Behind Ann Curry’s Ouster: Breaking It to Them Gently – The Benefits of the Trickle Effect
By Adele Cehrs, President, Epic PR Group
Previous attempts to oust popular day-time television personalities ended in disaster for 30 Rock. Not only did the network’s reputation suffer as a result of these botched firings, ratings plummeted and network executives were vilified in the court of public opinion. From Katie Couric to Conan O’Brien, NBC has never fared well in its approach to dismissing an anchor due to poor ratings; that is, until Ann Curry’s recent dismissal (here’s a behind-the-scenes recap from Forbes).
For 15 years, Ann Curry was a familiar and sympathetic face for thousands of Americans sipping their morning coffee as they got ready for work each day. The network knew a sudden unannounced departure of Curry would have been unsettling and even unacceptable for many viewers. That’s why NBC attempted to ease viewers into the newest Today Show host transition, by making a series of digestible, well-timed press announcements about the unpleasant situation.
NBC made the news regarding Curry’s removal work to its benefit by using the trickle effect. The trickle effect is a strategy in which information is released in small doses over time to reduce the overall backlash of a negative announcement. While sudden as it may have seemed to the general public, Curry’s fall from glory took place over several months and consisted of a series of strategic leaks and positioning strategies including:
- February/March: The Today Show’s staff members publicly placed the blame for falling ratings on Curry. Talk about her removal began circulating via social media. While NBC did not publicly comment, executives did nothing to squelch the rumors.
- In early April, the reports about Curry’s release started heating up as Good Morning America replaced Today as the number one morning talk show. The story jumped from social media to mainstream publications and news outlets.
- Late May/June: NBC insiders reportedly disclosed information to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Daily News, which said that Curry was being “forced out.” Additional leaks by the network indicated that Matt Lauer had allegedly renegotiated his contract with a clause that stipulated he would leave the show if Curry wasn’t removed.
- June: To build anticipation and speculation, NBC said they planned to pay Curry $10 million to leave the show, but failed to mention who would replace her coveted spot.
- July: NBC wasted no time with sentimental goodbyes and quickly exited Curry off the set, so viewers could begin bond and accept new co-host, Savannah Guthrie. Curry was given four minutes and twenty three seconds to say goodbye, while her predecessor, Meredith Vieira, was given a staggering two hour sign-off.
Many have criticized NBC for how it handled the Ann Curry situation, but there is no question that the consumer outcry could have been a lot worse if the information about her alleged firing was communicated with one shocking announcement. By slowly spoon-feeding the information to the public through various media channels, consumers were better able to digest the news when it was official, thereby tempering reactions.
While most companies are employing PR and social media strategies that give consumers a larger role in branding adjustments, product changes, and messaging, unpopular decisions still must be made. This type of slow-release strategy allows companies to disseminate information in a way that doesn’t cause a sudden uproar. Needless to say, this classic PR maneuver should be a tool in every crisis arsenal.
Key takeaways for employing the trickle effect strategy include:
- Timing is everything. Carefully consider all news elements that may impact consumer perceptions regarding an announcement. Accurately calculating consumer sentiment via social and traditional media is paramount to implementing an effective trickle strategy. Be sure to research how consumers have recently reacted to similar situations and use that as a gauge.
- Understand how the public will perceive your announcement and address the public’s concerns upfront. In Ann Curry’s case, viewers would have found NBC’s treatment of her unconscionable if the network did not find her a job within the NBC family and provide her a substantial severance package.
- Use “on background” and “off the record” with trusted media contacts and build relationships prior to a crisis. The worst time to test a journalist’s integrity is during a crisis.
- Think about how a major announcement or a significant branding shift will impact a consumer’s everyday life. While viewers will need to adjust to a new anchor on the Today Show, Curry’s leaving doesn’t personally impact them, and is therefore easier for them to accept.
While GMA may have won the recent ratings battle, it seems like NBC is preparing to win the PR war. What’s your take?
For more information on training, please contact Adele Cehrs president of Epic PR Group at email@example.com or by phone at 703-299-3404.