Just Say No

I don’t plan to read Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff any time soon. (To confess, Jonathan Eig’s bio of Muhammad Ali is my current sustenance.)

Yes, Wolff’s content, and his uncommitted relationship with accuracy, has caused its own firestorm. For me, however, the lessons to be learned are in public relations, not narrative pseudo-journalism.

Mistake #1: Wolff’s White House access, which created much of the book’s tastiest morsels, seems to be the result of organizational chaos (the Trump White House’s sustenance). With no clear permission or denial, and a vague endorsement from Trump, Wolff was granted access to observe, while Bannon assumed Priebus approved, while Priebus assumed Kushner … , etc.

A clear center of decision-making authority in these access requests, though an impossibility in the Trump White House, is the remedy.

While it’s disturbing to consider that these political professionals were more concerned with their own survival than the President or the country, such is the amoral worst of high-level politics.

It should not be accepted as reasonable, professional behavior, regardless of how close to the apex of political power it occurs.

Mistake #2: A peremptory Internet search would have alerted Trump’s White House staff that Wolff was not a good fly-on-the-wall candidate.  His take-down pieces on everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Christopher Hitchens were there for the Googling.

In 1990, I was director of public information for Azusa Pacific University. A local news radio personality asked if we were interested in hosting a discussion of Malathion, a controversial insecticide being sprayed to control an invasion of Mediterranean fruit flies. Sounded good, so I agreed.

The personality, it turned out, was shock jock Tom Leykis, at his last stop before nationwide syndication. I should have known better, but I didn’t.

Alerted by a frantic APU alum, I turned on Leykis to hear him announce the anti-Malathion rally at Azusa Pacific, timed for an actual spraying. Attendees would stand in the open and dare the helicopters to spray them. Standard academic discourse.

After I canceled the “rally,” Leykis characterized my reversal as a weak-spined concession to alumni pressure. I suppose that was charitable, considering the real reason was my inept unprofessional stupidity.

In the same way, allowing an author like Wolff such access is a doubly-incompetent media relations breakdown by the White House, thus creating an avoidable public image crisis.

My master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton is in public relations, particularly agenda building in the media, and many of my students are public relations majors. I try to pass along advice to them from my experience and studies, while teaching them their required journalism courses.

The best advice I give them overall is, “just say no.” They don’t have to do journalists’ jobs for them (echoing journalists’ complaint that they don’t do law enforcement’s work for them, either). PR folks don’t have to allow journalists access to private property, even if a crime is being investigated. And they certainly don’t have to give a best-selling author access to secure government offices, due diligent Googling or not.

Sure, overall, they will do their organizations wisely by counseling access at appropriate times and not locking down the media 100 percent. It’s a tough balance to work out, but it’s possible.

Their main responsibility is to their organization, however, and an automatic “yes” to media access can cause much more damage than an initial “no”–as the Bannon-Priebus-Kushner brain trust demonstrated in creating this Fire and Fury.


The Pre-Main Event at Mayweather-Pacquiao? Media vs. PR

Even before the undercard had started at the “Fight of the Century,” a nasty dispute ensued, with Rachel Nichols of CNN and Michelle Beadle of ESPN squaring off against the Mayweather camp, particularly his publicist, Kelly Swanson.

The basics were that Nichols and Beadle said they were told they had been denied credentials.  Amidst the outrage that ensued, Swanson emerged claiming that they had indeed been issued credentials and that their claims to the contrary were false.

You can get details on the actual conflict in this account by Richard Deitsch of SI.com.  But let’s also think about what this tells us about the professional practice of public relations — as demonstrated by Swanson and, in contrast, how it should be done.

Although she is considered one of the most powerful people in boxing, male or female, most non-boxing fans would not be familiar with her.  This profile from the Buffalo News might have given journalists more hope about how she would have handled the situation with Nichols and Beadle.

