Is “Blame The Media” A Good PR Strategy?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on March 4, 2015 – 9:18 am

This post was written by Christina Mozaffari, vice president of Phillips Media Relations and a former NBC News producer. 

I’ve always bristled at the “blame the media” public relations strategy.

Plenty of politicians and public figures have used the strategy, sometimes with great success (here’s President Obama, Bill Cosby, and Chris Christie). It’s also probably fair to say my dislike for the strategy is largely due to my own bias as a former reporter.

That said, Frank Bruni’s column in The New York Times last weekend addressing the successes and failures in political reporting—including so-called “gotcha” questions—was spot-on. In it, he admitted the media have some significant faults in covering politics, but that politicians still have a lot of responsibility for the coverage they receive. His last line perfectly summed up the issue:

“…when candidates bemoan and disparage the media’s omnipresence and hypervigilance… remember this, too: When they’re harping about our shortcomings, they’re first and foremost trying to cover up their own.”

Cameras at Press Conference

As an example, Wisconsin governor and potential presidential candidate Scott Walker recently criticized the media after punting on fairly easy and unsurprising questions surrounding his beliefs on evolution and President Obama’s religion. While Walker’s strategy may help him in the primaries with conservatives who distrust the mainstream media, it’s not enough to work in a general election in which you have to win voters in the middle. The actual questions didn’t get Walker into trouble; rather, it was his refusal to answer them in a straightforward manner.

The media are far from perfect. There are certainly many mainstream outlets with clear biases on both sides. However, when the coverage goes wrong, more often than not, the blame lies with the public figure.

Scott Walker Obama Christina

So, when faced with biased reporters, what should you do? These rules of thumb may not apply to the most aggressive cases, but tend to serve most spokesperson well.

  1. 1. Know your “enemy.” It’s your responsibility to know, as best you can, the reporter’s work and point of view. All it typically takes is a quick Google search and a few minutes to read the reporter’s previous work. If you know what you’re walking into, you’ll be better equipped to handle it.
  2. 2. Be the bigger person. It’s your job to stay cool. Let your audience decide on the bias of the reporter, particularly if it’s a live audience and the audience can see the full exchange. If the audience believes you’re being bullied and you manage to handle the reporter’s biased questions with openness and class, you will come off looking better.
  3. 3. Ask yourself if you really need to do this interview. In general, participating in interviews when you know a story is going to be written about you or your organization is smart. Having your voice in a story, even if it’s an aggressive story, keeps you present in your own coverage and helps to avoid that damaging line, “We reached out to Organization X and they had no comment.” That said, if you truly believe you have no chance at getting fair treatment in an interview, there’s no rule that says you have to do it.

What do you think? Is blaming the media a lame cover-up or smart strategy? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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What Is Brian Williams’ Best Crisis Management Strategy?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 5, 2015 – 9:51 am

I wrote last night about the career-threatening controversy enveloping NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (read that post here), who repeatedly told a false story about being under enemy fire while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The evolution of his tale is quite damning. CNN has a good timeline of how Williams changed the story over time to put himself in the center of the action.

What’s unclear to me is whether he purposefully lied (according to the sentiment I’ve seen on Twitter, that seems to be the overwhelming judgment) or whether he had a false memory of the event. Scoff at that latter option if you wish, but the science is rather clear on how unreliable human memory is, particularly during dramatic events.

Even if that more charitable option is the operational one here, it suggests that Williams is an unreliable witness to major news events which is, by itself, enough to seriously damage his credibility.

From a crisis management standpoint, what should Williams do now?

Brian Williams

I asked that question on Twitter last night; here’s what a few of you said:

Brian Williams Twitter Three

I’m not sure a longer explanation without a meaningful punishment is sufficient. Other people think a suspension is warranted but suggest Williams could survive this incident.

Brian Williams Twitter One

Brian Williams Twitter Two

And this person raises a good point that indicts other people within the news division: Where were the other journalists who knew his story was bull?Brian Williams Twitter Four

In my judgment, NBC News, which has its lead anchor telling tall tales that made him the hero of his own story, must act. They must suspend Williams (or place him on a “leave of absence”) immediately. During that time, they should examine his other reporting to make sure this fabrication is truly an isolated incident. 

