OP-ED: Don't underestimate advocacy groups' media influence

One thing I've learned over the years is that many corporate PR departments underestimate the power of advocacy groups, resulting in situations that are far worse than they need to be. (Think Paramount and Laura Schlessinger). When corporate PR makes stereotypical assumptions about advocacy organizations, presuming they are strident, ill-informed, or incapable of drawing attention to issues they care about, savvy advocacy groups are often forced to use the missteps to their advantage.

One thing I've learned over the years is that many corporate PR departments underestimate the power of advocacy groups, resulting in situations that are far worse than they need to be. (Think Paramount and Laura Schlessinger). When corporate PR makes stereotypical assumptions about advocacy organizations, presuming they are strident, ill-informed, or incapable of drawing attention to issues they care about, savvy advocacy groups are often forced to use the missteps to their advantage.

It's time PR pros learned to respond to advocacy groups without exacerbating the situation. Here's some food for thought: A recent poll by Hill & Knowlton found that 52% of CEOs see media criticism as the greatest threat to their corporate reputation. That's a full 20% higher than unethical corporate behavior. While this goes against the old PR canard that "there's no such thing as bad publicity," after the very public heat NBC took following the recent introduction of Savage Nation to MSNBC's Saturday lineup, I doubt it would agree with that today. Long a distant third in cable news ratings, MSNBC recently made significant changes to its programming in an effort to boost viewership. In a single week, it cancelled Phil Donahue's show, hired Dick Armey and Joe Scarbarough (both retired GOP congressmen well known for their socially conservative and anti-gay views), and announced plans to give radio shock jock Michael Savage his own political talk show. This drastic shift in editorial tone not only received media attention, but also aroused the concern of many groups working for fair, accurate, and diverse news media coverage. Since Savage has a long, well documented record of homophobic, racist, and anti-feminist views, GLAAD had to question the decision. When we called MSNBC to confirm the deal with Savage and get more information, we were very surprised at its response. Comments included: "Are we going to get hate mail?," "Can't you just wait and see what the show is like?," and "We can't be associated with what he's said in the past and on other platforms." Statements like this also appeared in the press, and increasingly na?ve statements about Savage by MSNBC representatives continued to show up in media coverage. At the same time, journalists reported to the public our documentation of his defamatory comments towards people of many different communities and his subsequent attacks on GLAAD on our website. Things were obviously not off to a good start. Once the first negative press began to appear, a more senior PR person took over NBC's crisis management, but the organization continued to move very slowly in response to the growing controversy. This created a situation where the media was the venue for dialogue, instead of in-person talks, because NBC would not agree to a meeting that could be "on the record" in any substantive way. GLAAD has the media savvy and experience to bring attention to issues. We've pitched many national outlets. We've worked with scores of regional papers and trade titles that we knew NBC staffers read. We mobilized people in our community and our allies to make their voices heard. We reached out to advertisers, many of whom are very sensitive to diversity issues. We knew this was part of a bigger story about the cable news media battle for ratings, and we made sure journalists covered this as a "big picture" story. After Savage Nation debuted (to scathing reviews), we worked with major NBC advertisers like Kraft, Dell, Xerox, and Procter & Gamble to secure public statements that they wouldn't support the show. All the program's national advertisers publicly declared that they wouldn't advertise again on the show within three days of its debut. And after we contacted the national advertisers seen on the second show, all instructed their media buyers to not purchase ads on Savage Nation. The swift response of advertisers became the focal point of stories in publications like The New York Times and Adweek. The combination of scathing reviews, public protest, and advertisers jumping ship proved to be a PR nightmare for NBC. The situation could have turned out better had NBC approached things a little differently:
  • Take us seriously. Forget the stereotypical view of activists you may have. Advocacy groups are more professional and savvy than you think. Being dismissive, reactionary, or confrontational only makes matters worse. Most often, our interest is in dialogue or helping ourselves make informed decisions on how to react to situations that concern us.
  • Educate yourself. We do our homework before we respond to any media issue. Find out something about the group you are dealing with before you react to their concerns. Some groups are certainly more confrontational than others, but usually it is because they are led there after trying to work amicably with the company that concerns them.
  • Remember advocacy groups are accountable to their constituents. We have the obligation to speak publicly about our work. If you box advocacy groups into a corner without agreeing to some mutually beneficial "on-the- record" comments, it makes it very difficult to have meetings or work together effectively. Following these suggestions can help any company avoid losing a major PR battle. I hope NBC, and others who may find themselves in a similar situation, will learn from the experience. As of this week, Savage Nation is back on the air following its war-related preemption, but its ratings slide continues. It is also still failing to secure any substantive advertisers, and it is clearly avoiding any interaction with callers who disagree with Savage on the many issues that have been brought up by concerned activists. Stay tuned.
  • Cathy Renna is the news media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), based in New York.

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