Who is to Blame?

Like millions of other Americans I tuned into the series finale of “The Sopranos” on Sunday night. It was not a huge deal for me because I’ve only seen the past two seasons of the show, something that would have never occurred without video-on-demand or a digital video recorder. Still, I was intrigued to see what happened and knew that if I ignored the show I would be left out of the water cooler conversation on Monday.

While I found pleasure and some black humor in the finale of “The Sopranos,” many others did not. Thousands of fans stormed message boards and blogs to complain bitterly. The website of HBO, which airs the show, was so swamped with angry fans that it crashed on Sunday night. More than a few people have said that they will cancel HBO now that “The Sopranos” is over, with many saying they feel ripped off.

My landlord is in that latter category, complaining to me, “I only had HBO to watch the show and they pulled a fast one on me. They hyped it up all year and delivered a piece of ….” You get the picture.

The response of my landlord and others annoyed me to no end. Why are they upset with HBO? The network airs the programming; they don’t write or direct it. HBO did not have control over how the series ebbed, flowed and ended; the creator, producers and writers did. Blaming HBO, in my mind, would be like blaming your Internet service provider because you’re not happy with the content of websites that you chose to visit.

Yes, HBO dictates what programming it airs, but the company can’t account for everyone’s tastes. The network has built its brand by offering up edgy and interesting original shows and movies, and in doing so, they give the artists involved wide creative latitude. This is what made “The Sopranos” so successful.

Unfortunately, many people don’t quite understand how the world works. We all probably get a glimpse of this truth everyday at our jobs when people complain about things that we have no control of, or worse, blame us for something we have nothing to do with. This phenomenon – call it ignorance, call it a lack of common sense – can often have negative public relations implications.

For example, reading one day a few months ago, I was amused to read a letter from someone whose parents’ flight was cancelled due to winter weather. The delay caused this individuals’ parents to cancel their weekend trip, for which they had also booked a hotel room. However, when they tried to cancel the hotel reservation they were told that it was too late to cancel the first night that had been booked and that they would be charged for the room.

Now, it seems like a simple problem, right? The consumer, writing on behalf of his parents, has a problem with the hotel and he wants help, so he writes to a website that helps consumers resolve issues with companies. One would think that the person who wrote in would ask for help in dealing with the hotel. Instead of blaming the hotel, however, the consumer blamed the airline.

“My question to you is, do you have any advice or suggestions to help them [to] get [the airline] to reimburse the hotel cost given the fact that the flight (which was to arrive in NYC at 10 am) was canceled ‘out of an abundance of caution’ for a snowstorm that isn’t supposed to hit NYC until 3 pm?” the consumer wrote.

I took out the airline’s name for a good reason: They were not to blame, and they did not deserve the negative attention here. Of course, that did not stop from putting the airline’s name in the headline of the story, or giving an obviously flawed complaint an outlet. (The storm that caused the flight cancellation had been dumping ice and snow on the New York area for about ninety minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave, and continued to do so for hours.)

A lack of common sense on behalf of complainants and journalists (or bloggers) is not the only cause of uncalled-for negative PR. Sometimes a story is just too good to pass up, despite the facts. Insurance and consulting outfit Marsh & McLennan Companies (“MMC”) learned this the hard way earlier this week.

On Monday, my old pals at The New York Post ran a story in their News section that was headlined, “9/11 KIN RIP ‘EVIL’ EYE ADS.” The article relates to a series of ads on subways and buses, and in print, that show close-ups of six faces and the tag line, “There’s Another Side of Risk.” (The ads are for MMC’s insurance and risk services unit, Marsh Inc.)

Upon close inspection of the faces in the ads, the eyes of all of the people photographed have beams of light reflected in their eyes. This, according, to some people who lost loved ones in the September 11th attacks on The World Trade Center, was disrespectful and an attempt to capitalize on the tragedy.

“I thought, ‘What else could they be trying to depict?'” Evelyn Zelmanowitz, 68, a Brooklyn woman whose brother-in-law, Abe Zelmanowitz, died in a tower when he refused to leave behind a quadriplegic co-worker, told The Post.

MMC and their partners were given a chance to respond, at the end of the article, of course.

“At best, the suggestion is wrong and absurd, and at worst, it is irresponsible and despicable,” a MMC spokesperson said.

The Clare Agency, which represents the photographer involved in the ad, Martin Schoeller, further explained:

“The two beams of light themselves are created with a special lighting technique that Martin utilizes for most of his portrait work. Any other statement indicating otherwise would be false and inaccurate.”

It did not matter that MMC and its partner were able to respond – the damage was done. The headline was damning, the story included two anti-MMC quotes (one from someone whose brother-in-law worked at the company and died in the attacks), and talked about how many people who worked for MMC died in the attack. The article also called the beams of light “evocative of the WTC’s iconic, fallen towers.”

MMC responded via press release on the day the article was published, explaining the photographer’s technique (which he’s used to shoot portraits of everyone from Angelina Jolie to Bill Clinton) and the company’s feeling that the suggestions made in the article are “cruel and despicable.”

“It is unfortunate that the Post chose to publish this story with so little regard for the emotional toll it might take on the 9/11 families and survivors. The decision to do so in the face of all evidence to the contrary is highly irresponsible and a regrettable example of tabloid journalism that puts sensationalism ahead of the truth. The firm will explore all possible remedies against the newspaper in connection with this matter,” MMC said in its statement.

While I don’t want to see my former friends sued, I wholeheartedly agree with MMC’s position here. The firm, based on its account, dispelled any idea that the photos had anything to do with the Twin Towers ahead of the publication of the story, and its explanation is certainly valid and backed up by evidence. But is there anything MMC could have done to kill such a story?

Knowing The Post as well as I do, it’s doubtful that the paper would have pulled the story. MMC it seems did all it could to make the story a non-story. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but I would have hoped that MMC would have offered up through the journalist someone to speak to the people complaining about the ads so that the company could explain what they’re seeing is not actually what they’re seeing.

The bigger issue here is that a couple of people with seemingly good intentions caused a misunderstanding to turn into a nasty bit of PR for a company. Instead of trying to get answers through the company, these good-intentioned folks went to the media. And no journalist in New York can turn down a story about angry relatives of September 11th victims.

So how do you deal with these types of situation?

We can’t bring everyone up to speed on how things work behind the scenes of our businesses, and common sense is hard to teach from afar. What we can do is be proactive when we’re attacked for no good reason and be willing to explain directly to upset consumers why their anger, mistrust or complaints are misdirected. We need to work with the media to explain the intricacies of how our systems work so that they understand that not every upset consumer is correct and that perception is not always reality. When all else fails, we need to do what MMC did and strongly rebuke inaccurate assumptions.

The people who are mad at HBO right now are misdirecting their anger. They should be complaining to David Chase, the creator, producer, writer and director of “The Sopranos.” Smartly, Chase has been vacationing in France, something we probably all wish we could do when bad and misdirected PR comes our way.

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

Comments are closed.