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Media and Crisis Management

The Power of the Watchdog – Eliot Spitzer

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: The Power of the Watchdog – Eliot SpitzerCrisis preparation

Which better protects business and customers? An unfettered free market where creativity, growth, and consumer protection are not inhibited by government bureaucracy? Or… an aggressive watchdog government on the trail of expedient and sometimes unscrupulous executives?

On a C-Span evening that had a “through the looking glass” quality, ABC reporter John Stossel endorsed a free market; only to be followed minutes later by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer advocating government activism. Videotaped speaking at different venues, the men’s platforms could hardly have been more dissimilar.

Paraphrasing here, Stossel said that years of reporting led him to believe that, with few exceptions, federal and state government (he said they now spend 40% of our gross national product) retard entrepreneurism, better products, improved healthcare, and genuine consumer protection. Plaintiff’s attorneys took a few licks as well. He advocated smaller government, fewer oppressive regulations, and a level playing field where the best ideas win.

Spitzer, as you probably know, has been in attack mode against corporate corruption, greed, or irresponsibility (as he sees it) for several years. He said if someone is not looking over their shoulders, some executives will default to their lower natures. It was chilling to hear the responses he said he received from corporations in his cross-hairs. One attorney told Spitzer that his allegations were correct, but said many more companies were bigger offenders. Another hinted Spitzer should back off, warning “We have powerful friends.”

So, which is it, Stossel or Spitzer? As a former journalist myself, I like Stossel’s skepticism borne of one too many insubstantial media witch-hunts. On the other hand, having run a crisis PR firm for 10 years I have a healthy appreciation for business. I think Spitzer’s activism protects us more than Stossel’s free market.

Ironically, my appreciation for watchdogs stems from journalism in Missouri. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had uncompromising media columnist Eric Mink. (After a stint at the New York Post, he is back at his old post today.) Mink would rip local TV news teams for lame, self-aggrandizing reporting, but also credit superior work. He occasionally took a week to compare the local newscasts. He despised anchor pomposity, reporter vacuousness, and was blunt. I know. He once criticized me for over-personalizing a series while praising another story of mine. Importantly, many working in St. Louis TV newsrooms worried what Mink would say. I believe his critical oversight raised journalism standards. Years later, after leaving the Gateway City, I would see TV news foolishness elsewhere that would surely have been discouraged were someone like Mink on the prowl. Thus the power of the watchdog.

I still marvel at the impact of the watchdog press as I help companies and institutions protect their reputations. It is astonishing to watch the ripple effect inside a corporation when a significant journalist inquires about a sensitive subject. The call may be innocuous to the reporter, but its ramifications within an organization are something to behold.

My clients are honorable, well-intended people who I believe try to do the right thing, and they rightly fear doing or saying something that will inadvertently tarnish their hard-won good name. It’s not guilt, but caution that puts them on guard with the press.

So, if a company responds that way to reporters, imagine their concerns about potential inquiries from say, the FDA, SEC, EPA, or a bulldog state attorney general like Eliot Spitzer. Worst of all, should word leak of such an inquiry, the reputation damage could increase geometrically since both press and institutional watchdogs would strike simultaneously. No one wants to even think about such scrutiny and will do just about anything to avoid it. Therefore, as uncomfortable as an activist government makes clients (and me), I believe it is a good thing, an extra incentive to be darn sure we get it right. The marketplace may determine whether business succeeds, but roaming watchdogs keep the streets safer. You can’t ignore Spitzer’s at your heels.

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