By Charles Hayslett
CEO, Hayslett Group
There are a handful of basic rules in PR. One is that if you find yourself in a hole, you should put down the shovel and stop digging. Another is that it rarely pays to pick a fight with folks who buy ink by the barrel. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and his team violated both of those maxims (and others) in truly spectacular fashion this week when they went nuclear over a piece earlier this week by Atlanta Journal-Constitution “At Large” columnist Bill Torpy.
As Torpy tells it, he set out to do a feel-good feature on the three Atlanta firemen who saved three children in a house fire a couple of weeks ago. The firemen were willing to do the interviews but said Torpy needed to get a green light first from their fire department bosses, who, for some reason, kicked it upstairs to City Hall. Which said no. “Sorry,” a City Hall flack told Torpy. “Can’t make it happen.”
Who knows what (or even if) the political and media types at City Hall were thinking, but this goes in the books as Major Blunder No. 1 in this unhappy saga. It deprived Torpy of an easy thumb-sucker and, more bafflingly, left him to his own imagination and devices. This is never a good thing to do with reporters, especially when they’ve got a deadline to meet and a news hole to fill.
If you’ve got an opportunity to work with a journalist on a story – even one you’re suspicious of – nine times out of ten you should take it, even if you know the story’s not going to go entirely your way. By stiff-arming Torpy, the deep thinkers at City Hall sacrificed any opportunity they might have had to shape and influence the story (if, that is, they really thought Torpy had ulterior motives and was planning a hit job instead of a puff piece).
Major Blunder No. 2 was the City Hall response. Or maybe I should call it a pre-sponse. Torpy’s column went online Wednesday morning, September 30th, but it didn’t hit the print edition of the AJC until Thursday, October 1st. At 3 p.m. Wednesday, Mayor Reed’s communications director, Anne Torres, went up on the city’s website with an angry 1,108-word rebuttal to Torpy’s 1,039-word column that addressed just about everything except why they wouldn’t let Torpy interview the firemen.
She took a swing at that by pointing out the firemen had been made available for gang interviews at a City Hall press conference a couple of weeks ago, but, sorry, that ain’t the same thing.
In any event, the principal impact of the city’s response was to call even more attention than usual to Torpy’s column, and most likely nobody was happier to see it than Torpy and his colleagues at the AJC. The paper’s managing editor, Bert Roughton, posted the diatribe to his personal Facebook page 39 minutes after it hit the City Hall website. I saw the City Hall response before I saw Torpy’s column; in fact, there’s a good chance I would have missed Torpy’s column altogether but for the fact that the city’s response sparked a bit of social media buzz.
A third rule of PR ignored by Mayor Reed and his team is a relatively new one. These days, you can and often should ignore bad press, especially if it’s a first shot or a glancing blow. That hasn’t always been the case. A decade and more ago, a bad front-page or section-front piece could make life miserable for a while.
But today, that’s not really true – or at least not as true as it used to be. Media and public attention can now be measured in nanoseconds, and memories get shorter every day. Today’s kerfuffle is gone tomorrow, thanks to a diminished mass media and an exploding social media universe that overwhelms us all with information. Ignore Torpy’s column and odds are it’s forgotten in less than a news cycle.
Instead, City Hall itself guaranteed this story a bigger audience and at least an extra day or two of life. They’ve also granted Torpy a virtual carte blanche to return to the subject pretty much anytime he likes. My hunch is he will.
At the risk of overworking an obvious metaphor, Mayor Reed and his team started this fire, dumped gallons of fuel on it, and then hurled themselves into the middle of it. It’ll be interesting to see how they put it out.