November 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 30, 2014 – 8:20 am

I’ve rarely seen a beloved celebrity fall from grace as abruptly as Bill Cosby.

Within just a few days of numerous rape and sexual assault allegations being leveled against him, Cosby’s brand as the venerated Dr. Cliff Huxtable devolved into a much darker public perception: serial rapist. 

If he’s completely innocent of all of the allegations being leveled against him—and the reported facts make that difficult to believe—his attempts to mitigate the stunning damage to his career, reputation, and legacy have been disastrous.

I already covered some of the mistakes Cosby made in an earlier post. This month-end post will add a few new thoughts.

Bill Cosby AP Screenshot

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Cosby’s attempt to manage this scandal by refusing to speak when asked about the charges during a nationally broadcast NPR interview only brought more attention to the allegations.

Several of my blog’s readers said that Cosby did the right thing by offering no comment, arguing that any comment would have only fueled the story. But even if they’re right, Cosby should have turned down the interview outright if he wasn’t prepared to deliver a substantive response to an obvious question.

Video of Cosby applying pressure to a reporter from the Associated Press was, in many ways, even more telling. When the reporter did his job by asking Cosby about the allegations, Cosby challenged the journalist’s “integrity,” and asked him to “scuttle” that part of the interview. If Cosby is indeed guilty of some or all of the allegations against him, this video offers an insight into his modus operandi. 

Cosby made other major crisis communications mistakes along the way. His lawyer’s original statement read as follows:

“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.” – John P. Schmitt, lawyer for Bill Cosby

Cosby’s attorney had to retract and reissue that statement in order to clarify that it did not apply to one of Cosby’s accusers. And when accused of being a serial rapist, how is it germane to include that, “at age 77, he is doing his best work?”

Although many PR professionals have written posts about Bill Cosby, the truth is that if he’s guilty, his is not a PR problem. No amount of good communications can rescue a serial rapist—and NBC, Netflix, TV Land, and several concert venues that have either canceled or postponed his appearances seem to agree. 

What can Cosby do now?

If he is innocent, he should have already loudly, publicly, and consistently declared so. At this point, he might give a prime time interview to a trusted anchor and answer every question posed to him directly. Some of my readers argued against that, saying he’s in a “no win” position. I disagree. Viewers are smart enough to decide for themselves whether he appears credible—which he should, if he’s innocent. He’s unlikely to do that, of course, which signals to many people that there’s truth to the allegations.

If he’s guilty, there’s only one thing he can do to restore any part of his legacy: Admit it, pay the legal and financial consequences of his actions, and dedicate the rest of his life and resources to sexual assault and rape causes. I wouldn’t hold my breath for that to happen, either.

Instead, Cosby has chosen the middle ground—allowing his attorney to attack the women who accused him of sexual assault and trying to muddy public perception just enough to allow Cosby to maintain a portion of his career. Cosby’s attorney has every right to challenge inconsistent facts, of course—but instead, he’s called into question the very idea that an honest accuser would have waited so long to tell their stories (in many cases, they tried to—but their stories were reportedly “scuttled,” often as a result of pressure from Cosby and his team). And Cosby may have benefitted from a lack of physical evidence: a Pennsylvania district attorney who considered sexual assault charges against him in 2005 recently said, “I thought he did it.”

There’s virtually nothing Cosby can do at this point to prevent these allegations from being included in the first paragraph of his obituary. Based on the available facts and paired with his incomplete responses, that seems entirely well deserved.

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September 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 1, 2014 – 2:24 am

There were many media disasters from which to choose this month.

I could have chosen NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s press conference, which failed to satisfy anyone. I could have selected President Obama, who gave his critics easy ammunition by saying, “We don’t have a strategy” to deal with ISIS. Finally, I could have named this Toronto school board trustee for delivering an illogical interview.

Despite good arguments for all of those media moments, I kept coming back to an interview Mike Tyson conducted with a Canadian news anchor earlier this month (this monthly feature was always intended to highlight the serious, the sublimely ridiculous, and everything in between).