Conflict and Credibility

At one point, the conflict was a debate between Nichols and Swanson about whether indeed Nichols’ credential had been pulled.  Swanson claimed otherwise, as this transcript from a USA Today interview shows (apologies for the muddy screen capture):

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But Nichols brings some credibility to the table on this.  Many in the audience — and I daresay most in the profession — would be inclined to accept Nichols’ version of events.

If the person involved were Geraldo Rivera or Clay Travis, then of course their claims would be greeted with some skepticism, given their reputation for self-serving promotional scams.  But Nichols has earned more respect than that.

Some PR folks also have a reputation for credibility, maintained under fire.  One close-to-home example is Kirk Sampson, long-time SID at Auburn.  Even during the height of the flames in the Cam Newton controversy during the 2010 season, Sampson cemented his reputation for respectful, ethical professional behavior, as this Deadspin report pointed out.

Some reporters were as skeptical toward Auburn as Nichols and others were toward Mayweather’s treatment of women.  But Sampson maintained a level head and afforded courteous treatment to all requests.

Entertainer or Journalist?

It was a side issue, but some wondered whether Beadle deserved the same treatment as Nichols, because Beadle has a different reputation within the media.

But that is another mark of a professional public relations practitioner — equal respectful treatment of all in the media.  You might not have enough seats on press row for everyone, but you have an unlimited amount of respect and courtesy to show each media member.

In this case, it is a false distinction to think that Beadle should be accorded less courtesy than Nichols because Beadle is a host of an ESPN2 program rather than a reporter for CNN.  Given the available facilities, Beadle deserved better treatment.

Of course there is going to be a “pecking order” for media attention; sports figures have only so much time available for the media, especially during the season.  But the most respected media relations folks do everything they can even for smaller media outlets.  It gets tricky with the emergence of blogs and podcasts, requiring even more media savvy by the public relations folks.  But they understand that as part of their job.

Never Lie for a Client

The above Buffalo News feature notwithstanding, Swanson definitely lost credibility.  Her account, as described above, simply does not ring true.  At once, she acknowledges that Nichols got bad information, then seems to discount its importance.

It would be more appropriate for Swanson to acknowledge the misunderstanding or miscommunication, and then to go the extra mile to make sure Nichols and Beadle were accommodated.  It might have taken some phone calls and direct contact from Swanson to Nichols and Beadle, but it was her office that had created the confusion, so it was her responsibility to clear it up directly — not through Twitter or the media.

But for Swanson to claim that Nichols was always credentialed implies that Nichols was not telling the truth.  It’s difficult to imagine Nichols’ motives for lying.  She had more to gain by being at the fight as a credentialed journalist than leaving, indignant and jilted.

Given that Mayweather and Swanson were not pleased with Nichols’ grilling of the fighter during an earlier interview, the situation came off as payback, draining believability from Swanson’s explanation even further.

My master’s degree was in public relations, and my last job before I started teaching was as a public relations director for Azusa Pacific University, a private liberal arts university in Southern California, in the early 1990s.

My policy was always that I would never lie.  As the person who submitted the statistics for the U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings, I never “cooked” the numbers.

It’s not a PR professional’s role to do the media’s newsgathering work for them, either.  When seven APU students were diagnosed with hepatitis, I did not contact the media to announce it.  At the same time, our office had everything in place so that when the first journalist contacted us (thank goodness none ever did), we were ready with full disclosure — a release and fact sheet, the dean of students as chief spokesperson.  We were not going to lie about it.

It’s one thing to keep internal information private, another to intentionally mislead, as Swanson seemed to do in her explanation.

No doubt Swanson is well paid for her work with Mayweather, and some superstar athletes might consider the truth to be theirs to call for their public relations folks.  But Swanson’s credibility is hers to maintain, and any public relations professional must determine with his or her perceived honesty is up for bid.

No doubt some athletes would be relieved that their publicist would go to such lengths to keep them from unpleasant questions.  If she’s looking to expand, Swanson will gain well-paying clients, impressed at her willingness to take on reporters like Nichols.

But at what price?