We all have one of those family members. You know, the one who has absolutely no social skills? They tell inappropriate stories, butt into the middle of other people’s conversations, or have to always redirect the conversation to themselves? Those people exist in the business world as well, and all too often it’s PR execs who are guilty. In this case, it’s Edelman Public Relations’ New York office and a poorly timed blog post:
“As we mourn the loss of Robin Williams to depression, we must recognize it as an opportunity to engage in a national conversation,” wrote Lisa Koviz, executive vice president of Edelman. “His death yesterday created a carpe diem moment for mental health professionals and those people who have suffered with depression and want to make a point about the condition and the system that treats it. There’s a very careful line they need to walk so as to not seem exploitive of a terrible situation but at the same time, it is a national teachable moment that shouldn’t be ignored. (We too are balancing that line with this post.) “
It’s hard to find something newsworthy about your clients all the time, even in this seemingly endless world of media everywhere. You have to be constantly alert for appropriate opportunities where the clients and products/services you rep can contribute useful information that promotes them effectively. But if there’s one ironclad rule in the PR world, it’s don’t try to make money off of someone’s tragedy. Unfortunately, in the wake of Robin Williams’ passing, Edelman forgot to check with its own crisis PR team before publishing the blog post in question, and the response has been all too predictable. Gawker called Edelman a “soulless PR conglomerate.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with what Kovitz wrote, even if how it reads made me cringe. PR firms across the country are telling their clients exactly the same thing. If you are in the field of mental health services, or Parkinson’s, you absolutely have information and expertise that can help people trying to learn more about this tragedy, and you might need help getting that information to those who need it. What Kovitz did wrong is that in the rush to get relevant information out on this blog post, she didn’t stop to consider her audience, and how they would react. She raced right past that” line” she mentions without ever slowing down:
At Edelman, we are in the business of helping our clients create or join public conversations. We know that appropriate organizations can elevate a public conversation to help those in need. We and our clients can learn from this situation.
True? Yes. Tactless? Yes. Salesy? Definitely, and not appropriately phrased. People are grieving Robin Williams’ death in a way not normally seen for a public figure. All you have to do is scroll through Facebook, or search the Internet on Williams’ name to see that. The death of anyone is not the time for a sales pitch for your business. Period. Not even if you are a funeral home. And as a PR firm, Edelman should know that. This blog post would have been better utilized in direct message to the firm’s clients, and down the road, it could have been used in a blog post once people have had the chance to grieve. But not now, when people’s emotions are still raw.
Using someone’s death as an opportunity to instruct clients on how to position themselves in the best way to benefit from the public “conversation’ is callous and tactless. Kovitz acknowledged to BusinessInsider.com that this post was originally an internal memo, that they “believed it was worth surfacing more broadly given how the news cycle was progressing”
Making matters worse is that Kovitz didn’t even have the manners to express condolences to the Williams family, not even in the apology that was belatedly tacked on to the original post and distributed via Twitter:
Seriously? Do you really think anyone believes this? If you didn’t intend to capitalize on Williams’ death, then why are you advising clients how to use it to gain attention? “At Edelman, we are in the business of helping our clients create or join public conversations.”
As commentator Erin Blaskie (@ErinBlaskie) said in an AdWeek article: “This isn’t a PR opportunity. This is someone’s life lost.” At a time like this, companies should be trying to help people, not sell people. You’ll gain a lot more respect and goodwill – and future clients – that way.