According to Mashable, Tyson was “in Canada to promote his one-man show,” during which time he met with and endorsed Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (who subsequently dropped out of the race due to serious health issues).  But when Tyson sat down with Nathan Downer on Toronto’s CP24, one of the host’s questions upset him—and he looked like he might take a chunk out of Downer’s ear. 

Warning: This video contains numerous obscenities and one scary-looking tattoo.

The question that sparked Tyson’s expletive-laden tirade was this:

“Some of your critics would say, ‘This is a race for mayor, we know you’re a convicted rapist, this could hurt his campaign.’ How would you respond to that?”

Those “some say” questions—which can be journalistically dubious—are ripe for rebuttals that challenge the premise. Tyson did exactly that, beginning his answer reasonably:

“I don’t know who said that. You’re the only one I know who said that.”

But then Tyson lost it, calling the anchor a “piece of shit,” saying “fuck you” on live television twice, and threatening the host when reminded he was on live TV (“What are you going to do about it?”).  

Nathan Downer Tweet

Tyson should expect to face questions about that conviction, which can be easily deflected (“I paid my debt to society, have been out of prison for almost 20 years, and am here to talk about my one-man show.”).

Instead, interviews like this one show that he still has the same volatile temper he’s always had—the same one that led to charges of domestic abuse in his marriage to Robin Givens, a rape conviction, and being disqualified from a heavyweight title fight for biting off a piece of his opponent’s ear.

Despite all of those incidents, Tyson has enjoyed an improbable comeback in recent years, including an HBO airing of his one-man show and a scene-stealing cameo in The Hangover (below).

I’ve always had reservations about the wisdom of Mike Tyson receiving a full Hollywood comeback; my uneasiness aside, “Brand Tyson” has been doing quite well in recent years. But this interview might—hopefully, in my view—slow his public return to favor just a little.

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Media Disaster: Just Walk Away Already!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 14, 2014 – 3:19 pm

Reader Bob LeDrew recently made me aware of a media interview featuring a Toronto School Board trustee named Sam Sotiropoulos. (By the way, what is the deal with Toronto public officials lately?)

Mr. Sotiropoulos generated some controversy late last month when he sent out the following tweet:

Sam Sotiropoulos Tweet

Shortly thereafter, a reporter from Canada’s Global News interviewed Mr. Sotiropoulos about his incendiary comments. The interview was an utter disaster and is worth watching in its entirety. 

As I watched this interview—which lasted almost nine excruciating minutes—I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t he walk away already? Does this man not have feet?”

It’s clear that Sotiropoulos thought his rapier wit was winning the interview, but he appeared blithely unaware that he was coming across as a smug dope who failed to score a single point.

Among the tactics he tried were:

  • Repeating the same talking point almost verbatim numerous times
  • Giving the reporter the silent treatment
  • Denying that he had sent another controversial tweet that had appeared in his timeline
  • Telling the reporter that while he could speak about his current tweet, he couldn’t discuss previous and related tweets he had sent
  • Attacking the reporter for suggesting that there is a stigma attached to mental illness
  • Claiming that his tweet was not expressing an opinion, but merely reserving the right to “form” an opinion

His last point was particularly disingenuous. He refused to acknowledge that his inference that transgenderism may be a form of mental illness could reasonably be read as a suggestion that it is. (For the record, the American Psychiatric Association ruled that “gender dysphoria” is not, by itself, a mental illness.) Using his logic, it would be completely fair of me to tweet the following:

Sam Satiropoulos Tweet Mr Media Training

But doing so would be a smear, and Satiropoulos would have a right to be upset at my inference. (I preceded and followed that tweet, sent yesterday, with an explanation that it was intended only as part of this story, not as a personal attack.)

Mr. Satiropoulos is entitled to his views, but he shouldn’t have sent his tweets if he was unprepared to defend them. For the same reason, he shouldn’t have agreed to an on-camera interview; a written statement would have served him far better.

Instead, he agreed to an on-camera interview without a time limit, during which he committed at least half a dozen interview errors. But of all his interview sins, the one that demonstrated his lack of judgment most is that he stood there like a punching bag instead of having the sense to end the interview and walk away.

