Sensitivity Training: Keeping Yourself out of the News

October 16, 2014

The chairman put it this way: “The goal of a PR agency is to get your client on the front page and keep yourself off of it. If an agency becomes the story, it’s usually not good.”

The speaker was George Hammond of Carl Byoir & Associates. I had recently left the broadcast news field to join his highly respected PR firm, and he was briefing me in his office in New York. Even though these words were spoken to me 30 years ago, they ring just as true today as they did then.

Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR agency, recently learned that lesson the hard way. The Chicago-based firm had a serious lapse in judgment, which triggered a barrage of negative publicity and criticism in social media, professional journals, and such mainstream outlets as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The problem was a blog post on the Edelman website titled “Carpe Diem,” which was written by Lisa Kovitz, an executive vice president, the day after the suicide of actor Robin Williams this past August. Kovitz called his death “a carpe diem moment . . . an opportunity to engage in a national conversation on depression.” She assumed that depression was the cause of the suicide, a fact that had not yet been established. And she chastised mental health organizations that did not immediately grab the opportunity to get people on television talking about suicide prevention.

To make matters worse, she appeared to be promoting her agency with the line, “At Edelman, we are in the business of helping our clients create or join public conversations.”

“Carpe Diem” was a particularly unfortunate title and theme choice since it was the gospel that Robin Williams preached to his private school students in the movie “Dead Poets Society.” Edelman subsequently posted an apology on its website.

The online reaction of PR professionals was immediate  with comments such as “This isn’t a PR opportunity; it’s someone’s life lost” and “A prime example of why public relations professionals are held in such low esteem.”

Others — far fewer in number — disagreed, however, with comments like “There is no harm or ethical breach in using a tragedy to get out an important message” and “Thank you for the courage to make the point. You saved lives and that clearly was the intent.”

Finding balance

A key role in public relations is to stay on top of current events and find opportunities for your clients. Leading PR professionals also sometimes speak out on public issues, which is constructive if they have insight into, and knowledge about, the situation. 

But where is the line between public service and exploitation in the aftermath of a tragedy? Here are some guidelines.

• Timing: This is a critical factor.  The days following Williams’ death were a time for tributes and sympathy, not promotion of an agenda, regardless of how well intended.

• Content: Any hint of self-promotion is unacceptable. 

• Motivation: Eliminate any references that people could construe as self-serving.

• Transparency: Disclose any relevant client relationships or, if there are none, then say so.

• Editing: A hard-nosed editor should examine any copy on a sensitive issue before an organization releases or posts it.

• Sensitivity: Every organization should use this and similar examples to raise the sensitivity of anyone who is producing material for the public.

While it will come as little consolation to Edelman, its faux pas was not the worst of recent months. A gross breach of taste and judgment came from the National Rifle Association in late August, after a 9-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed her instructor with an Uzi submachine gun at a firing range in Arizona.

Two days later, the gun lobby posted a link from its NRA Women division directing readers to an article in the magazine Women’s Outdoor News. The title: “7 Ways Children Can Have Fun at the Shooting Range.” 

Weeks later, the link was still up.


Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email:


Jill Center says:

Good advice from a seasoned hand. You would think this need not be said, and yet: When this Edelman story first broke, the lack of human sensitivity was almost as gasp-worthy as the deficiency in professional judgment. In addition to using this as an internal teachable moment, Edelman might consider offering its public awareness services to nonprofits laboring in the mental health field with too little money for their mission. And, doing so discreetly. Nonprofits know well how to thank their volunteers when appropriate. From San Francisco, where Robin Williams was a beloved neighbor.

Oct. 27, 2014

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