Sometimes bad publicity IS worse than no publicity at all


This post is by from Rep Man


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One of the more satisfying aspects of the multidimensional profession otherwise known as public relations is media training. It’s one of the few times when we exchange the seat of power with senior client executives and tell them what to do (or, shall I say, gently suggest what to do?). Media training is equal parts art and science and when practiced to perfection will end up with key client quotes and messages finding their way into articles and highlighted on cable interviews or, in rare cases, actually used as the headline by a leading business publication. Sometimes, though, the best laid plans of mice and men (and media training) can go awry. Case in point: The end results of the obviously botched media training of Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei by the fine folks at Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW). As you’ll read in Clay Chandler’s column, BCW (which just
its new tagline: “Moving People”) was hired to media train Huawei’s two rotating chairmen (now that sounds like a cool gig. I wonder what the non-rotating chairman does when his counterpart is rotating?). Anyway, BCW’s job was to get these co-rotating spokespeople prepared for the U.S. media and to begin to build (or rebuild as the case may be) some rather tense barbs previously exchanged between the executives and their counterparts in the American business community. This was intended to be a friendship project. Instead, it seems to have escalated to a modern day version of the Hatfield’s & McCoy’s. Case in point, check out what Guo Ping, rotating chairman number one was quoted as saying,
  • “The U.S. government has a loser’s attitude. They want to smear Huawei because they can’t compete with us.”
  • Another headline read, “Huawei Executive Rips U.S. Government.”
Ouch. Not be outdone by his rotating comrade, Eric Xu lashed out at two U. S. Congressmen as being “ignorant” and “ill-informed”. He also added, “There’s no way the U.S. can crush us. The world cannot leave us (China) because we are more advanced.” I’m guessing those comments didn’t sit too well with Huawei’s chief communications officer. And, knowing how the food chain works in these situations, I have to believe the client is placing the blame squarely on BCW’s trainers. Here’s what I think happened during the media training sessions: In between rotating chairs, or pens or whatever else they share, the rotating chairmen were undoubtedly paying scant attention to the valiant efforts of the BCW team, They most likely nodded, looked at their watches (or mobile devices) and left before the full session had been planned to conclude. BCW dutifully provided the executives with their message points, “staffed” the interviews and must have died a thousand deaths as the rotating chairmen laid waste to any lingering feelings of warmth between their company and this country. I’m no geopolitical expert. But, I am a seasoned media trainer. I would not have let those two rotating chairman out of the conference room until the client CCO and we had guarantees (preferably in writing) from the gentlemen that they would avoid using words such as crush and loser in their interviews. Of course, reading between the lines, I’m sure the rotating chairman would have immediately crushed any sort of written script and went on their merry way. But, hey, nothing can save the day like a written trail of e-mails that cover the agency’s back. Nonetheless, I having to believe that BCW is moving people as a result of the high-profile gaffe. So who’s fault is it when one of the world’s best media training organizations fails miserably to control two of the world’s most prominent telecommunications executives? I know who will most likely fire (or, crush, if you prefer) whom in this scenario. But I ask my loyal readers to weigh-in with their thoughts. What do you do with hard-headed clients who simply will not take your counsel and proceed to call their would-be friends (that would be the U.S. government) losers? Before I leave the topic of media training, I must share a Golden Oldie with you. One might position this as the Yin to the Ping/Xu Yang. The clip’s been shown in many a media training session, but is well worth reviewing. In this instance, a PR firm did such a poor job of over-preparing a hapless Cadbury-Schweppes president that he robotically repeated the same thing over and over and over. And I have to believe the agency handling the media training was summarily fired that very same day. So here are two instances in which bad publicity was indeed worse than no publicity at all.