Monday, August 02, 2004

Pro-Action - In Politics (and Business)

Ned Barnett

(c) 2004

When it comes to public relations, there are often two competing needs. In one, you want to "get the word out" - to the right audiences, generally as quickly and completely as possible. But for the other, you want to stop "the word" from getting out - generally because of a concern of negative backlash from the release of that news.

From a human perspective, that second need is understandable; but from a PR perspective, it's almost always a bad idea. In our open society - made far more open by the Internet (including Blogs such as this) - it's almost impossible to keep a secret. So instead of trying to keep "the word" from getting out, often the correct PR answer is to manage the way that this "word" gets out. To get it out pro-actively, rather than responding to the news once somebody else "leaks" it. In today's society, trying to stifle the news can only lead to others putting that word out, generally in a context that's less favorable than you'd use yourself.

Sometimes, timing can be an issue. For example, some years ago I was working with a county hospital that - in an extremely competitive labor market - was faced with the need to significantly raise wages. This would, in turn, lead to a rise in rates - something that was sure to play less than enthusiastically among the county's budget-conscious voters. There was a natural desire - among the hospital's executives - to wait until the last minute, hoping this situation would just "work out" - but as the hospital's PR consultant, I didn't think that was a sound long-term PR strategy.

So I proposed an alternative, and it worked.

In March, we announced - as a routine item at the monthly board meeting (covered by the press) - that if the competitive labor market situation didn't change, the hospital would be required to implement the wage increase the following October - six months in the future. The media noted this, but did not think such a long-term measure was particularly newsworthy.

Then, at the October board meeting, we announced that - as we'd said the previous March - stiff competition for key personnel (registered nurses, primarily) had forced the hospital to implement the previously proposed wage increase. The media remembered that we had, in fact, announced this increase six months previously, and decided that this was "old news," not really worth covering in depth.

So, instead of a problem - one that could have become a crisis in this politically contentious county - the necessary wage increase was implemented, in full public view, with only minimal public comment. In both March - and again in October - the wage increase was mentioned, but well down in the routine press reports of the monthly board meetings. In neither case, did the press highlight it, and in neither case did the public raise any objection. The legal and moral requirements of running an open operation at a publicly-owned institution were met, in full, but in a way that strongly limited the potential for public criticism of an action the board felt was fully justifiable.

This same principle has been followed many times - by my clients and by the clients of hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of other PR professionals who understand the value of taking the sting out of "breaking news" by acting pro-actively.

Which leads us to politics, today.

There is a ticking PR time bomb out there - right now - facing one of the two Presidential candidates. If I was consulting with that campaign, I'd advise a swift and pro-active de-fusing of this time bomb, following the pattern noted above.

Here's the background: A week or so ago (as I write this), following a request of the Tribune Media Company, a state judge in Los Angeles ordered the release of previously sealed divorce records of a man running for the US Senate from Illinois (who had been divorced about four years earlier, in California). That the judge was appointed by a Democrat and that the candidate was a Republican may or may not have had anything to do with the decision - it really doesn't matter. What does matter is that judge created a persuasive legal precedent - the public's right to know now "officially" trumps any private reason for a political candidate to keep his or her divorce records sealed.

This state judge's action could now have profound impact on Presidential candidate John Kerry, who's own 1988 divorce records have been similarly sealed. The ruling becomes more relevant because the Tribune Media Company also owns a media outlet in Boston, where the Kerry divorce was finalized. There is current public and media discussion about the potential of a similar media request (from the Trib or other media organizations) seeking to force the release of Senator Kerry's divorce records. Not surprisingly, spokespersons for the Kerry campaign are arguing against any such release, while Republicans are pointing out that this is a media issue (not something they are doing).

Adding to this context, the campaign has already been fighting to keep another generally private record just that - private. Specifically, the Senator's wife has declined to release her own (filed separately) IRS tax records - something that no other spouse of a Presidential-level candidate has ever successfully done. Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro's husband did try to keep his records private, back in 1984, but intense media and public pressure finally forced the release of these records - which showed nothing of any consequence.

As a general rule, I personally and strongly support the rights of free citizens to keep their personal business private. However, when a person offers for election - especially for the Presidency - that claim of privacy seldom stands for long. The public (or at least the media, acting for the public) demands full and open disclosure, and when candidates resist this pressure, they face a negative and repetitive news story that just won't go away.

That is why I would counsel Senator Kerry to pro-actively go public with those divorce records. Chances are there is nothing in the divorce records that would cause more than a ripple of interest - after all, the ex-Mrs. Kerry wrote a tell-all book back in 1996 - and that book didn't actually tell very much, beyond the fact that it's hard for someone suffering from clinical depression to be the wife of an ambitious politician.

That "revelation" is hardly a secret, or a surprise.

At the same time, I would suggest that the current Mrs. Kerry release her tax records - records that have certainly been carefully completed by some of the most astute CPAs in the country, and which therefore certainly contains nothing illegal - and chances are, nothing particularly embarrassing. After all, the current Mrs. Kerry has been the wife of two United States Senators (Senator Heinz died in a tragic plane crash quite a few years before she married Senator Kerry) - she's lived a very public life for more than two decades, and in that kind of fish-bowl life, it is extremely unlikely that she's done anything likely to be problematic. The public already knows she's a billionaire - which is no crime - and I frankly can't imagine anything else in those records that could cause much of a problem.

By going pro-active and releasing all this information, all at once, the Kerry campaign would take a pair of probably pointless stories that are nonetheless sure to nag them every week or two from now until the election - and convert them into a single story that would run a news cycle or two, then disappear forever. If they released this news now, before the upcoming Democratic Party Convention, the story would have already disappeared by that time - well before most undecided American voters begin to make their who-to-vote-for decision.

Just as in my client hospital's experience, something that could have become a serious problem would, instead, disappear from view.

Bottom line: making potentially controversial news stories "go away" - not by covering them up, but by releasing them at the right time and in the right context - is one of the most important (but one of the most mis-understood) roles of professional public relations.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.