Lisa Kovitz of the Edelman PR firm wrote a blog post the day after the news broke that Robin Williams had committed suicide. In it, she correctly pointed out that negative events like the sad death of a celebrity can create opportunities for “a national dialogue.” The blog generated a good deal of negative feedback from people who felt the author was exploiting the actor and comedian’s passing to generate new business. The negative feedback then generated some negative media coverage for Edelman. The situation offers important lessons for PR practitioners.
I would first like to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Kovitz’s assessment that negative events can create important opportunities in public relations. It’s one of the paradoxes of our trade that when people die, get hurt, lose money or otherwise suffer, the needs for information and an exchange of ideas are heightened. The audience is prepared to dialogue and to pay attention like never before. By my definition, any event – positive or negative – that renders a key audience more likely to pay attention to what you have to say and more likely to act on it should be considered a strategic opportunity to communicate.
So why the backlash? I can think of three reasons.
First, the post simply came too soon. By pouncing on story so quickly, Kovitz created the impression that her blog post was not about educating readers but about generating quick sales. As a former agency CEO, I know how competitive the business is but I would not have jumped in so quickly and so publicly. The lessons about negative events creating opportunities for dialogue will endure. Timely and quiet conversations with clients first would have served Edelman better, followed by a blog post when the dust settles a little.
Second, the tone of the article was off at times. Her critics noted that using the expression “carpe diem” in the title and lead paragraph was crass; this was not a time or place for word play. The post also included a little bit of promotional tone: “At Edelman we are in the business of helping our clients create or join national conversations.” It’s true, but in the early days of mourning, it doesn’t work. In addition, many readers who commented on the blog post associated the word “opportunity” with business, sales and money. When I use the term “opportunity” with clients and students in a negative context, I begin with a caveat that apologizes for the choice of words and focuses readers not on sales but on strategy, SWOT analysis and situation analysis. Then again, I often avoid the term and opt for something like “a strategic window” or “important occasion.”
The third reason for the backlash is simply that public relations continues to suffer as an occupation. The acronym PR retains its negative connotation for many. Firms that engage in PR draw suspicion, as you can read in many comments to the stories I posted links to. I wish it weren’t so but it is; we have work to do on that front.
The lessons here: Tragic events do open strategic windows for communication and dialogue. Timing, however, matters a great deal, especially when strong emotions are involved. Also, words can be interpreted in many ways and should be handled with great care, especially at sensitive times and in public channels.