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June 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 30, 2014 – 12:02 am

John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, is known for being rather provocative.

He has a lot of fans who appreciate his “un-CEO” style which, as described by Business Insider, consists of a “trademark uniform of a black jacket over a pink T-Mobile shirt, jeans, and pink Converse All Star sneakers.” It also consists of a lot of swear words.

Many analysts have praised his effectiveness during his almost two-year tenure as CEO, with Business Insider writing that T-Mobile has enjoyed a “remarkable turnaround,” and is “growing faster than its competitors in terms of revenue and subscribers.” According to Wikipedia, J.D. Power and Associates “ranked the company highest among major wireless carriers for retail-store satisfaction four years consecutively and highest for wireless customer care two years consecutively.”

To get a sense of Legere’s unconventional style, check out this video from a company event earlier this month:

In just that one presentation, Legere used the following salty language:

  • “They’re out of their goddamn mind.”
  • “That is a complete crock of bullshit.”
  • “They’re greedy bastards.”
  • “We are absolutely kicking their ass.”
  • “A cacophony of the biggest bullshit in history.”
  • “What the fuck do I care?”
  • “The fuckers hate you.”
  • “I don’t give a crap.”
  • “Every goddamn note you listen to.”
  • “I don’t give a shit.”

John Legere

I understand what Legere is trying to do. He wants to appear “authentic” and stand in marked contrast to the CEOs of his competitors, who he feels are treating customers badly. Personally, I don’t love the CEO of a public company talking like a drunk at the local bar. Regardless, his curse words aren’t the reason he made this list. Rather, it was his highly publicized comment about his main competitors, AT&T and Verizon, that earned him widespread condemnation:

“These high and mighty duopolists that are raping you for every penny you have.”

One commenter in an earlier PR Daily piece pointed out that the word “rape” is a metaphor in this case, writing, “I have never been literally ‘killed’ but that’s a common term for how one team defeats another….that’s why they are called metaphors.” But Mr. Legere’s job isn’t to push the boundaries of accepted speech. He’s the CEO of a company whose job is to avoid unnecessarily offending large swaths of his potential customer base by using words that are particularly salient in our culture. 

In an open letter published on the website MomsRising, five of Mr. Legere’s female employees blasted his use of language:

“Trivializing the brutality of sexual assault is not an edgy corporate communications strategy. For many women, this is not funny. It’s traumatizing.

Being courteous to our customers is one of our highest priorities as customer service representatives. But what would happen if we ever swore on the phone? What would happen if we used the same rape metaphor in a conversation with a customer? That would certainly be our last day on the job. It’s not even a question. T-Mobile would escort us to the door — and rightfully so.

We don’t really think he’s sorry, despite his short apology on Twitter, about what he said. And that’s even more upsetting. It’s hard enough as it is to be women working the male-dominated world of tech. Our CEO’s language is just another reminder of how we don’t belong in the “boys club.”

We understand that Mr. Legere’s comments were all part of some flashy marketing scheme to get press and to appeal to young people. But is this the kind of message we want to send?”

Legere apologized for his use of the word. Nonetheless, that one word commandeered the headlines for the entire event, overshadowing any of the underlying points he had hoped to make.

John Legere Tweet

Brendan Greeley of Bloomberg Businessweek summarized Legere’s shtick quite well:

“Every time he makes a public appearance, he needs to be just offensive enough to get our attention. That means he has to be slightly more offensive than the last time he got our attention. This is a machine with a ratchet, and it has now produced the deeply unfunny word ‘rape.’ Perhaps no word is sacred, but that’s a defense for an act of art—not a corporate communications strategy. John Legere sells phone plans for a living. He’s not Sarah Silverman or Lenny Bruce.”

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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May 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 29, 2014 – 2:35 pm

This was the worst media apology I’ve ever seen.

L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling—who was caught on tape telling his girlfriend not to be photographed or attend basketball games with black people—attempted to apologize during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. 

