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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

When Somebody Throws A Stone…Just Add Cement

Being the bully of the fourth estate and the self proclaimed satirical watch dog whose sole mission seems to be keeping the media honest, it’s almost a given that they’re going to come gunning for you when the opportunity presents itself. At the very minimum, certain media outlets might pile on when a negative story surfaces.

So it was no surprise that when a negative story about alleged sexist behavior at “The Daily Show” broke, media outlets across the spectrum seem to take glee in reporting the story about Jon Stewart and his alleged “all boys club.” Yup, he got the “business” from some of the very media outlets he comically skewered on a daily basis.

Before I get into some of the details of the Daily Show’s negative publicity or how the show responded, I want to touch on this thing called Reputation and/or Brand Management. Outside of being a buzz word for PR pros looking to carve out a niche for themselves or a jargony phrase to impress prospective clients, Reputation Management is actually a very useful proactive and defensive public relations practice. According to most formal definitions, it is described as a specialty that focuses on managing brand, product, or personal perceptions through an active, near real-time program of conscious engagement.

While many PR pros like to confine Reputation Management to the online world, I also like to extend it to the offline one. If someone says something damaging about you or your organization on air or someone repeats a false rumor during a broadcast, sometimes it’s best to address it head-on before fiction becomes fact or perception becomes reality.

A good example of proactive Reputation Management would be Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker taking on multiple late night talk show hosts by challenging their assertion that his city was a crime ridden cesspool. Booker did it in such a personable and intelligent way that the jokes subsided and people slowly began to buy into his narrative that Newark might just be a good place to live. Not addressing the chatter would have allowed Newark to be defined by others.

This brings me back to the Daily Show. For reasons unknown a very popular pro-woman blog (some would call it a feminist site) decided to do an expos√© on The Daily Show’s hiring practices and treatment when it came to women. According to the blog, “The Daily Show's environment was such that many women felt marginalized.”

The blog post would go on to accuse Stewart himself of being dismissive of women colleagues. However thoughtful it was intended to be, the one thing missing from this dissection of the Daily Show was comment from the Daily Show. So I ask the question, “If a tree falls on the internet, will anybody hear it?” Yes!

Due to the blog’s popularity and its motivated following, the story took off and began to spread. You can read some of the coverage here, here and here. Whether or not the coverage of the story was fair, I’ll leave that up to the readers and viewers [editor's note: I’m a die-hard fan of the Daily Show, who secretly desires to write for the show]. Should the story have been covered in the first place – yes, because it’s newsworthy. But as a PR professional I became more interested in the show’s response to this form of crisis situation and how it faired in managing the reputation of the brand. Here’s the tale of the tape:

6/23/10 – Negative blog post is published

6/24/10 – Stories about negative blog post begin to break

6/29/10 – Stewart references the blog post on his show

7/6/10 – The Daily Show comes out with guns blazing in response

In the hood, there’s a saying that the response is never fast enough to “shots fired!” While I commend the Daily Show for addressing the accusation, I have to give them low marks on response time. While two weeks may not seem like an eternity, it was more than enough time for this story to take root and blossom to the point that it warranted some sort of formal response. And respond is exactly what the Daily Show did!

To dispel the rumors of sexism and the environment being an all boys club, the show gathered all of its female staffers, who account for 40 percent of all employees and had them provide a rebuttal to the story. You can read the full official response on the show’s website here. The response, which included a group photo of all the female staffers together smiling, was well thought out, biting, funny and painted a picture in complete contradiction to what the negative blog post alleged.

I thought it was genius! I’ve always believed the best way to dispel an untruth is by tearing it down at its very foundation. And this response did exactly that. It goes into great detail to provide the names, positions and years of service for all of the current female staff. It also lists a multitude of personal and professional areas the show has supported these women through. And best of all, this message was delivered by the very women who were allegedly being marginalized.

In the end, I give the Daily Show very high marks in the overall handling of this situation, despite the noticeable lag time before their official response. If companies want to have a say in how others perceive them, they’re going to have to not only monitor what’s being said about them but also engage those who are doing the talking. Mayor Booker and the Daily Show provide some examples of how to do this. However, I must admit I’m more partial to the Daily Show’s response. What’s not to love about an official company response that ends, Go f@#k yourself!"

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