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Katrina’s Public Relations Aftermath

The September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City made Rudolph Giuliani a hero. The then Mayor of New York City, Giuliani displayed the kind of leadership that enthralls people. He was a mesmerizing force, a steady hand during a time of uncertainty, and a leader willing to get into the trenches with his soldiers. Giuliani’s response to the devastating events also led many people to forget his misgivings.

Few people today talk about Giuliani without mentioning 9/11. Fewer, however, mention that Giuliani had an extra-marital affair at the same time that he was battling the publicly-funded Brooklyn Museum of Art over an exhibition that he called “anti-Catholic.” Adultery, of course, is as “anti-Catholic” as it gets.

Others will neglect to mention that Giuliani was ready to spend over $1.5 billion in taxpayer money to build baseball stadiums for the New York Yankees and New York Mets at a time when the city was reeling from the economic impact of 9/11. Michael Bloomberg, who followed Giuliani as Mayor, axed the stadium package – and no doubt has had to bite his tongue when it comes to talking about the city’s current financial problems, which were partially created by Giuliani’s policies. (It’s worth noting that the Yankees have since announced plans to build a new stadium, without the use of taxpayer money.)

President George W. Bush also came out of 9/11 looking like a hero, thanks in part to his visit to Ground Zero in New York. Americans, by and large, seem to have forgotten that the President sat stunned for a number of minutes reading a book to school children while the country was under attack. Instead, most people will remember the President standing atop the remains of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn rallying Americans. The image is not all that different than that of Washington crossing the Delaware – that of a strong leader standing up to aggressors.

Last week, America was hit by the worst disaster in its history. Since Hurricane Katrina came to our shores, the country has attempted to come to grips with the deaths of thousands of people, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of citizens, and an economic bomb of still unknown force. Similar to the days following 9/11, in Katrina’s wake we’ve seen heroes and scapegoats emerge. These people are the beneficiaries, and the victims, of public relations, and we can learn something from them.

For example, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Director Michael Brown have been eviscerated by the media for, among other things, failing to get help to evacuees at the New Orleans Convention Center.

“Mr. Secretary, how is it possible that you could not have known on late Thursday, for instance, that there were thousands of people in the convention center who didn’t have food, who didn’t have water, who didn’t have security, when that was being reported on national television?” Fox News Channel anchor, Chris Wallace, asked Chertoff on Sunday.

Indeed, this is a question that many people have asked, and it’s a road I’ve been down before. Covering countless corporate scandals, I would ask company executives, “Why didn’t you do anything about this when the whistleblower came forward? Why did you ignore this when the media brought it to your attention?” The silence was always deafening.

A simple rule to live by in the corporate world is that if the media is reporting wrongdoing, you should investigate and take action. The media is not always right, and the media will blow things out of proportion. But it’s not difficult to tell when the media is onto something. I’ve seen countless companies and organizations ignore media reports about internal problems or problems with products, and in most instances, by the time the company or organization takes action, it’s too late to repair the PR damage.

Brown, it’s worth noting, has essentially been pulled from the media circuit. Chertoff is handling the media now, and that’s probably a good thing. I’ll reserve my comments on Brown’s job performance, but I will say that his performance as a public representative for FEMA was horrendous. He simply was not cut out to be in front of the cameras to answer difficult questions under difficult circumstances.

President Bush, meanwhile, apparently hasn’t learned from his past PR mistakes. Instead of rushing back to Washington or the disaster zone, Bush went off to San Diego for a fundraiser. His trip out West is one of the main reasons some people are saying he doesn’t care about the people affected by Katrina. Bush didn’t hit the ground in the disaster area until Friday, by which time the CEO of Delta Air Lines had already flown in and out of New Orleans on a relief mission. (Delta, by the way, is under fire for canceling all of its flights out of New Orleans on the day before the hurricane struck.)

Once on the ground, Bush wasn’t exactly “on” when it came to dealing with the media. He followed up a woeful speech earlier in the week by making another poor speech, and he cracked a joke about having too much fun in New Orleans during his younger days. Levity is good, but not when people are dying.

