Public Relations: OJ Simpson and Princess Diana: Powerful Events With a Communications Lesson: Crisis communications
At the time they happened, the death of the Princess of Wales and the trial of OJ Simpson were substantial media events that upset or angered many. However, there was one important public relations lesson inherent in both cases.
Let’s begin with Simpson:
The OJ expert commentators
As you may recall, the massive TV coverage of the OJ Simpson murder case built a cottage industry out of legal, medical, law enforcement, and other experts explaining and critiquing daily trial developments. Just such a cohort of authorities nightly helped Geraldo Rivera turn his tabloid career toward mainstream respectability as they exclusively examined OJ developments. Geraldo’s professional standing improved while these commentators cemented their public credibility. The approach mirrored Court TV’s extensive coverage of the Menendez brothers’ televised first murder trial. Regular experts were key.
The royal expert commentators
The sad and violent death of the Princess of Wales revived the commentator/expert machine. After the Paris tunnel crash, the cable channel MSNBC took a page from the Geraldo and Court TV playbook, and quickly went wall to wall with House of Windsor experts putting the tragedy into context. The focused coverage continued with pundits again establishing public credibility, this time experts in British royalty, French law, medicine, auto safety, and more.
“So what does this have to do with my company,” you may ask.
Remember that those expert commentators became quasi-celebrities, and every time their name appeared so did the name of their employer or company or position or area of expertise. Their reputations and their professional associations were being locked into the public consciousness in mostly positive ways.
“Yes, but those are huge events playing out on the world stage,” you may ask.
True and yet large-scale events often play out on the local stage as well, and your company might be able to play a role with your own media experts. It has happened before, and here is how two institutions in central North Carolina benefited from it.
The RJR Nabisco expert commentator
During the frenzied buyout of RJR Nabisco in the late 1980’s, Winston-Salem investment counselor Craig Fielding of Interstate Securities (now Interstate Johnson Lane) became a regular expert commentator on television and in the press. Whenever a new wrinkle appeared in the negotiations, it seemed that Craig was there to explain it. He had this knack for looking into a TV camera and explaining the arcane business of high finance and leveraged buyouts in terms that anyone could understand. He was friendly, accessible, flexible, and willing to talk to reporters practically anytime anywhere.
The local media used him far more than anyone else. Why? Because, as I just said, he was friendly, accessible, flexible, and willing to talk to reporters practically anytime anywhere. Everywhere Craig Fielding appeared so did the name of his company. Craig told me recently, “That news coverage sure made Interstate Securities and me familiar throughout the area.”
The Gulf War expert commentator
During Operation Desert Storm, it was Salem College professor Jerry Pubantz’ turn to be the local media darling as an expert explainer of Middle East politics and geography. Like Craig Fielding, Jerry could look into a camera and illuminate Persian Gulf politics and culture in terms that anyone could understand. Just like Craig, Jerry was friendly, accessible, flexible, and willing to talk to reporters practically anytime anywhere. Each time Jerry appeared so did the name Salem College.
The model is clear. During celebrated events, local and national experts give us valuable insights and information while simultaneously improving the reputations of both themselves and the businesses and institutions they represent.
Your expert commentator?
Therefore, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to identify people in your company or institution who are able and willing to fill the role of “local expert.” Few have the innate communications skills required to do this, and not every organization lends itself to providing a media expert. Nevertheless, if you are a university, a firm, an agency, or a large company, you may have a natural communicator in your midst who can take your reputation into the bright lights. If you are fortunate to have one, here are some tips:
You probably already have your potential communicators in mind. They are extroverts, smart, energetic, educated, and empathetic. Sadly, this is probably not a trainable skill. You either have this kind of skill or you do not. As a company, you either have this kind of individual or you do not.
Be certain this person wants to fill the role. As I said earlier, your in-house expert must be friendly, accessible, flexible, and willing to talk to reporters practically anytime anywhere. Self-starters unconcerned with time clocks are best. They must want to do this. You cannot dictate it.
To confirm your in-house communicator’s potential, seek news media opportunities that play to the communicator’s expertise. Call reporters at the local media outlets, explain your expertise, and offer a comment. You would be surprised how receptive they may be to your offer. Reporters value local experts who can comment on important news elsewhere.
Be alert for the big break
All that remains is for you to find that big story to connect with. Be patient, be prepared to settle for small-scale stories in the interim. Stay on top of current events.
When the big story breaks, jump into the fray. By now you will be ready, and your expert and your reputation should be able to ride the media wave into the public consciousness, serving the public, and benefiting your business.