The Internet Is Forever: Life After My Viral Video

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 19, 2012 – 6:04 AM

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Marc Slavin, an attorney and communications consultant based in California. He can be reached at marcslavin@gmail.com.

The Internet is forever.

I learned that lesson in an unforgettable way when my on-camera confrontation with a reporter went viral several years ago. No matter what I do in my life, the chances are that most people will always know me by the one public moment I would most like to forget.

The constant need of television news for spectacle, the magnifying effect of the Internet, and my own unfortunate reaction to a charged situation combined to produce enduring images of how not to handle yourself on camera.

What happened? The short answer is I let my frustration get the best of me. In the heat of the moment, I lost sight of the critical fact that my actions were no longer solely personal to me, but needed to reflect the values of numerous others whom I was representing.

Do I regret it? You bet I do.

In those few seconds I managed to lose sight of everything I have learned in 25 years of public relations. Because I reacted as I did, I made a bad situation worse. My boss at the time made the point with understated aplomb. “You could have behaved with greater reserve,” he said.

The fundamental rule I violated is this: It’s never about you. In public relations, as so many P.R. professionals reading this blog will know, you can’t take criticism personally. When you lose your objectivity, your effectiveness goes with it.

But to maintain professional equilibrium in tense circumstances you have to know something about who you are, otherwise you might surprise yourself, as I did, with behavior you hardly knew you were capable of.

Communications professional Marc Slavin

Friends have said how unlike me it was to react as I did. But it was me who reacted that way, not anyone else.

My surprise and dismay at my own behavior has led me to do some serious, and helpful, soul searching. For those who may have had a similar experience, or hope to avoid one, I recommend Naomi Quenk’s book about personality types, “Was That Really Me?”

Besides the confrontation on film my experience entailed a confrontation with myself and one with the tenets of my profession. It caused me to look closely at the reasons I care about public communication and to recall that what drew me into the profession to begin with was the vitality of its contribution to social change.

As public relations practitioners, our stock in trade consists of the narratives we fashion from the events of the day. We are workers in story.

Because so much of our ability to shape the world around us depends upon narrative perspective, “framing” as we have come to call it, it helps to be aware of how we frame our own histories and purposes, the assumptions we take for granted about ourselves as we frame the narratives of our own lives simply by living those lives in the way we do from day to day.

The organizational development theorist Margaret Wheatley wrote that communication matters because information exchange is necessary to life. Bodies continually exchange information with their environment to gauge the changes they must make in order to maintain their integrity.

As I have learned, to be effective, we must be exquisitely attuned to our faults as well as our strengths. Paradoxically, changing is the only hope any of us has of being who we are.

And as for the eternity of the Internet? Take it from me: immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Please leave your thoughts about Mr. Slavin’s article in the comments section below. Thank you for reading.

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Comments (16)

  1. By Mary Denihan:

    Marc,
    This is a courageous post. The best lessons learned in my life are usually from my mistakes. Thanks for sharing.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Mary,

    I agree with you. When Marc and I started discussing the possibility of a guest post, I had no idea what tone he would strike in his article. When I read his post, I was delighted to see how genuine and self-reflective it was.

    As you said, we all make mistakes. I’m impressed that Marc dealt with his so forthrightly.

    Thanks for commenting,
    Brad

    P.S. I’m also eager to hear what other readers have to say. Please keep the comments coming!

  3. By Jeff Domansky:

    Marc, it takes a lot of character to publicly admit to this PR fail. It offers so many media training lessons and also illustrates the unfortunate fact that bad PR lives forever on the internet. It’s a very small silver lining but there are two takeaways, especially for young PR pros:
    – learn from the obvious how-to-handle media situation
    – recognize the value of an apology and personal reflection.

    When they use the video clip for training, I hope PR profs and media trainers will include this post for its added learning.

    A final observation. Your former boss sounds like a gem. Best of luck to you.

  4. By Rod Russell:

    I frankly do not see what was so bad about what Mr. Slavin did. The guy with the big problem was the reporter. I’ve been in a situation like Mr. Slavin’s, with a local TV cameraman tailing me and a reporter sticking a mic in my face, and I wish I had touched them both, to get such an assholic reaction as from that reporter who thinks he can give orders and everyone must obey them.

  5. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Rod,

    Thank you for your comment. When I originally wrote about the incident involving Mr. Slavin, several people shared your view in the comments section and on our social media pages. (For the record, I don’t share that view. But I recognize that many others do.)

