Media malpractice or more?September 13, 2010
Was the Quran-burning story a result of media malfeasance or an example of a non-story made a story by the legitimacy of others?
What started as a tweet in July gave way to one of the most unimportant and over-reported stories of the year. And only by analyzing the media’s response to Pastor Terry Jones’ threat to burn a copy of the Quran can we appreciate the more nuanced side of public opinion and reputation management.
How could an unknown, unimportant, fringe figure with only 30 followers come to dominate national headlines for nearly a week? And why, at a time of great national economic and political uncertainty, did the media invest so many resources in such a non-story, overlooking real news with true gravitas?
Certainly, it could have all been the lunacy of the situation, juxtaposed against the mosque-building controversy near Ground Zero. For those in the media who support the building of the mosque, the Quran burning provides further evidence of anti-Islam sentiment and ices an already slippery slope they believe America is headed down.
But dig deeper and you discover that the real fan of the flame had nothing to do with New York mosque-building or media bent left or right. Rather, the Quran story is a perfect example of how we as PR counsels have to advise our clients. Every day, we must remind our clients that every issue does not warrant a response, and commenting to or about lunatics is a surefire way of elevating a story best left untold.
I am reminded of a recent issue about an iron manufacturer that was facing allegations of hiring illegal immigrants. A distorted and heavily edited YouTube video suggested as much. But the issue itself was nothing more than a union trying to undermine an open-shop business. Enraged, the client wanted to go on the offensive and make public the union’s dirty tricks.
The smarter tact, though, was to ignore a potentially inflammatory situation that if handled poorly, could have transformed the client into a central figure in a national debate over illegal workers. We urged them to relent. They listened. They went back to selling iron, no less the wear.
In the case of Pastor Terry Jones, the story became a story after Gen. David Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and President Barack Obama either reached out or chimed in on the issue, thus elevating it to the status of news. Pastor Jones rode the coattails of other men’s errors and gained weight and prominence. Once this standard was met, media were free to cover the issue with impunity as to their own wisdom. A non-news story became news because of another’s mismanagement.
It’s a common situation — one we as PR practitioners increasingly face in a world where anyone can gain voice, no matter their legitimacy. The Internet provides the forum. But does it all require a response? The answer depends on:
1. Are you effectively monitoring? Averting self-triggered communication annihilation is often as easy as knowing what’s being said about you, your company, and its brand. In the Quran case, media were monitoring the situation, and knew that Islamic media were covering it. But that wasn’t enough to elevate the issue to a story domestically. Rather it required legitimate responses from legitimate sources — Petraeus, Gates, and Obama — to trigger coverage. If level heads had prevailed, they would have realized that Terry Jones did not warrant a response, and the risk of doing so was transforming it into a national media story.
2. Who is the source and is it legitimate? Terry Jones was only legitimized after national figures responded to him. Our military and political figures need to stay clear of the lunatic fringe, rather than invite them into the dialogue.
3. Who are the influencers? The hothouse of the Internet can incubate non-stories into stories. CNN’s Rick Sanchez, who first covered this story stateside after seeing it on Twitter in July, did us all a disservice by not ignoring a tweeting moron.
4. Is there any way to respond short of a public forum? Political and military leaders have a full arsenal of tools to respond. Does it have to be public, in light of media scrutiny?
5. Who responds, if a response is required? The Terry Jones case is directly analogous to any number of comments that take place 24/7 online. Those that require a response can often be taken care of by service-level employees, not the CEO. By elevating the response to Terry Jones to the most powerful people in the world, a story was made, the die was cast, and the rest of the madness ensued.