Sterling did apologize. But he also took the opportunity to attack Magic Johnson for getting “those AIDS” and made new racist remarks by claiming that wealthy African Americans “don’t want” to help their own communities like Jews do.

I already deconstructed Sterling’s pathetic interview earlier this month. But as I’ve continued to think about this case, one additional point is worth making.

It’s important to remember that the comments that originally got Sterling into trouble were covertly recorded during a private conversation. Many public figures spanning the full ideological spectrum—though disgusted by his comments—were deeply concerned about the privacy issues in this case.

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote:

“Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way? Although the impact is similar to Mitt Romney’s comments that were secretly taped, the difference is that Romney was giving a public speech. The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime.”

Conservative pundit Bernard Goldberg made a similar point:

“I’m wondering who else among us has said things in the privacy of our homes that would get us in trouble if somebody recorded them and made our remarks public.”

And liberal comedian Bill Maher agreed:

“Last week when President Obama was asked about the Sterling episode, he said, ‘When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, just let them talk.’ But Sterling didn’t advertise. He was bugged. And while he may not be worth defending, the 4th Amendment is.”

But with his interview, Sterling erased that entire argument.

Donald Sterling Anderson Cooper

Sterling could have argued that because his comments were made in private and (possibly) illegally taped, he shouldn’t have to sell his team or endure a lifetime ban. But since he willingly made additional racist remarks during his very public televised interview with Anderson Cooper, that line of argument evaporated.

Sterling’s decision to do this interview without the presence of legal or public relations counsel was stunningly reckless. That he chose to do it at all sealed his fate as a racist.

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The Candidate Who Got Crushed By A Smarter Interviewer

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 13, 2014 – 6:02 am

The House Majority Leader, Virginia Republican Eric Cantor, is trying to win re-election this year against a little-known Democratic opponent named Mike Dickinson (See update below).

Mr. Dickinson entered the national spotlight late last week after he appeared on Fox News to speak with anchor Greta Van Susteren.

Van Susteren wanted to know more about Dickinson’s “War on Fox News,” which the candidate launched because he thought Fox News often misrepresented the facts. (That shouldn’t exactly be a tough position to argue.) But Van Susteren—a skilled criminal defense lawyer—decided to do some research about Dickinson’s past. And the resulting interview was simply devastating.

Watch this interview, then tell me: Is it me, or did Dickinson look like SNL’s Darrell Hammond doing a parody of a local politician?

The first lesson is this, as stated by Political Wire’s Taegan Goddard: “Pro tip: If you’re running for Congress and pledging a “war on Fox News” then it’s probably best not to appear on Fox News.” But I only agree with that partially. Appearing on Fox News while pledging a war on the network could have turned this local Democratic candidate into a popular national Democratic hero—if he was a skilled debater who could have held his own against an experienced host.

Second, if you have skeletons in your closet (consulting for strip clubs), you should probably have a good response ready. Instead, Dickinson just took Van Susteren’s punches without offering any counter response. For example, he could have said:

“You know, I know that’s not a popular profession with some people. But I want to be clear about how my policies would benefit women—and how Eric Cantor’s have hurt them [insert examples].”

Mike Dickinson

But the worst moment came when Van Susteren cornered him into admitting that he had lied about calling himself the CEO of a company (he wasn’t). He admitted to being a liar. Again, a skilled candidate would have had a better response prepared:

“I’m embarrassed by that and wish I could do that one over again, but let’s be very clear about one thing: I haven’t spent my entire professional career misrepresenting who I am and what I believe. Eric Cantor has. For example…”

Dickinson is trying to use heightened rhetoric to earn free national media coverage. Other politicians have used that strategy as well: Democrats Alan Grayson and Anthony Weiner, and Republicans Louis Gohmert and Michele Bachmann, among others. But there’s a key difference: they were all good at that game, and Dickinson is not.

As Van Susteren told him, “You’re a piece of work.” The problem for Dickinson is that I suspect many of his potential voters agree.

UPDATE: After writing this article but before posting it, news emerged that Mr. Dickinson failed to meet the filing deadline to run as a Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 7th District. He reportedly failed to inform Fox News that he wasn’t officially a candidate; nor did the network appear to verify his claim otherwise.

