Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The PR Lessons of Jon & Kate

The celebrity machine runs on public displays of humiliation.

The world has been mourning the death of Michael Jackson – an undoubtedly huge talent, but one whose signature move was a crotch-grab, and whose relationship with children leaves lingering suspicion in some minds. And shades of Eliot Spitzer, the governorship of South Carolina’s Mark Sanford teeters in the wake of outright lying regarding his whereabouts and the publication of lovelorn e-mails to his Argentinean mistress in the national press.

So why are fans everywhere riveted as the growing rift between TLC super parents Jon and Kate blasts across tabloids and TVs around the country?

Because all those other people – the Britneys, MJs, and Spitzers of the world – are not “normal” people. They are performers and politicians who have sought the spotlight. And while Jon & Kate did agree to let TLC camera crews document their lives for “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” they perhaps didn’t know exactly what kind of attention they were inviting, or just how much drama was in store. After all, the show’s producers have an incentive (ratings) to make this couple’s life look as salacious and dramatic as possible.

Some say there is no such thing as bad press, which may be true when you’re selling a product or growing a brand. But when the quality and privacy of eight kids’ lives is at stake, and a marriage is strained to the breaking point, that aphorism is not entirely true.

Somebody should have warned these two that when you’re a celebrity, there’s no such thing as a private moment, or a “pass” when it comes to even a momentary lapse in judgment. Even the small failings are grist for the national mill – or threaten a marriage.

The Jon and Kate debacle also highlights one of the first key pieces of advice we give at New Harbor Group to clients who find themselves in hot water: Stop talking - until you figure out what, if anything, needs to be said. (See here how Disney skillfully used silence to end a “crisis.”)

Don’t go running off to People (Jon) and US Weekly (Kate) to tell your respective versions of the home-wrecking scandal that is bringing you down. Don’t book a dozen interviews that will only dig you deeper into the hole you’re trying to climb out of. You might be tempted to tell the world your side of things, but don’t. It doesn’t work, and it just never ends. Gov. Sanford felt the need to announce publically that his mistress was his “soul mate.” Maybe it felt cathartic for him to hold a public therapy session, but the public only shook its head and wondered whether he was really equipped to be governor.

Likewise with Jon & Kate. Their now sad, desperate search for a media outlet that will tell the truth as they see it, will continue to be in vain. The only truth tabloids and entertainment television care about is that scandals sell ads.

The public is not on your side. The public is on the side of entertainment. And when you’re talking about the lives and futures of eight innocent kids who did NOT sign up for the spotlight, that is just not enough. Even Michael Jackson – who hid his kids from the media – knew that.

Posted by David Preston