“Ladies and gentlemen, let's thank Michael Bay for joining us.”
Those words were uttered earlier this week by Samsung EVP of home entertainment Joe Stinziano at the company's gala press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas.
Bay had been on stage for less than two minutes before storming off due to a teleprompter malfunction. The bizarre meltdown has gone viral, was mentioned in more than 30,000 tweets this week, and has been called “embarrassing” and “shocking” by everyone from CNN to EW. Comedian Sarah Silverman even poked fun at the gaffe, saying “I don't want to Michael Bay this thing” during her appearance at the Cisco press conference Tuesday.
Many have asked for my thoughts on the situation. That's because for all of 2011 and 2012, I was PR director at Samsung Electronics America, playing a central role in the development, staging, and production of the annual CES press conference. Before that, I was heavily involved in a similar capacity for most of the last decade while servicing the Samsung business at Edelman.
This was the first year since the Clinton administration that I had no involvement in the Samsung press conference, but I take no joy in Samsung's misfortune. I feel badly for my many friends there, who worked for months on a production that has now been overshadowed.
I particularly have to commend Samsung's Joe Stinziano for his handling of the situation. He didn't lose his composure when things went off the rails, so much so that many in the audience assumed at first that it was all scripted and that Bay was about to return, perhaps transformed into an Autobot or Decepticon.
Samsung has a well-deserved reputation for absolutely top-notch production values. Last year's press conference, in fact, was widely hailed as the best ever executed at CES, with complex choreography, lighting, special effects, and even TVs rising out of the floor in one of the most dramatic reveals in memory.
Things haven't always run smoothly for Samsung. The 2011 press conference was marred when the wrong laptop was held up by a presenter, and the year before, awkward semi-scripted banter between two execs made for a weird viewing experience.
Believe it or not, Samsung once took questions from the press during its CES event – yes, before Twitter and live blogging, Samsung delivered an actual interactive conference, not a canned stage show. As expected, not all the questions were ones they wanted to hear.
You can imagine the drama behind the scenes after these glitches. So more recently, the press conference has been locked down tighter than a drum. No ad libbing. No free form. Everything would be done word-for-word from a teleprompter, and exhaustively rehearsed over and over again, until everything works as seamlessly as a Samsung Galaxy S4.
Until this week.
While the flub was handled on stage fairly well, there was ample room for improvement.
First, Joe Stinziano didn't need to thank Bay a second time on stage. That second apology came off as sarcastic. I know Joe – he's as genuine of a guy as you'll find – and can guarantee he didn't mean it that way, but it was easy to misinterpret.
Second, there was Michael Bay's weird non-apology posted to his blog, in which he blamed the teleprompter operator, and simply stated “I guess live shows aren't my thing.” It all came off as flippant and disrespectful. Bay should have posted a video clip apologizing to both Samsung and to the audience for the problem and articulating the original message he should have delivered.
It's understandable that Samsung didn't want to comment on the situation further. Why provide the media with more ammunition to spark another news cycle? So to no one's surprise, Michael Bay himself was kind enough to provide a rollicking interview with TMZ, keeping the story alive. In it, he claimed he was enjoying all the attention as a result of the meltdown, and pointed the finger at Samsung for rewriting the script at the last minute.
Given Samsung's continuing business relationship with Bay – he supposedly is doing a global tour showing Transformers 4 footage on Samsung's transforming TV – this should have never been allowed. A crisis communications plan would have furnished everyone involved with speaking points and guidelines on how to handle the controversy.
Now, let's all sit back and wait for next year's press conference. It wouldn't surprise me if Samsung simply gave up on the unavoidable risks of a live production, and took the natural next step, with a fully pre-recorded presentation. Maybe in 3D.
Ethan Rasiel is CEO of Lightspeed PR.