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A grateful hat tip to reader John Barnett.


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Rutgers Official: I Hope The Local Newspaper Dies

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 7, 2014 – 2:21 pm

Many people have fantasized about their opponents in the media being put out of business. But most of them have the good sense not to give voice to their dark wishes.

That didn’t stop Rutgers University Athletic Director Julie Hermann from publicly fantasizing about the demise of her media nemesis, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. According to Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi (and originally reported by Rutgers University student website Muckgers):

“If they’re not writing headlines that are getting our attention, they’re not selling ads – and they die,” Hermann told the Media Ethics and Law class. “And the Ledger almost died in June, right?”

“They might die again next month,” a student said.

“That would be great,” she replied. “I’m going to do all I can to not give them a headline to keep them alive.”

Julie Hermann

Now that’s a new one. Giving such a juicy headline in a quote about not giving the newspaper a headline?

Worse than the quote itself is Ms. Hermann’s timing. Last week, the Star-Ledger laid off 167 staffers. That a local college official appears to be dancing on their professional graves during a tough economy makes her look vindictive, petty, and small.

Worse yet, Ms. Hermann’s response isn’t much better than her original comments.

According to The Detroit News:

“The university said in a statement that Hermann’s remarks to a media ethics and law class in February came before she knew about deep layoffs at the Star-Ledger…Rutgers said her statements were “intended to give the students some understanding of the challenges she has faced” and were not expected to be made public. She did not apologize.”

Ridiculous. That Ms. Hermann had any expectation for privacy in a public setting is ludicrous. (How many times have I written about this already?)

Plus, what kind of message is that to send to a media ethics class—that if you don’t like the coverage you’re receiving, you should wish for the news organization’s demise? Ms. Hermann owes the newspaper—along with the men and women who work for it and the students she was lecturing to—an apology.

Thank you to the anonymous tipster who forwarded this story to me. Have a tip? Send it to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.


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The Media Interview That Cost A Man $3.5 Million

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 2, 2014 – 6:02 am

Australian rugby player Andrew Fifita recently made a comment that cost him a four-year, $3.5 million contract ($3.2 million U.S.).

The 24-year-old announced that he would be changing teams, from the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks to the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. But before he even put on his new uniform, he expressed disloyalty to his new team. Here’s the story via news.com.au:

“On Friday he let slip in an interview that he wished he’d chosen rugby union [a different league] instead. Then yesterday, the Dogs effectively said fine, forget the whole deal.

Oh, the Bulldogs cited a bunch of legalese. But reading between the lines, they appeared to be saying “You’ve got no loyalty? Then we don’t want you.”

What caught my eye were comments made by his teammate, Paul Gallen, who offered this solution: 

“I think he’s really going to have to be micromanaged, I really think they have to get him some kind of media training or something.”

The columnist agreed:

“Gallen is right. If Fifita doesn’t have any natural humility, he desperately needs a slick professional to drum it into him.”

Both Gallen and the unnamed columnist have a distorted view of media training.

A media trainer’s job is not to “drum” humility into someone. Good practitioners are not slick professionals who attempt to create personality traits where they do not exist (we can help people emphasize traits they do possess). Doing so would be doomed to failure, as the public can usually tell when someone is faking it.

We can only be successful when working with somewhat self-aware people who have a desire to change. If Fifita is not naturally humble, I would never try an approach intended to make him fake humility.

What would I do? I’d focus on helping him reduce the likelihood of a future “seven-second stray.” I would try to accomplish that by invoking his competitive spirit and analogizing his public comments to rugby. Every time he prevents himself from making a potentially controversial comment, he should award himself a point. Every time he makes one, he should view it as voluntarily allowing the other team to score.

That’s it. No drumming false humility into him. But by getting him to be as competitive with the use of his words as he is during play, it might serve the same purpose—he’d learn to bite his tongue more often, which might result in him genuinely appearing more humble. And it wouldn’t take a “slick” professional to help him do it.

That’s my take. What’s yours? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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