Tragedy is not a PR opportunity

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The PRSA public relations team is charged with doing public relations for the public relations industry, a monumental task most days, but especially so in the past couple days.

We frequently see head-scratching errors in judgment and avoidable ethical mishaps but rarely do we come across something so egregious that it stops us all in our tracks. This recent blog post by Lisa Kovitz on the Edelman website about how Robin Williams’ death was a carpe diem moment for mental health professionals did just that.

The first thought that comes to mind is, “Who thought this was OK?”

As PR professionals, we know the value of checks and balances. Nothing is ever pushed into the public domain without several sets of eyes checking and analyzing it from all possible angles. This is how we advise our clients as practitioners, and why I must believe Edelman has a policy in place to proof blog pieces before they are posted. In fact, according to Ms. Kovitz, the piece was first distributed as an internal memo. Then someone had the bright idea to share it externally. I must believe that at the largest independent PR agency in the world, someone must have raised their hand and said, “This is not OK.”  If more than one set of eyes looked at the post and thought it was appropriate, then my faith in this profession might just be lost.

In the wake of tragedy, it is often quite appropriate to raise awareness and draw attention to the matter. Sometimes great things come from it. Making a sales pitch while criticizing the radio silence of mental health institutions is utterly and completely unacceptable. Those institutions rightfully chose not to take advantage of a heartbreaking situation at a time when the public was trying to process it and, more importantly, show respect for those who lost a father, friend, and loved one .

This is not only a prime example of the harm that can be done to the profession and why public relations professionals are often held in little esteem, it is also a lesson in how not to newsjack.

Let me dissect how Ms. Kovitz, in less than 600 words, lost credibility and respect:

You need not read any more than nine words into the piece before you come to her insinuation that Mr. Williams’ death was caused by depression. This is a conclusion she drew on her own. There is no conclusive evidence at this time that depression played a role in his decision on that fateful evening. There is speculation that it was a contributing factor to his death, but it hasn’t been confirmed.

By the second sentence, readers begins to see the dollar signs. Who uses the Latin term for ‘seize the day’ in the same breath as a tragedy, especially suicide?

Maybe if Ms. Kovitz had focused her piece on the topics covered in the second paragraph (the number of places that people in need of professional help can go to seek treatment) there wouldn’t be the stark backlash that there is. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. While reporters for The Washington Post and CNN wrote thoughtful pieces that made the situation more understandable for readers, Ms. Kovitz instead pushed forth to make a pitch.

The only thing that would have made the first sentence of the third paragraph more blatant would be a flashing banner ad that alternated between the sentence posted and the phrase, “Hire Us.” The sentence states: “At Edelman, we are in the business of helping our clients create or join public conversations.” Does anyone else feel as though they are sitting across the table from a group of Edelman staff being pitched for business? This is a person’s life lost and the author has taken the opportunity to point out that her agency loves to help its clients.

Then there’s the first bullet point, underneath the sentence stating how great Edelman is for the media work they do for their clients (and they might be, but this was not the blog to make that point). Ms. Kovitz follows up her thought by criticizing the organizations for not posting anything. “Perhaps they were trying to be non-exploitive or stay business as usual. While that approach may be the best for them, this event calls that strategy in to question.”

Really? Gosh, maybe they were just trying to be respectful of the family as well as wait for the facts surrounding his passing to be detailed before they started a campaign to raise awareness. Additionally, the insinuation that these organizations aren’t already trying to raise awareness is irresponsible.

The second and third bullet points take the cake. She’s asking mental health organizations to start finding experts and get them on television as quickly as possible, for the puprose of raising awareness for depression and doing wonders for their brands. Need I say more?

Finally, to hammer her point home, Ms. Kovitz included in her concluding paragraph information about getting on camera in the immediate days following this tragedy; topping it all off by suggesting that the organizations will now be judged on whether or not they had a plan anticipating a celebrity suicide based on their media presence. This screams of ambulance chasing.

Perhaps I have gone too far in my own criticism of this piece, but not every moment is an Oreo Super Bowl moment. As public relations professionals we have a code of ethics that includes enhancing the profession. To me, doing so means that we also have a duty to the public and that involves respect, honesty, accurate information, and class. Ms. Kovitz’s blog post did nothing more than disgrace and embarrass a profession that already struggles under the weight of the few who take the time to practice the profession “the right way.”

I sincerely hope that the PR profession takes this suicide and the reactions to it as a learning opportunity, and that discussions of suicide and depression become less taboo. We should not look at this as a “seize the day” opportunity. Instead, we should offer our kindness, condolences and love to those grieving and wait to comment and offer thoughts on how to help those who need it after the facts of the matter have been properly presented.

Stephanie Cegielski is vice president of public relations for the Public Relations Society of America. A version of this article originally appeared on the PRSay blog.

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