Thanks, Imus: PR Lessons From a Fiasco

What We Got Here Is an Old-Fashioned Learning Experience

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Some lessons are learned the easy way, and some come at a cost. Like the fact that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. Believe me, I learned that one the hard way.

Eric Webber Eric Webber
A less painful way to learn from those tough situations is for someone else to get his eyebrows singed, and you benefit vicariously. So while many people are still grabbing pitchforks and torches, we shouldn't overlook the contributions that the Imus situation has made toward making communications professionals even better than we already are. Imus' pain is our gain when it comes to reminding us of the importance of a few PR fundamentals:

1. You've got to stay current
It's hard to stay fresh when your "bit" has been the same since the last time you changed hairstyles -- which is to say 1976. It takes a lot of effort to stay contemporary and relevant, especially when you trot out the same guest list of geezers week after week. Forgo the hard work and try this shortcut instead: to appear more "with it," use language more appropriate for someone a quarter your age and not your, um, demographic. Drop into your conversation words like "ho." It's called having street cred, yo, and the young cats dig it.

2A. Location, location, location
If you screw up and have to make a public apology, find the worst possible place to do that, and then do a really lousy job of apologizing. Pick a venue that will be so totally unsympathetic to you that most people will tell you it's crazy. "Crazy like a fox," you'll say. Then appear at this location, make your situation worse by saying more stupid things, but in the process teach us all a valuable lesson: Foxes are pretty low on the evolutionary scale for a reason.

2B. You've got a friend
When you make your public apology, make sure the person you pick to help you deliver your message has absolutely no interest in helping you deliver it. Better yet, pick someone whose raison d'etre is in creating publicity for himself by bringing down people like you. Then you can position yourself as being bold, even ballsy. Be sure and put that on your resume; "I am bold, even ballsy." That will give you a leg up on the other contenders for the open spot with the "Morning Zoo Crew" at FM 102.5 in Peoria.

3. It's ... all ... in .... the ... time ... ing
Don't go directly to the people whom you have offended to apologize. Refer to numbers 2A and 2B above. Sure, it carries the most weight if the person or people whom you've insulted will forgive you and ask everyone to move on, but why bother with that? Let the mob stone you for awhile.

4. Sincerity? Who needs it?
You want to appear contrite, but sounding too sorry is a sign of weakness. Start off by sounding like you aren't sure what all the fuss is about. Then begin to measure out your response. Apologize a little at a time at first. You don't want to admit to too much if you don't have to. Study Alberto Gonzales' recent game tapes. Be sure and use a term like "isolated incident," then hope that no one brings up all of the times you've said something similar in the past. As a last resort, don't rule out rehab. I know it seems cliche, but everyone else is doing it, so why not you?

5. The Yin and the Yang
If your apology is falling flat, quickly switch the subject to the many good things you do. "Yes, I may appear to be a racist and misogynist, but I buy more Girl Scout cookies than any of my neighbors. And I mean way more." PR people call this "bridging." It's also known as the "make the trains run on time" approach to PR.

6. Take the high moral ground. Actually, just claim to.
If you are the company who employs the guy who utters something monumentally moronic, don't fire him right away, even though you know it's the right thing to do. You are, after all, a business. Instead, say things like "We're a family here at XYZ, and we want to talk to our employees about this situation before we act." That sounds nice and thoughtful. Don't mention that the only "family members" you are going to talk to happen to work in your ad sales department.

Begin keeping a tally. On the left side of a sheet of paper, write down how much money the moron makes for you. On the other side, add up the amount of money that advertisers are yanking off his show. Don't forget to carry the one. When the figure on the right gets to be bigger than the figure on the left, fire the guy and then pat yourself on the back for being a company of high moral and ethical standards.

7. It's hard to keep a man down, good or otherwise.
Eventually, Don, the eyebrows grow back.
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