That suspension isn’t only the right thing to do, but it may help Williams keep his anchor job. Other stories will quickly fill the news vacuum, and his absence will take at least some of the air out of this story. Upon his return, Williams must provide a more credible explanation to viewers—one that doesn’t contain the glibness of yesterday’s insufficient on-air apology. Although that will resurrect the story and lead to more negative headlines, the second telling of the story won’t be accompanied by the same shock as yesterday’s original revelation. And either way, it’s a necessary step.

Some people are calling for his immediate resignation, and it’s possible Williams will be out. But I still view this as a survivable scandal; a damaged Brian Williams may still be preferable to NBC than an undamaged successor—although Lester Holt would be great at the job.

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

 


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Did Brian Williams Really Misremember Being Shot At?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 4, 2015 – 7:58 pm

I like NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams. My wife and I DVR his nightly newscast and, on nights we can find the time, we watch at least the “A block” of his newscast. So it’s entirely possible that my favorable feelings toward Mr. Williams are coloring my perspective on a story that emerged late today about a major event he got wrong.

For several years, Williams has been telling a story about being in a helicopter that was shot down while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the story wasn’t true. According to Stars and Stripes

“NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years.”

Brian Williams

This afternoon, after being challenged online by several soldiers who were on that plane, Williams admitted in a Facebook post (transcribed by The Wrap) that he misremembered the story:

“To Joseph, Lance, Jonathan, Pate, Michael and all those who have posted: You are absolutely right and I was wrong. In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize. I certainly remember the armored mech platoon, meeting Capt. Eric Nye and of course Tim Terpak. Shortly after they arrived, so did the Orange Crush sandstorm, making virtually all outdoor functions impossible. I honestly don’t remember which of the three choppers Gen. Downing and I slept in, but we spent two nights on the stowable web bench seats in one of the three birds. Later in the invasion when Gen. Downing and I reached Baghdad, I remember searching the parade grounds for Tim’s Bradley to no avail. My attempt to pay tribute to CSM Terpak was to honor his 23+ years in service to our nation, and it had been 12 years since I saw him. The ultimate irony is: In writing up the synopsis of the 2 nights and 3 days I spent with him in the desert, I managed to switch aircraft. Nobody’s trying to steal anyone’s valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty. This was simply an attempt to thank Tim, our military and Veterans everywhere — those who have served while I did not.”

He also offered a rather glib apology tonight on NBC Nightly News:

Many people on Twitter are questioning how anyone—much less a news anchor—could somehow confuse being shot at. I understand where they’re coming from. But memory is notoriously unreliable, and as difficult as it might be to believe, it’s at least possible that Williams is telling the truth.

According to Dr. John Medina, the author of Brain Rules:

“Our brains give us only an approximate view of reality, because they mix new knowledge with past memories and store them together as one.”

Therefore, there are two possibilities here: That his was an honest error, or that he’s a liar. I’d very much like to believe that it’s the former, and that possibility shouldn’t be immediately dismissed. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But I wouldn’t stop there. I’ve learned through the years that people who make up stories are usually repeat offenders. Therefore, NBC News has an obligation to review any other similar stories Mr. Williams has told about his past and determine their accuracy. Williams should welcome such a review—if he’s telling the truth, such a review would only serve to enhance his credibility and help confirm his explanation.

Either way, this incident is a devastating blow to his credibility—regardless of how it happened, he blew the story. And, as the tweet below (and many more like it) shows, he’s become a target of mockery.

Brian Williams Mocked

This reputational crisis isn’t likely to end immediately. Journalists and bloggers are already picking over the details of how Mr. Williams has told this story in the past (The Poynter Institute and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple have already posted excellent articles.) In the meantime, the pressure on NBC to take some type of meaningful disciplinary action against their lead anchor will be tremendous.

UPDATE: February 4, 2015, 9:05pm

A reader pointed out that Brian Williams seemed quite comfortable telling his false story on The Late Show With David Letterman. Even if his recollection of this story was due to a “false memory,”  this will serve as a huge hit to his credibility. For balance, though, it’s also worth reading this article in The New Yorker, which shows how faulty human memory can be, especially during dramatic events.  

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NEW: Don’t miss my follow-up post, “What Is Brian Williams’ Best Crisis Management Strategy?

 


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Why You Shouldn’t Trust “Man On The Street” Interviews

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 21, 2014 – 12:02 am

When I worked for CNN, I occasionally went into the streets of Washington, D.C. to interview “real people” about a topic in the news.

Those interviews—known within newsrooms as an M.O.S. (“man on the street”) or a “vox pop” (derived from the Latin “voice of the people”)—always struck me as problematic.

