Posted by Phil Hall
Thou Shalt Recall the Golden Wisdom of Ricky Nelson
Years ago, I co-wrote a musical that was staged by a small theater company in Atlanta. I was living in New York City at the time and was not able to attend the opening night performance. Since I was not present for the premiere, I didn’t get to see the reviews for the show in the Atlanta newspapers.
However, my collaborator in the show (who lived in Atlanta) curiously avoided my repeated inquiries on the show’s reviews. Even when I finally arrived in Atlanta to see the production, I was not given the actual reviews – I was just told they weren’t positive.
When I finally tracked the reviews down, I could see why my collaborator was nervous about sharing them: they were terrible. Actually, they were beyond terrible. And as luck would have it, my contributions were singled out for critical roasting.
In retrospect, the best laugh I had in my life came in reading those dismal reviews of my first (and, to date, only) attempt at theatrical greatness. I didn’t care what the critics had to say, because I was happy with the production.
Ricky Nelson said it best in his tune “Garden Party”: You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself. I genuinely wish more people in the PR realm took that attitude when it comes to negative press coverage. After all, ya can’t please everyone, so why waste your time trying?
Let’s pause for a minute to differentiate between negative press attention and inaccurate or even libelous coverage. Media reports that are blatantly incorrect must be addressed with all due speed. The failure to respond to the distortion of the facts, either accidental or intentional, shows someone is asleep at the PR wheel – and the results of such inaction can be lethal. John Kerry learned this the hard way in the 2004 presidential campaign when the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth maligned his Vietnam War military record.
And if there is a genuine PR emergency at hand, address it head-on without trying to spin or obfuscate the facts. There is a huge difference between negative press coverage and honest press coverage of a damaging crisis.
But when people (either at the individual level or the corporate level) decide to confront their critics directly, they often wind up with self-inflicted headaches. A case in point, from a reputation management platform, occurred earlier this month regarding two conservatives, Ann Coulter and Matt Sanchez, who shared a stage at a recent Washington event.
By now, everyone knows what happened with Coulter when she tried to lampoon John Edwards with the word “faggot,” but the story of Sanchez is actually more unusual. He’s a Marine Corps reservist and a student at Columbia University and he was at the event to win some sort of award. However, some bloggers watching this event recognized Sanchez as being “Rod Majors” from a series of gay porn videos produced in the 1990s. Obviously, having the former star of gay porn receiving adulation from a conservative gathering created more than a little surprise.
After this event, Coulter and Sanchez took a lot of heat from their very vocal critics, albeit for different reasons. But they responded differently. Coulter refused to apologize for her actions and even joked about it on her web site, but made no further public comment. Sanchez (who, admittedly, is not at the same level of experience in the right wing political hemisphere as Coulter) confronted his critics by writing an Op-Ed piece for Salon and conducting several e-mail interviews with the gay-oriented blogs that were abuzz with the seeming disconnect between his past and present careers (he also did interviews with some sympathetic right wing talk shows).
In my opinion, I think Coulter handled the situation better by brushing off the criticism of her comments and not commenting further. In the short term, her “faggot” speech hurt her somewhat (several newspapers already dropped her column), but it did not and probably will not derail her career. Coulter is shrewd enough to recall the Ricky Nelson tune mentioned earlier, and thus she is letting her critics boil over without any overt signs of concern. Come back to Coulter in a month and the incident will be a dim, dismal memory. Come back next year and Coulter will be weighing in on the presidential campaign as if none of this brouhaha ever happened.
Sanchez, I believe, goofed badly in trying to explain himself to his liberal critics via Salon. His Op-Ed piece generated over 400 responses from readers, nearly all of them hostile (and many of them rather nasty). The more polite reader responses questioned the coherence of Sanchez’s article (many couldn’t understand how he equated pornography with liberal politics) and criticized the self-promotional nature of his piece. (You can read the column here.) Sanchez faired somewhat better in the gay blog interviews, but he failed to turn the tide of opinion in that (admittedly niche) orbit – and for someone seeking a career in right wing politics, the gay blogs are the wrong fields to harvest.
This is not to say that you should always ignore negative press coverage. In PR, as in fashion, there’s no one-size-fits-all – each situation is different and requires its own strategy. But more often than note, time and resources are wasted trying to influence people who’ll never give you a smidgen of praise (that’s a situation Wal-Mart never quite figured out).
Ultimately, no one is capable of winning unanimous cheers. And, yes, no one enjoys receiving bad press. But it happens. Sometimes you have to accept it, laugh it off as one of life’s less-welcome happenings, and continue with the work you are doing. After all, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book "The New PR" will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)
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