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Disturbing News Cycle Has Its Lessons

The news cycle over the past week or so has been disturbing, to say the least.

The unraveling of Don Imus’ career showed the power of advocacy groups, the 24/7 media and the free markets. The dismissal of charges against three Duke University student-athletes proved how people can manipulate the media and how the media can rush judgment. Meanwhile, the senseless mass murder at Virginia Tech University has brought up questions about insensitive over-coverage and the role of citizen journalists. These events have many things in common – race, class and age being the most obvious. These events also have the worst common denominator — victims.

Looking at these events through our eyes as public relations professionals, it is important that we disregard emotion. Anyone who has ever worked in crisis management or communications understands that in cases like these our first job is to communicate clearly and unemotionally. We are bearers of information – not lenders of voices to a debate. Behind the scenes, we must coordinate responses and accumulate information. We become investigators, tapping internal and external sources. When events like these transpire, this is when our jobs matter most.

At times like these it is important that we learn from what has transpired. We need to become students again so that we can avoid the pitfalls that have hurt others. Here is what I believe we can take away from the current rush of events:

1. Never doubt the power of advocacy groups. Imus’ career crashed because groups such as Media Matters and the National Association of Black Journalists ensured that the mainstream and citizen media worlds were aware of the crass comments the radio personality made. Without their efforts, the remarks would have been ignored, just like thousands of offensive jokes, remarks and statements Imus and others in his trade have made over the years. The subsequent media coverage gave Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton cause to launch their own media campaigns against Imus.

2. The news cycle was relatively slow as the Imus controversy unfolded. The Good Friday and Easter holidays created a small void in terms of newsworthy events. The media, who love to eat their own, then clamped down on the Imus story, which had so many angles that political, sports and business reporters were all covering the unfolding events. That Rutgers University is just down the road from the media capital of the world did not hurt the story’s chances of dominating headlines. In the absence of “real” news that affects consumers, the media will latch onto news they find compelling.

3. Free markets doomed Don Imus more than anything else. Once advertisers, who were increasingly growing weary of seeing their brands attached to Imus, got fed up, it was all over. CBS and MSNBC were not willing to risk their bottom lines to defend someone who did something indefensible. In the end, money talked and you know what walked.

4. Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong ruined his career and the lives of at least three young men. Only Nifong can explain why he did so, but reports in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) suggest that Nifong consciously tried to use the media as judge, jury and executioner. Even Nifong’s own campaign manager immediately questioned his strategy of using the media to “try” the case. Nifong manipulated the media by presenting opinions and not facts. In most cases, such a blowhard would have been ignored, but when these types of words come from an elected official, they carry too much weight to ignore.

5. The media is as guilty as Nifong. Columnists and commentators rushed to judge the Duke student-athletes based on Nifong’s remarks while simply ignoring the reporting that their colleagues were doing. The young men were branded, some would say permanently, as deviant criminals who preyed on an innocent young woman. The media was able to accomplish their tarnishing because the Duke students were in a no-win situation. Their lawyers were treading on dangerous ground because of Nifong’s obvious incompetence. Duke, looking to deflect criticism onto the individuals instead of protecting their own, left the young men without their strongest ally. In the absence of institutional support, their cause was doomed.

6. The coverage of the murders at Virginia Tech is already beginning to shift into blame mode. Not surprisingly, gun control debates are emerging in the media. I’ve already heard three on NPR in less than six hours of listening in two days, and the White House has smartly said that this is not the time for such a debate. Grief and fascination are the two factors driving people to watch and read coverage of the sad events. While the gun control debate is important, it is more important to, as the National Rifle Association itself said, wait “until all the facts are known.”

7. Race is and will always be a huge factor in how the media portrays events. The Imus incident was all about race, much more so than gender. The Duke case was 100% race. And now, the incidents at Virginia Tech may turn into another race-related story. Already I’ve read stories quoting Asian American students at Virginia Tech who say they are worried about a potential backlash. A memo issued by the Asian American Journalists Association is now making news as well. The truth is, we can never escape the issue of race because there will always be someone there, in the media or speaking to the media, who will make it an issue.

Recent events have been disturbing, sad and, in some cases, inexplicable. Public relations professionals have played a huge role in all three of these events. A lot of their work has been done behind the scenes, and a lot of it has been good. Moving forward, it will be up to PR people to help keep the issues brought up by these events front-and-center in the media.

The groundwork has been laid for individuals, organizations and companies to get their message across. Now PR will move from the defensive to the offensive, and vice versa. How these stories continue to play out over the next days, weeks and months will ultimately determine how the public at large remembers what did or did not happen.

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An astute reader of my column from two weeks ago says that I may have been too quick to give pet food maker Natural Balance credit. According to a press release, the company has issued “a voluntary nationwide recall for all of its Venison dog products and the dry Venison cat food only, regardless of date codes. The recalled products include Venison and Brown Rice canned and bagged dog foods, Venison and Brown Rice dog treats, and Venison and Green Pea dry cat food. Recent laboratory results show that the products contain melamine. We believe the source of the melamine is a rice protein concentrate. Natural Balance has confirmed this morning that some production batches of these products may contain melamine.

“The recall was prompted by consumer complaints received by Natural Balance involving a small number of cats and dogs that developed kidney failure after eating the affected product,” the press release states.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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