Seven PR Lessons from O’Reillygate

Norman-Birnbach-headshotBy Norman Birnbach, Birnbach Communications

The recent credibility scandals of Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly are shocking and fascinating. But for PR and marketing professionals, there’s a lot that can be instructive.

Bill-O'Reilly

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • There’s no statute of limitations when it comes to the truth. Both scandals stem from incidents that took place between 12 and 33 years ago — long enough ago that it might seem the truth is no longer relevant. It matters if only because both Williams and O’Reilly retold their embellished Iraq and Falkland war stories several times within recent few years.
    • PR pros should keep in mind that a crisis could originate years before an executive joined an organization.
  • There at least two ways to handle a scandal: 1) Issue an apology, conduct an investigation, and hold someone accountable or 2) Conduct a scorched-earth approach of attacking your critics and their character. NBC followed the first approach, O’Reilly and Fox, the second. Both can claim the victory of a post-scandal ratings boost.
    • Since no laws were broken, for PR professionals, the right approach depends, to some extent, on your brand and your audience. NBC suspended Williams to hold him accountable and protect its credibility — whereas had he apologized, O’Reilly would have greatly harmed his brand and his connection to his audience. In fact, keeping the controversy alive may actually strengthen the O’Reilly brand, ratings and value.
  • If you decide to fight the scandal and your critics, don’t wait for the facts to start making your argument.  O’Reilly started attacking his critics well before he had time to assemble his facts. By doing so, he was able to frame the narrative to focus on the credibility of Mother Jonesand the other reporters who subsequently came forward in support of Mother Jones — instead of his own credibility — while keeping others off-balanced through intimidation and threats.
    • This is a case of “don’t try this at home, kids.” His scorched-earth approach is working for O’Reilly but he has a nightly bully pulpit, and you don’t. That said, framing the narrative is an important element of crisis communications, and can be done without resorting to oppositional research.
  • By commenting on his show and in other outlets, O’Reilly is able to keep the attention where he wants it: on him aggressively attacking his critics. During a crisis, most organizations try to avoid speaking to the media. Not O’Reilly. He’s not hiding. He’s arguing his case on his program and many other outlets, providing new statements almost daily since the Mother Jones article hit. The resulting coverage has focused on O’Reilly’s eagerness to attack, which is a win for O’Reilly because it deflects attention (from questions regarding the credibility of his reporting) while showcasing O’Reilly brand’s combativeness.
    • Most organizations should not follow the O’Reilly playbook of attacking and intimidating reporters. But it can be a mistake to go silent, too, which lets the media spend endless cycle time speculating. For example, the NFL went silent during most of the intensive Deflategate speculation, and lost control of the narrative to the extent that the NFL lost credibility.
  • There is a distinction being made between journalist and pundit.The line between fact and opinion can be very blurry – but in the case of Williams and O’Reilly, the demarcation is widely recognized, and O’Reilly benefits from lowered expectations for pundits. (What’s being overlooked is that the questions about his accuracy stem from when O’Reilly was a reporter.
    • This blurred line between fact and opinion is important to keep in mind when your client or CEO asks you to respond to an inaccurate opinion article. It’s almost impossible to get an opinion writer to apologize.
  • Despite the media’s tendency to attach the word “gate” to every scandal, the media this time is not referring to it as “Williamsgate,” “O’Reillygate” or even “Truthgate.”This is far from the most important element but it speaks to the fact that some crises follow a certain pattern while others will go in a different direction from the crisis plan you assembled.
    • Good plans address likely scenarios and then also figure a way to address unlikely crises that may still occur.
  • Truth is not always quantifiable and what’s at stake depends on your value system. Just as some people see that dress as black and blue while others insist it’s white and gold, there are two camps when here: Those who say the truth matters (and invariably cite a spinning-in-his-grave Walter Cronkite) and those freedom of speech is more important. Where you fall has quickly become another political polarizing question.
    • For PR pros, it’s important to understand which stakeholders are important and what their perspective is – is an important element in determining the path you should take.

Despite all the acrimony from both side, there is one thing both O’Reilly and his detractors probably agree on — these lessons are irrelevant to them. But understanding them — like starting the vetting process to cover years before an executive joined the organization — may enable a PR function to better weather a future crisis.

 About the Author: Norman Birnbach, an award-winning public relations executive, is the president of Birnbach Communications, a Boston-based PR and social media agency. He writes on a broad range of topics and tweets at @NormanBirnbach. He can be reached at nbirnbach@birnbachcom.com   

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