Crisis Management: Be Careful When You Call Out the Media: Crisis avoidance
I call it The Stockton Warning: be wary of playing the media card to gain an advantage because it’s a double-edged sword that can cut both ways. That was a caution the late esteemed lawyer Ralph Stockton gave clients. And the recent test drive debacle for the $100,000 Tesla Model S electric car puts it in neon.
For those unaware of this PR “wreck,” the company suggested a New York Times reporter test the vehicle’s East Coast range and especially new ultrafast charging stations similar to the West Coast. Ignominiously, the battery powered car pooped out on the reporter and ended up photographed on a flatbed truck.
The reporter struggled too. The Times’ Public Reporter reviewed reader complaints including those of a livid Tesla CEO and questioned the journalist’s judgment if not his integrity. Did the reporter use common sense plus the car’s instruction manual to ensure the vehicle was reasonably charged along the way? Did he “enable” the power failure to get a better story? Did Tesla insufficiently consider potential pitfalls before suggesting the trial? Google the issue and decide for yourself.
This latest high-profile example of The Stockton Warning has an underlying admonition. If you throw open your front door to a reporter to benefit yourself you best have a clean house. I especially appreciate this concept. I courted a PR disaster over it many years ago.
I was helping a chemical-using company try to climb out of a PR hole. Plant emission safety was the issue. There was so much publicity that CBS sent a news crew to town. Trying to make our best case, at my suggestion the CEO and I offered CBS a laboratory demonstration of the fascinating manufacturing process involved. (It really is quite interesting). I had seen it myself and imagined helpful video.
However, when the lab employees prepared to show the procedure they did something I had never seen them do. They put on protective masks. The CEO and I looked at each other in horror. What usually appeared to be a harmless technique suddenly looked like a scene from The Andromeda Strain. There was nothing we could do. We had just handed a national news team video that, on its face, suggested that the manufacturing emissions must be dangerous because employees wore masks. (The employees later said they did it to please OSHA.) Thank heaven, CBS never aired the story or showed the video. But, believe me, I learned “the Stockton Warning” to the marrow of my bones.
When I was a reporter I saw a sheriff make the same kind of mistake. Police officers and deputies were comparing existing squad cars with demonstrators from manufacturers to choose their new fleets. On camera it looked like cops drag racing on the parking lot of the coliseum. Astonishingly, the sheriff pulled up in his unmarked car and invited me and the photographer to ride with him. We recorded the whole “drag race” including the sheriff’s car and the demonstrator – driven by a police officer – colliding at the end of the test run after going a tad too fast. People talked about it for months.
I suggest you heed The Stockton Warning.