If we interviewed 20 people about a specific topic, we might have encountered 14 people with a “for” position and 6 with an “against” viewpoint. But when we edited the interviews, we might have had time to air quotes from only two of the people—so for purposes of “balance,” we’d air one of each, as if that 50/50 ratio represented the views we encountered. 

young journalist giving microphone

That’s an inherent problem with the M.O.S. Time and space restrictions prevent every comment from being aired or printed, so they have to be condensed. Some journalists are better than others about disclosing the overall sentiment of opinions they encountered—and even if they do, that sentiment doesn’t mean much, since M.O.S. interviews only represent a specific place and time (M.O.S. interviews shot on Wall Street would likely yield different results than ones shot at a homeless shelter).

I’m far from the only person skeptical of the technique. In fact, some of the journalists I worked with referred to the M.O.S. under a different, more jaded name: Any Available Assholes, or A.A.A.s. Although flip, it really did seem to capture the essence of the assignment.

Stephen Colbert recently mocked Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters, who occasionally uses the M.O.S. technique to make his subjects look uninformed. Here’s Watters’ technique:

 

And Colbert’s hilarious response:

 

For all of these reasons, both silly and serious, I recommend viewing M.O.S. interviews with great skepticism—unless reporters disclose their broader findings.

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


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March 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 31, 2014 – 12:02 am

Last summer, media critic Jay Rosen announced he would no longer criticize CNN. “As of today, I have retired from criticism of CNN for falling short of some sort of journalistic standard that news providers should maintain. That activity no longer makes sense.”

Rosen argued that since CNN no longer holds itself to news standards, it would be pointless to do so himself.

I agreed with much of his premise at the time, but wasn’t ready to give up on my former employer quite yet (I worked at CNN from 1999-2001). I cherish the role that CNN should be playing—a straight-up-the-middle news outlet—and wanted to believe that the network would eventually wander back to its roots.

Instead, with its saturation coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, CNN has taken a giant step backward in its evolution from well-respected news outlet to The Jerry Springer Show.

Don Lemon Black Hole

The coverage reached its nadir during Don Lemon’s newscasts. First, Mr. Lemon speculated that the supernatural could be responsible for the plane’s disappearance:

“Especially today, on a day when we deal with the supernatural, we go to church, the supernatural power of God. You deal with all of that. People are saying to me, why aren’t you talking about the possibility—and I’m just putting it out there—that something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding?”

Next, he wondered whether a black hole could have somehow sucked the plane out of the universe, a suggestion his guest batted down immediately.

Not to be outdone, CNN’s sister network, CNN Headline News, hosted a psychic who said she doesn’t like to rely on facts (the passengers are alive, she claimed).

CNN Headline News Psychics

Psychics. Black holes. Supernatural forces. Baseless speculation. This is CNN.

As atrocious as CNN’s coverage has been, the network’s ratings are up. That prompted Piers Morgan’s executive producer to tweet this:

Jonathan Wald Tweet

Wald appears to be conflating popularity with quality. That’s like saying McDonald’s sells the best burgers since it sells the most hamburgers. No, quality and popularity aren’t inextricably linked. Wald’s suggestion otherwise offers a discouraging view into the network’s ends-justify-the-means approach to news.

Yes, CNN still has some quality journalists working for the network, some of whom are friends and former colleagues. But that misses the point. The network is only as good as its least responsible programming, of which there’s an intolerable amount.

Like Jay Rosen before me, I’m tired of expecting more from the network. I’m choosing to click away and find my news in places that exercise more journalistic restraint. I’m just sad that the once-respected 24-hour news network has become little more than a 24-hour network.

Jon Stewart’s takedown of the shameful cable news coverage of Malaysia Air 370 is worth watching.

What are your thoughts about CNN’s programming? Please leave your views in the comments section below.


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Was Saturday Night Live’s Apology Skit Enough?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on November 4, 2013 – 9:03 pm

Recently, Saturday Night Live faced criticism that the cast lacks diversity, specifically for its absence of black women. Kenan Thompson, one of the show’s three minority actors, announced he would no longer cross-dress to play characters like Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.

There has not been a black female SNL cast member since 2007. To put that in perspective, that means there has not been a permanent cast member on the show during the entire Obama presidency to play Mrs. Obama.

