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They Shoot Friends, Don’t They?

I never thought I’d say the words “Poor Dick Cheney,” but that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking this week. Cheney, of course, is the Vice President of the United States, and he’s also the man with the most famous hunting accident of all time under his belt.

Cheney “broke his silence” on Wednesday, sitting down with FOX News’ Brit Hume.

“Ultimately, I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry [Whittington]. And you can talk about all of the other conditions that existed at the time, but that’s the bottom line,” Cheney said. “And there’s no – it was not Harry’s fault. You can’t blame anybody else. I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend. And I say that is something I’ll never forget.”

Of course Cheney won’t ever forget it, the media – and his political enemies – will never let him.

Cheney’s gunfight at the Armstrong Ranch opened up a can of worms for the White House, which has already been accused of being less than forthcoming with the media and the public. (Then again, what administration hasn’t been accused of this?) White House spokesman Scott McClellan was lambasted more than once by NBC’s David Gregory during press briefings, with the latter going so far as saying, “Don’t be a jerk to me personally when I’m asking you a serious question.”

For the media, the big issue is not that Cheney accidentally shot someone. No, the issue is how the incident was handled by the White House and Cheney’s staff. The media, as former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer pointed out, may actually have a reason to be skeptical and angry this time.

“It would have been better if the Vice President and/or his staff had come out last Saturday night or first thing Sunday morning and announced it,” Fleischer, who served as President George W. Bush’s spokesman for three years, told Editor & Publisher. “It could have and should have been handled differently.”

Fleischer had some more words of wisdom to offer.

“The American people watched it and heard about it Sunday night and Monday morning; it was widely covered. They heard the news and saw the story. It is not dominating the lives of the American people,” he said.

Fleischer is right, of course. Most Americans are busy worrying about the everyday problems that life brings, things such as death and taxes. However, we all know that people need a diversion, and what better diversion is there than the Vice President doing a Texas version of the Nordic Biathalon?

The public relations implications of the Cheney incident are many.

For starters, Cheney’s already dubious reputation took another big hit. While Cheney has served Americans in many important capacities, he’s also run Halliburton, perhaps the most hated company in the country. Cheney has never been considered a sellable personality, perhaps due to the fact that he rarely smiles or shows any sign of emotion. He didn’t help himself with the FOX News interview, but I don’t think the guy is worried about his Q Score.

The White House took an obvious PR hit here, but mostly because of how the news was handled. If you expected an official announcement from the White House about the incident to be the first public acknowledgement of the news, you were wrong, very wrong! Instead, the owner of the ranch where the incident took place broke the news to a local newspaper … the scoop of the century in Corpus Christi.

Everyone involved is acknowledging that the situation was handled poorly from a press perspective. What’s disconcerting, however, is that the White House and the Vice President’s staff don’t seem to understand why the media cares so much.

“This is a turf war between the national media and the flacks,” a staffer for a Republican Congressman told me.

I don’t agree with my friend, mostly because I’ve been in this situation before.

A few years ago, I wrote a story about the number-two executive at a public company resigning. The company had not disclosed the executive’s departure, and didn’t do so until I wrote about it. In announcing the news, the company took a shot at my reporting, which admittedly made me angry.

“Why didn’t you disclose this to shareholders when it happened?” I asked the company’s PR guy.

“We didn’t think it was necessary at the time,” the PR guy responded.

What the PR guy failed to understand – or acknowledge – is that the company had a clear responsibility to inform the public about a material event in a timely fashion. This is a standard that applies to few organizations, but publicly held companies and the government are such organizations. The media knows this, and when this standard is not lived up to, they start to get suspicious. This is why the media has made such a big deal about the timeline of events and the fact that the ranch owner, not the White House or someone on Cheney’s staff, made the first public disclosure of the incident.

More often than not, when the stuff hits the fans, the people in charge of PR handle the situation well. Bad news is bad news, and sometimes you simply can’t spin it any other way. What you have to do, however, is be forthcoming and report it in a proper manner. If you don’t do this, you’ll never hear the end of it from the media, and your credibility will suffer.

Hopefully Mr. Whittington will have a fully recovery and maybe, just maybe, he’ll be back out hunting with Cheney sometime in the near future. It would make a fine PR opportunity, don’t you think?

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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