Was Edelman right to ‘seize the day’? (Column)

PR firm draws flak for outlining “opportunity” in Robin Williams’ death

My search of the global Edelman website barely four days following the untimely and tragic passing of comedic icon Robin Williams still carried the blog post by its New-York based executive vice-president Lisa Kovitz titled “Carpe Diem,” a nod to Williams’ line in Dead Poet’s Society. Her article was posted a day after Williams’ death.

As I write, the 38 folks who took the time to comment seem to vehemently disagree with her PR counsel to “seize the day” by promoting awareness about how his suicide could help expand the conversation about mental illness.

A blog posted by one of my U.S. colleagues, Peppercomm PR’s president Steve Cody, went so far as to rename her article “Sleaze the Day,” and condemn the piece as an opportunistic attempt to capitalize on the violent death of a celebrity.

The backlash related to Kovitz’s post was quick and cutting. It also tore the scab off what seems like a never-healing wound: the PR industry’s ongoing struggle with its reputation. We challenge those who describe what we do as spin and we rail against our detractors when portrayed as ditzy party planners or unscrupulous.

Above all else, the PR industry needs to be recognized as trusted business consultants who exercise keen judgement and analytical skills. It would seem that this latest gaffe not only runs counter to, but also fundamentally undermines, our collective efforts to demonstrate our credibility and value.

When I mentor young practitioners who can be counted on for the most exciting, out-of-the-box thinking, I stress the need to constantly gut-check their ideas by asking the simplest of questions: How might this action, proposal or statement hurt our client? Assessing risk and fallout is every bit as critical to a client’s success as are creative tactics. When we are overtaken by the urge to seize the day without thinking about what we’ll see the morning after, the result can be public humiliation or worse.

There is no doubt that PR needs to be timely. It needs to be relevant to the news and trends of the day. It needs to be nimble and reactive. But it also needs to be sensitive and human and recognize the boundaries of both common sense and common courtesy. As practitioners, we are most valuable when we can see both the opportunity and the risk – and sometimes decide to walk away, with our integrity and reputation still intact.

Edelman finally tweeted an apology last Thursday afternoon to those it offended, though the post was still live. My advice would have been to take down the post and to follow the advice of another brilliant comedian upon learning of Robin Williams death – “No Words.” May he rest in peace.

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