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Bad News: When a PR Pro Becomes the Story


June 29, 2012

Good advice can stick in someone’s mind for a long time. It can also save reputations, and even careers.

More than 30 years ago, I entered the PR profession after a career in broadcast journalism. I’ll never forget the words of my new boss, George Hammond, chairman of the legendary PR firm Carl Byoir & Associates in New York: “If the PR person becomes the news, then it’s probably not good.”

He went on to explain that I was entering a profession in which its practitioners were not the stars. Our role, he said, is in working with and managing our clients.

While the PR profession has evolved since that conversation, this principle remains constant.

It’s too bad that Sara MacIntyre didn’t receive Hammond’s counsel. MacIntyre is the press secretary for British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, although many people are more familiar with her now than they were three months ago. During her first week on the job, she made international headlines after engaging in a heated exchange with journalists that went viral. Rather than serving as a conduit to her boss, she lashed out and acted as a barrier. (Watch of video of the confrontation here.)

On March 14, the premier was visiting a clean technology exhibition in Vancouver, which was a great opportunity to demonstrate her devotion to the movement and promote British Columbia as a technology center. For some reason, she decided not to grant interviews or make a public statement that day — which was a lost opportunity for her, British Columbia and its business community. What followed, though, was worse. 

According to The Vancouver Observer, several reporters wanted to ask the premier about her proposal to move welfare recipients to jobs in northern British Columbia. As they tried to follow the premier into the exhibit area, MacIntyre jumped in front of them and told them that her boss would not be taking questions that day, and that she would soon be heading back to Victoria. 

The reporters protested, arguing that they had received an advisory saying Premier Clark would be available. MacIntyre disputed their claims, saying that she had not issued this advisory. She frequently interrupted the reporters when they persisted, repeating at least four times, “She’s not taking questions today.” The media spokesperson’s tone was snarky, and she also chewed gum throughout the extended exchange.

Of course, as this is the information age, cameras were rolling. Soon, the video of the testy PR person zipped across the globe. Videos showing bad behavior quickly go viral these days. MacIntyre became the story. The Globe and Mail, Canada’s biggest national newspaper, called MacIntyre “TV’s Newest Villain.”

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that MacIntyre’s background is primarily in politics, not public relations.

What should have happened?

The proper course would have been for Clark to make an opening statement about the trade show and how it highlighted B.C.’s opportunities in the technology field. Then she should have agreed to take a few questions on the subject and answer them briefly — reinforcing what she previously had said about the subject and confining the discussion to technology. Or she could simply have said, “I’m here today to talk about technology. Let’s hold other subjects for another day.”

If, for whatever reason, Clark could not accept questions, then MacIntyre should have been courteous and apologetic to the media. She should also have prepared key points about British Columbia’s dedication to technology and its business community.

When the media insisted that someone had promised them access, MacIntyre should have apologized again, accepted blame for any misunderstanding and used those key messages to guide the conversation. While that is not ideal, it would have prevented MacIntyre from being the story.

It’s never a good idea to become more famous than your boss, especially when you become a symbol of turning an opportunity into a viral debacle.

There are several lessons to learn from this incident:

  • A public figure must be prepared to take media questions at a public event.
  • Smart PR professionals look at the benefits of cooperating with the media and the disadvantages of staying quiet.
  • Testy confrontations with the media can lead to a bad outcome.
  • Ubiquitous TV cameras and phone cameras mean that bad behavior can quickly become a hot item on the Internet.
  • Remember that diplomacy is a key element of media relations.

Virgil Scudder Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. He is president of Virgil Scudder & Associates, based in Miami Beach, Fla.
Email: virgil at virgilscudder.com



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