 

Actress Kerry Washington plays Michelle Obama on Saturday Night Live, November 2, 2013

 

In a sharply critical article last week, The New York Times noticed the dearth of black women on the show:

“Let me state the obvious: That “Saturday Night Live,” once home of the Not Ready for Prime Time players, has hired only three black women for its main cast— in addition to Yvonne Hudson, a featured player in 1980 — in four decades says more about the show than about the talent pool.”

The show answered its critics this past Saturday night, when actress Kerry Washington hosted the show. In the opening skit, Ms. Washington was asked to play several black female characters, looking incredulous as she ran back and forth for quick wardrobe changes.

As she switched characters, an announcer came on, with text on the screen acknowledging the situation in what I thought was a fairly humorous way:

“The producers of Saturday Night Live would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable talent and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future. Unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”

From a crisis communications perspective, there’s an interesting question here: Was the skit an effective response to the situation?

Maybe. The skit was self-aware, funny, and it answered the critics in a way that was genuine to the show. That Ms. Washington played characters Mr. Thompson once portrayed or that haven’t been possible to portray on the show recently was slyly smart.

However, if SNL does nothing to correct this egregious problem by casting a black woman quickly, the skit will be considered flip and dismissive in hindsight.

What Do You Think? Did Saturday Night Live Handle The Criticism Well?

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Christina Mozaffari is the vice president of Phillips Media Relations. She tweets at @PMRChristina.


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Falsely Accused: The Sad Life Of Richard Jewell

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 7, 2013 – 7:34 am

The mainstream media have a sad track record of labeling innocent people as murderers.

Just last month, several news organizations named the wrong man in the Navy Yard shootings. The New York Post identified the wrong Boston Marathon bombers. Many news outlets reported that Adam Lanza’s innocent brother was the Newtown school shooter.

But one name symbolizes the media’s rush to judgment more than any other: Richard Jewell.

Jewell was the Georgia security guard who discovered a backpack filled with explosives at the Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He notified police, who began clearing the area—but the explosives detonated before the area could be cleared, killing one person and injuring more than 100.

Many news organizations named Jewell as a suspect. He was later exonerated. But his life was never the same, and he died at the early age of 44 in 2007.

Retro Report released a terrific look back at his case today, which shows the high personal cost of the media’s too-frequent rush to judgment. It’s worth watching.

 I’m finally on Google+. Here’s the link if you’d like to connect there!

 


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A 19-Year-Old, A Racist Tweet And A Front-Page Shaming

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 7, 2013 – 9:05 pm

Penn State’s student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, ran a front-page story on Friday about a student who sent a racially incendiary tweet. 

Ashley Lytle, a 19-year-old student, tweeted:

Ashley Lytle Tweet

That’s obviously an inappropriate and offensive tweet—one that I have no intent of defending. She deserves to be criticized for sending it. 

But instead of focusing on my usual angle of media training, I’d rather focus on the sticky question of journalistic responsibility.

When writing about a 19-year-old college student who’s not a public figure (she’s not a student leader or high-profile college athlete), there must be some degree of proportionality. I have to imagine that many other Penn State students—there are more than 39,000 undergraduates at University Park—have also sent offensive tweets or said similarly offensive things. Is the new standard for the Collegian to shame everyone who does on its front page? And if not, is their cherry picking—which will mark Ms. Lytle as a racist for much of her college life—appropriate? 

In this case, the front page placement seems irresponsible given the thinness of the news story. (You can read the full article here, which doesn’t say much other than: Student sends bad tweet. Some people mad.) If there were mass protests on campus from offended students, I’d understand the front-page coverage. Same if the administration was considering kicking her out of the school or if the article served as more of an in-depth look at the ill effects of social media on campus. 

None of that was the case here.

Yes, this story may have been worthy of mention in the paper. But it would have been more responsible to cover the story on an inside page, which would have served the dual purpose of covering the story while giving it proportional coverage. 

Regardless, this story, like so many others, underscores the need for social media training. Some colleges and universities are offering that to students—particularly for student-athletes—but in a world in which a single tweet can destroy a person’s reputation, it makes sense to arm every student with the information they need to make smarter choices. (Chris Syme’s excellent book “Practice Safe Social” is a great place to start.)

For her part, Ms. Lytle has apologized.

UPDATE: September 8, 2013, 2:45 P.M.

I received an email from Brittany Horn, the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Collegian, explaining her paper’s decision to cover this story. Due to the length of her response, I’ve posted it, in its entirely, to the comments section below. I encourage you to read her letter in full. You’ll also find my response to her email beneath her comment.

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A grateful hat tip to @ProfNichols.

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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.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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