Friday, November 4, 2011

PR and the Superheated World of Political Zealots:

The radio show Marketplace recently ran this story of an Alabama small business owner who found himself rocketed into the public spotlight over comments that he made to the local Birmingham paper about the immigration law that Alabama had enacted. Based on the story, here's a quick synopsis of what happened:
  • A restaurant owner is quoted by the local paper expressing concerns about losing workers as a result of the newly enacted law
  • A local conservative radio host focuses attention on the story
  • The story goes viral on anti-immigration web sites
  • Restaurant is deluged with negative reviews and hate mail from around the country
On the one hand, this type of story should stand as a warning to anyone who faces commentary on a politically charged issue. To quote the Marketplace story:
The incident shows just how risky it can be for a business owner to take a stand on an issue. Stephen Craft is dean of the business school at the University of Montevallo, near Birmingham.
Stephen Craft: You hate to drive the voice of the small business out of public policy; however, for better or worse, it is predictable that there's going to be some repercussions when you weigh in on a controversial subject.
In short, you probably want to avoid speaking out on controversial issues. Of course, this assumes that you can identify "a controversial subject". But, as I wrote about in a previous post, sometimes you just find yourself in the midst of a controversial subject.

Being an expert or having unique access to the facts doesn't matter
Often these reactionary explosions have little to do with the material substance of the story. Consider this example from the ongoing saga of whether Michael Arrington is a racist. In essence, CNN approached AOL and Michael Arrington about an interview for a documentary on start-up accelerators and Silicon Valley. Here's Arrington's own synopsis:
- I was told by CNN it was about startup accelerators, not minorites.
- CNN then created a clip that highlighted me saying I didn’t know any black entrepreneurs, even though later in the conversation I corrected myself.
- CNN then wrote two articles, one of which was the top story on CNN last week, focusing on my race problems.
- Only a very few people have seen it. I haven’t, and I’m in the absurd position of not having seen it myself (to know how they edited the long version) and defending myself from people who also haven’t seen my interview.
Arrington's complete post on the repercussions of the CNN controversy are captured in this post, Racism: The Game. Both of the posts that I've linked to are worth reading, not just for the back story, but because it's important to understand that there is no uncontroversial position in this quagmire. Rather than looking at this story about substance, think of this as a media equivalent of profiting from credit default swaps during the sub-prime mortgage era. They have no interest in the public good, the facts, or right and wrong; they profit on the energy created from the controversy. What better way to cover a wildfire than to bring matches along with your cameras.

Managing PR in the Internet Era
In the traditional world of PR, both of these 'events that turned ugly' started out down the right path. Most businesses seek out media coverage and are thrilled when they are rewarded with it. In that same way, traditionally, you look to engage with the media when they contact you, to be responsive to their questions. But in today's superheated world of political zealots, your innocent responses and expressed expertise may be used as the spark for a viral content wildfire. You may want to think about strategies to avoid becoming that spark.

Consider the Michael Arrington racism saga as possibly the most telling example of a cautionary PR tale. These weren't off the cuff remarks, the CNN people contacted AOL's PR team. Arrington was a go-to media personality for them. Arrington has dealt with controversial topics (like the women in tech story) and ensuing fires at Techcrunch. This was not simply an example of a bad interview, of someone who stumbled on their words or unknowingly spoke out of turn. Nor is it the cautionary tale of someone being interviewed by The Daily Show, only to have strange questions and interview snippets used for comic effect. As Arrington says, "It was a “gotcha” and that’s that."

And while the Arrington story reminds us that expertise offers little protection, the story about the restaurant owner is a good reminder that it can happen to anyone, to any size business. Speak to the media or publish something, and you could find yourself at the center of a media scandal. Not to say that you should never say anything, never publish anything. But when it comes to managing PR in the Internet Era, like the classic line from an instruction manual states, "Care must be taken..."

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