Four rules to consider before commenting on a celebrity's death

The morality of news management is in the spotlight once again after Gawker slammed Edelman as a "soulless PR conglomerate" for its 'Carpe Diem' blog on Robin Williams.

Remember Jo Moore? She was fired for advising the Government to ‘bury bad news’ on 9/11. Edelman gets a mighty kicking for advising the opposite – that the global media interest in Robin Williams is a chance to raise mental health issues.

Poor old PR industry. It just can’t win. Damned if it practices proactive news management by the media, which ironically connives with it. Deserted by clients, who want it, if it doesn’t.

It wasn’t as if the media weren’t looking to explore and extend the Williams’ story. Calls from media to experts in mental health issues poured into agency media teams within a few hours of the story breaking.

The demand was already there, it was not being concocted in some darkened PR ‘war room’.

I spoke to friends in the charity sector. Unanimously, they said that the opportunity to ‘ride the media interest’ was something they’d have done (though with certain caveats).  

Edelman’s problem was not that their advice was wrong. It was that they broke the first rule of news management – it was that they were seen to be giving it.

It’s what I call the ‘Jo Moore’ rule. It is the rule of ancient Sparta, too.

To steal is not the crime, getting caught is. It was crass to do the blog. The advice was guaranteed to be seen and the risk that it could be seen to be exploitative was very high. PRs should not be the story, nor should their advice.    

Which leads to a second rule in these scenarios - ‘Motive Matters’. People will question your motive. Or perceived motive. Especially if you are a hired hand like a PR or ad agency.

If you just want to turn a personal tragedy to your commercial advantage stop. If you are a ‘johnny-come-lately’ to the focus for the story, then the chances are you’ll be given the hairdryer treatment by someone for your motive and morality.

Taste and tone is the third rule. The days when silence was the most respectful reaction to the death of a famous person disappear years ago. Blair made the Royal Family’s initial reaction to Diana’s death appear ‘unfeeling’. It brought them public scorn. How you say what you want to say is critical. Choose your words very carefully as they may make history.     

The fourth rule is Timing. The day Margaret Thatcher died, there was a broad consensus even among those who hated her that they should restrain their comments. By the second day, the dam had broken and the brickbats were flying. Taste and tone moved from respectful to revengeful. Choose your moment. Edelman went too early.

James Thellusson is a communications consultant and former UK MD for Edelman

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