There were two major PR missteps that caught my eye recently, and the response to both was predictable.
First, FEMA’s “fake” news conference. I’m not sure whose bright idea this one was, but good grief, someone should have put the brakes on this the second the idea came up. For those who haven’t heard the story, FEMA staged a news conference and populated the “audience” with its own employees to ask questions. Inevitably, the press discovered the background of those asking the questions, and FEMA was rightly called out on this charade. Dumb, all the way around on FEMA’s part, and totally avoidable.
The second misstep is a bit more complex, but still should serve as a reminder to all in PR that social media has changed the landscape. Last week, the AP reported that it had evidence that Comcast “throttles” or “blocks” BitTorrent applications on its network. This allegation was the buzz of many blogs (and the allegation was actually first made in a popular forum back in May), and in response Comcast issued a very carefully worded statement that appeared to come directly from its legal department, with perhaps a brief pass-over by the PR department–maybe to check for spelling mistakes.
Essentially, it said that Comcast doesn’t do any of this “blocking or throttling” but that it has the right to “manage its networks.” That sounds like perhaps they don’t do it, but that they hire someone else to do so. Which is exactly what Consumerist pounded on, in no fewer than four separate posts on the issue in two days. And that’s just one blog. The coverage has been extensive.
Both instances involve some level of deception, which is exactly why the general public doesn’t trust PR. Both entities have had these incidents added to their respective Wikipedia pages (Comcast; FEMA), so there it will live. Both entities have lost at least some credibility and trust.
One of the most important skills of a PR practitioner can possess should be the ability to say no to ideas that could harm the organization he or she is representing. Ideas like these–a fake news conference or elaborately parsed explanations–need to be viewed through the lens of new media.
PR practitioners need to ask: does the risk outweigh the reward?
UPDATE: Potomac Flacks is reporting that the FEMA official responsible for the fake news conference did not start in a post he was to have begun today; his record is being reviewed due to his role in the flap.