    I agree with Mr. Slavin’s conclusion that his actions weren’t in accordance with PR best practices, and that they turned what should have been a merely annoying moment into a widely-viewed viral video. As always, I’m curious what other readers think!

    Thanks for reading,
    Brad

  6. By Rod Russell:

    Granted, it was not a professional PR reaction, but the whining, snot-nosed reporter brought it on. Mr. Slavin started out trying to distract him from getting in the director’s face, which I think was quite proper. If she had been a Secret Service protectee, and the reporter had told the agent to not touch him, the guy would have ended up on the ground, and I was kind of rooting for that to happen.

    Mr. Slavin’s mistake was to keep it up. He should have stopped with the shoulder patting earlier, but I can see how tempting it was at the time to see how many times the reporter would complain.

  7. By David Zandueta:

    Personally, the phrase “know thyself” is all the more reason to follow that in this scenario. You become aware how you might react or feel towards certain situations like this, then you eventually learn how to deal with it to the point it’s almost routine.

    Easier said than done, of course. When you’re aware, though, you can decide what to do after.

    Thanks for sharing also your side, Mr. Slavin. Not exactly everyday you see someone – and a lawyer at that – do something like this. :)

  8. By Lisa:

    Just wondering what you would’ve done differently. Clearly you handled the situation badly, but if you could turn back time, what would you have told the reporter? Was the reporter invited to the meeting? How should you have dealt with him professionally?
    Those of us in healthcare PR would love your insight on dealing with an over-aggressive TV journalist.

  9. By Stacey Maud:

    What was the town hall meeting about? Could the journalist not have asked about the Gift Fund then, and scheduled a follow up interview afterwards if required?

    I don’t condone the repeated touching of the journalist after he’d expressed his preference not to be touched. But in the same breath, the journalists demeanour from the get-go was that he was on a single-track mission to the extent of being aggressive. The town hall convener, and Mr Slavin, had indicated the proper course to take for comment, and the journalist was having none of it.

    One could argue that it is the journalists job. But I would say that when a journalist arrives with that sort of demeanor, they already have a story in mind, and they just want comment to corroborate it.

    I think Mr Slavin’s instinct to protect his client was correct. Again, I’m not condoning the touching. But the journalist on his mission to do his job not professional in recognizing that others must do theirs too.

  10. By Marc Slavin:

    Dear Lisa,

    You are asking an excellent question, and I think a discussion about how to handle this type of situation can help us all to be better public relations practitioners.

    There are probably a variety of possibilities and no single correct approach. My encounter with this reporter was my one and only experience of its kind. Maybe there are readers who can tell us what has worked for them.

    In my case, the reporter was disrupting a public meeting. A better approach would have been to de-escalate the situation. It may have been possible simply to ask him to have a seat, like everyone else in the room, so the meeting could continue.

    But there is something else that is basic to your question. No matter how you handle a situation like this, you have to hold yourself to different standards of professionalism than the reporter who is confronting you.

    A viewer of the video can conclude that I behaved obnoxiously or that the reporter behaved obnoxiously, but only one of us was violating the standards of our respective professions: me. The reporter was doing was he is paid to do, and what the owners of his TV station and the advertisers who support it hope that he will do, which is to create good TV.

    It is an irony that the standards of professionalism are different for public relations practitioners than they are for reporters becaue reporters, no matter how they behave, are often seen as getting at the truth, and P.R. people, no matter how we behave, are often seen as obscuring the truth. But we all know that the opposite is just as often the case.

    I don’t know that there is a best way to handle this type of thing, but any good way would involve remaining reasonable in what is essentially an unreasonable situation.

  11. By Lisa Matheson:

    Certainly this is a moment that any PR pro would like to call a “do over” on as when we were kids. Clearly Marc was uncomfortable with the situation and uncertain how to handle it.

    I once had a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist tell me I was making him feel like he was in Communist Russia because I just “hovered” near him in order to ensure the comfort level and privacy rights of storm victims in the dormitory area of a shelter. Instead of letting his attitude get to me and escalating the situation, I began to propose other visuals on scene that he might want to capture. By the time he left, he was thanking me for helping him.

    The point is that both the reporter and you have a job to do and there is nearly always an opportunity to meet somewhere close to the middle. When tensions start to run high, take control of the situation and your emotions–hit the Zen pause button and think about how you can turn it around.

