Thursday, after he initially said he’d have nothing further to say about the management change. He then sent out another statement on Saturday that was meant to correct “a factually incorrect storyline” that emerged in just a few days. Finally, he granted an interview to Vanity Fair about the situation on Sunday in an effort to give his full side of the brewing controversy, in which he admitted having second thoughts about his decision-making.

This seems like public relations 101, but The Times flunked the course. Don’t make the same mistake. If a situation arises where your credibility is being questioned – whether it’s something as public as what The Times faced last week or as private as botching a client’s order – you need to act fast, tell the whole truth as you know it, own up to mistakes, and work to fix it.

There’s a business book that came out last year titled Masters of Disaster: The 10 Commandments of Damage Control, which crystalizes how to overcome PR problems in its first commandment: Full Disclosure. “Everything that can come out will come out,” the authors write. “All too often it’s the drip, drip, drip that causes most of the lasting damage.”

It’s advice that The New York Times needed to listen to.



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