“The Bush administration, normally so deft at staying a step ahead of the television cameras, spent the weekend trying to catch up. President Bush, who plans to make a second trip to the Gulf Coast today – a disaster mulligan – paid a quick visit to the Red Cross headquarters in Washington to thank the volunteers and publicly display his concern,” The New York Times reported.

The President, of course, is in a difficult position, but like the CEO of any company, he is the man in charge. His actions over the past week brought back countless memories of corporate executives who “don’t get it,” men who try to rally the troops with lame, blanket statements and smirks. Some people will be mollified by a quick visit and some cursory comments during a time of disturbance, but many more will be angered even more by what looks like a half-hearted effort.

Bush, unfortunately, offered up a half-hearted effort, and the polls already seem to indicate that he has a PR problem on his hands. The President seemed unprepared to face the cameras, and he seemed unable to offer up any words of real impact. His public appearances in the wake of Katrina have been quite different than those after 9/11. While the President always exudes confidence publicly, he hasn’t been able to exude much in the way of energy lately.

Another poor example of PR practices came from Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who in an interview with an Illinois newspaper last week, questioned the wisdom of rebuilding a city that sits below sea level. Hastert was quickly criticized by just about everyone, and he was forced to issue a statement in which he clarified his remarks.

We can debate the merit of Hastert’s comments all we want, but the truth is that Hastert should have employed the concept of, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” As it stands, Hastert’s comments were ill-timed and certainly not appreciated by the people of New Orleans. Give the politician credit for speaking his mind, but take away the credit for doing so in an amazingly insensitive – and senseless – matter.

While we’re on the subject, Hastert may want to check with Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells for some PR pointers. Parcells, well-known in the media for loving a good dust-up with reporters, was asked to talk about the rival New York Giants getting an additional home game because the New Orleans Saints will now have to play the Giants on the road.

“I’d be smart not to comment on that,” Parcells said.

This is a good example of a “no comment” with meaning. Parcells certainly has the right to complain about a rival getting an unfair advantage – his job, after all, is to coach a football team. However, consider the circumstances under which the Giants are getting the leg up. By choosing his words smartly, Parcells got his point across – “I don’t like it” – but also recognized that the issue wasn’t one worth getting into or whining about at this point.

While the past week has seen some amazingly bad PR, we’ve also seen some good PR.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has effectively replaced Giuliani as “America’s Mayor.” Nagin’s absolute passion for his city and its people, and his ability to speak in simple terms, has turned him into something of a celebrity across the world. Nagin, like Giuliani, has stepped up and become the leader that people want. His actions – blasting the federal response, foaming at the mouth during interviews and running around the city 24/7 to help – have worked in tandem with his strong words. Nagin, of course, is not concerned about PR at this time. However, like Giuliani, his recent actions may work to wipe out past PR problems.

For example, Nagin came under fire from a coalition of African-American ministers in New Orleans last year.

“The ministers accused Nagin of turning on the African-American community. Bishop Paul S. Morton, Sr., of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, publicly referred to Nagin as ‘a white man in black skin,'” according to Biz New Orleans.

Nagin will surely need all the good PR will he can handle in the days ahead, as the blame game shifts into high gear and attention shifts to what role local authorities had in this disaster. Nonetheless, Nagin has built up an enormous arsenal of good PR simply by doing his job.

Companies have also stepped up to the plate in a time of need, and generated some good PR as a result. Wal-Mart, constantly under the gun, was one of the first companies to deliver relief supplies, and the retailer has been one of the private sector’s biggest donors to the relief effort. U-Haul caught my eye not soon after the disaster hit, offering residents of affected areas a month of free storage at various locations around the impact zone. (I forwarded the press release to a friend who took the company up on its offer.)

The purpose of this exercise is not to assign blame, or look at the deeper issues involving Hurricane Katrina, so please don’t feel that because I’ve singled out Bush, Brown, Hastert and others that I have some agenda. The media has singled these men out and that translates into negative PR. We can learn from negative PR.

We can learn to be prepared, to monitor the media, to be careful with our words, to be sensitive in a time of pain, and to be generous when called upon for the greater good. Good PR comes to those who do things the right way – it’s as simple as that. Bad PR comes to those who don’t follow some simple rules, right or wrong.

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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