Sometimes a corporate brand needs to retreat in order to preserve its integrity. A major TV network may be learning this the hard way.
When NBC News received a package of videos, photos, and text from Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman, network executives faced enormously difficult decisions. (See Media Analysis, link below.) They got things partly right.
The subsequent fury from some critics, who insisted that none of this psychopath's ravings should have reached the public's eyes and ears, was understandable. Still, the network's choices about what to broadcast were at least defensible, as was the decision to show these excerpts in the first place.
But in the end, NBC did something that may rank as one of the most inept marketing moves of recent times. It insisted on emblazoning the NBC News logo on everything it put out on the air and on the Internet.
Oddly, some executives from other networks were "clearly irritated," The New York Times reported, that when they broadcast the material, they had to also carry their rival's logo.
They should have been quietly relieved, not angry. Why? Because NBC had loudly tied its brand to a psychopath. At least one employee at an NBC competitor understood this. According to the Times, Paul Friedman, VP at CBS News, said, "It may backfire for them to be so closely associated with footage that makes people's flesh crawl."
Second-guessing on all of this is easy, of course. At the time, the people making these choices faced incredible pressure.
But I find myself wondering, given that the marketing urge surfaced so thoroughly when it came time to broadcast the material, whether anyone with the slightest understanding of PR had even a tiny bit of input. I suspect not and that the competitive urge inside NBC News was to seem to rub competitors' noses in a scoop and ensure that the public would know which news organization had come up with this multimedia glimpse into a madman's mind.
What an error, if so. People will only remember the NBC exclusive because of the controversy the images engendered. They'll know that the scoop derived from a perverse gift, from a murderer who, for reasons he took to his grave, chose NBC as his preferred channel.
They will certainly recall, somewhere in the back of their minds, that NBC logo - a link to slaughter, in service of ratings. For journalism, yes, but also for money.
I've come to believe that NBC should have released everything it received, but put it on the Web and not on its broadcasts, shorn of the logo and available for anyone in or out of professional journalism to use in any way. There would still be an outcry, no doubt, but NBC would have been able to make the case that it was being responsible, not crassly commercial.
This reminds us of the value of planning ahead. You can't plan for everything. But a brand is a precious asset, too easily damaged by incautious decisions.
Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grass-roots Journalism By the People, For the People. He's also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).