    As Marc knows all too well, one moment of bad judgment can taint you for a long time. If you aren’t comfortable with handling difficult reporters, have colleagues or reporters you’re friendly with put you through tough mock interviews. The more training and experience you have, the more comfortable you will feel and the more instinctive your situation management will become. Remember, you cannot fully control the reporter but can always control how you handle yourself.

    Even as I write this, I know I will continue to encounter difficult reporters and new situations where I will feel uncertain. No one is perfect, but, as Marc also knows, if you falter, pick yourself up, learn from your experiences and move on.

  12. By Kim May:

    Yes, the video was painful – you feel like screaming, “stop,” hoping it will help him. The blog post was very thoughtful and insightful. I’m glad that he learned from it and I’m glad he shared it with us. I wish him the best from here on. Unfortunately, these are some of the most effective lessons – but we always find ourselves wishing someone else had learned it for us. I’m relieved that he learned it on our behalf, and hope that everyone will benefit from what was learned.

  13. By Art Aiello:

    I couldn’t watch the entire video, because it is painful to watch. Obviously Marc made some mistakes. However, a some other things become obvious to me, as well. First, when Marc touched the reporter for the first time–a move I likely would have done myself simply to get his attention to introduce myself–the reporter clearly becomes immediately belligerent. He gives Marc no opportunity to introduce himself, or even explain how Marc will meet his needs and answer his questions. I think this is poor form and unprofessional. I also think that the lady at the beginning (director?) put Marc in a difficult situation by clearly wanting to avoid the media and turn Marc into an intermediary. This is a challenge all of us as PR professionals face. Those who employ us must understand the meaning of “public relations”. It is to “relate” to the “public”, not be a watchdog or a go-between to shield those who should be talking to the media from actually talking to the media. I think the director handled this situation poorly at the outset. She could have stopped, explained her availability, and introduced Marc herself. She could have granted a brief interview. In short, she could have and should have explained the ground rules to this reporter to help defuse the situation. Instead, she was obviously trying to escape from him. It is not up to PR people to shield those in leadership positions from the media. If you are in a leadership position and you don’t know how to interact with the media, then learn how to. It’s part of your job. Work with your PR staff to get media trained. Learn how to be a professional yourself when working with the media. It’s unfortunate the it’s Marc who has to mend his reputation when these two other participants in this little sociodrama likely saw no wrong in their own behavior and lack of professionalism. However, that makes Marc’s willingness to discuss this situation that much more of a positive thing for him. Kudos, Marc. You’re the better man.

  14. By Dave Statter:

    To Rod Russell,

    Did you listen to the exchange and the reporter saying he had tried to set up an interview? After 38 years as a reporter I can tell you I personally hated doing ambush interviews. Too much theatrics. I avoided them because they were often used unfairly. I only did them when those in charge absolutely refused to be interviewed on matters of public concern. To avoid an ambush I would even tell the spokesperson that unless you get me this interview I would be staking out the boss at public events. Usually that did the trick.

    If the reporter was factual in that he had tried to get the interview in a civil way and was turned down, then he was just doing his job trying to get answers to some important questions. That’s what good reporters do.

    The reaction you had to this (and maybe reporters in general) is what fuels and enables these viral video moments in the first place. Get over it. Get over the anti-press bias, the personal feelings, the ego and the emotion and answer the questions.

    To Marc Slavin,

    Thank you for this insight and for not making excuses about your actions or blaming the reporter. I have used the video numerous times in presentations (including this past week). I will make sure in the future I include your response, not only as part of the video, but as an example of the right way to respond when you screw-up in such a public way.

    I imagine it took you some time to get to the point of being able to do this. The extremely hard part is getting people to realize the need for such a response immediately. Imagine the difference it would have made if you were able to get your composure pretty quickly and acknowledge how you messed up in time for this very response to be part of the original story. Hard, but no impossible to do.

    I hope in the future you will be known for the right way to respond to an on-camera loss of composure as much as you are currently known for how not to respond to an ambush interview.

    Best of luck.

  15. By Brian Ruberry:

    Clearly, this PR person does not have the touch.

  16. By Everett:

    Marc. Your post was indeed courageous. That said, I’d suggest you change your name as part of moving on. Good luck with your therapy or whatever else (I hope) you are doing to overcome your issues. All the best.

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