Pistorius Takes the Stand

oscar pistorius court day seven his murder trial heard lawyer barry roux question testimony 150x150 Pistorius Takes the Stand

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Oscar Pistorius.

There’s rarely any discussion of good or bad PR associated with murder trials; the defendant is declared innocent or guilty, and the case is closed. Things may be different in the case of South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, currently on trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

Pistorius says he awoke during the night of February 14, 2013, hearing sounds. He told police he shot towards where he thought an intruder was hiding, only to find Steenkamp his victim. The prosecution has so far done a persuasive job of presenting an ex-girlfriend who told of Pistorius randomly shooting guns, a text message from Steenkamp saying she was afraid of him, and neighbors who heard angry shouts and terrified screams.

While listening to testimony, Pistorius has hardly been stoic. He has wept, held his head in his hands, been violently ill. But would he take the stand? His lawyers apparently thought it best. Yesterday, Pistorius – not shown on camera, but audible – gave a shaken testimony that halted proceedings when he eventually broke down.

Will it spare him from a 25 year prison term? It’s possible. The gun-carrying, temperamental boyfriend image was replaced by the trembling voice of a shattered man. Should Pistorius be declared innocent, his emotional testimony may also exonerate him in the court of public opinion.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Oscar Pistorius.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When all seems lost, that’s the time to take a risk. Most lawyers are wary of putting clients on the stand; not only can they be torn apart by the prosecution, but they may not show enough emotion, of the appropriate kind, for the jury’s liking. Pistorius, however, has been doing nothing but demonstrating remorse. His lawyers, facing the prosecution’s construction of a monster, put on the stand a man weeping and overcome with grief. The monster image has taken a hit.

Bottom Line? It’s Not Always About the Bottom Line

 Bottom Line? Its Not Always About the Bottom Line

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) to Mozilla.

When Brendan Eich stepped down from his position as chief executive of software company Mozilla last week, the general assumption was that his personal stance against same-sex marriage was to blame. But was morality the reason for Eich’s resignation from Mozilla after being appointed a mere two weeks ago? No, opines Farhad Manjoo in the international edition of Sunday’s New York Times. Manjoo instead points out a key factor about Mozilla that companies need to heed. For Mozilla, the bottom line isn’t the only bottom line.

Mozilla is a company with a mission, to promote “the development of the Internet as a public resource.” In other words, it’s not all about the money for Mozilla. In a highly competitive industry, Manjoo writes, corporate culture becomes as important as salary. Apple and Microsoft may be able to offer buckets of money to talented coders and software designers, but those people might go for the company offering something they believe in.

Mozillians spoke online of how Eich divided their community. One said, “He is actively harming Mozilla by not making a proper statement on these issues and making things right.” Eich’s probable forced resignation is yet another example of the importance of keeping one’s personal opinions out of business.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) to Mozilla, for distancing themselves from a debate that causes damage to their corporate culture and their brand.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Remember the refrain from The Godfather: It’s business, not personal. Whether you’re in business purely for profit or you have a mission, personal opinions can cost a company more than money. PR people exist for this purpose; had a few been consulted on this matter, Eich might not have a two-week position on his resume, and Mozilla wouldn’t have a new reputation of axing those it deems wrong.

Wall Street Takes Another Hit With “Flash Boys”

 Wall Street Takes Another Hit With Flash Boys

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Flash Boys author Michael Lewis.

Hell may freeze over before Wall Street’s PR image improves. From the scandalous decisions that began the financial collapse to legal damages that seem, to the general public, hardly punitive and Martin Scorsese’s excess-laden Wolf of Wall Street, could the image of the financial sector get any worse? Yes, and a lot, thanks to the PR blitz for Michael Lewis’s latest book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt.

Lewis is the author of several bestsellers, including Liar’s Poker and Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Flash Boys has been boiled down to a single crystal-clear, seismically charged sound byte: The United States stock market is rigged. Thus began segments on 60 Minutes, The Today Show, and a host of other TV shows, newspaper and magazine articles – enough media exposure to sink the stock market all over again.

Naturally, there’s been blowback from Wall Street, though anyone in the stock market is so mistrusted by the public that protests only lend credence to Lewis’s claims. Others in the stock sector have said Lewis is right and are becoming whistleblowers. While Wall Street’s image continues to plummet, Michael Lewis’s stock is on a high.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for author Michael Lewis (and an “F,” Full Fiasco, for Wall Street).

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Harmonic convergences can be planned. A hot topic, a ripe scapegoat, an author with a talent for explaining complex issues simply… Yes, these are all dream situations, but flaks can work their own version of stock market magic. Timing the book’s publication after the release of The Wolf of Wall Street may have been coincidental, but was more likely a skilled PR team working Wolf like a peloton. Lewis’s elevator pitch, as well as his Everyman-friendly explanations, sell themselves – after being honed. A perfect campaign; perhaps Wall Street should hire Lewis’s team.

Times Gives Credit Where It’s Due (ie, Not to Gwyneth)

 Times Gives Credit Where Its Due (ie, Not to Gwyneth)

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Katherine Woodward Thomas, who owes the NY Times big time.

Though the “paper of record” has suffered a few black eyes in the last decade, the New York Times does its due diligence. In an article about the hot new catchphrase “conscious uncoupling” used by Gwyneth Paltrow last week to announce her separation from husband Chris Martin, the Times discovered the person who really launched the phrase: psychotherapist, relationship expert and author Katherine Woodward Thomas.

Thanks to the Times, Thomas is now enjoying renewed fame. Thomas is the author of Calling In The One, a self-help book that described how Thomas found her husband. Years later, after the couple parted, Thomas created a “conscious uncoupling” workshop.

Though Paltrow failed to cite Thomas as the source of the phrase in her now-famous divorce announcement –  a blog post on her website Goop – Thomas does in the Times. She attributes it to a friend who used it to describe his drama-free divorce, and Thomas asked if she could use it. Thomas also mentions that she’d been in talks with her publisher, Crown, about a book on the subject. After this article, it’s likely that Crown will be consciously rushing this one to the printer.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Katherine Woodward Thomas, who owes the NY Times big time.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Make sure credit is given where it’s due. It’s unclear from the Times article whether Crown alerted the Times to the true source of the catchphrase, or whether this was the result of a reporter doing extra digging. If it’s the former, good work. Though the term conscious uncoupling is mostly being made fun of, it’s of the moment and in the media. The originator can now ride the wave to sales. If, however, the truth was revealed not by a diligent flak but a curious reporter, someone at Crown has some explaining to do.

Vogue’s Kimye Cover Stirs Viral Uproar

 Vogues Kimye Cover Stirs Viral Uproar

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Vogue.

Print fashion bible Vogue has been trying to boost drooping sales with bold cover choices, such as rap sensation Rhianna and Girls star Lena Dunham. But this month’s cover of Vogue, featuring Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, is apparently straining the core readership’s tolerance for what’s new this spring.

“I guess I’m canceling my Vogue subscription,” tweeted actress Sarah Michelle Gellar. “Who is with me???” (And where was her publicist for that zinger?) Gellar was just one of many who took to the twitterverse and beyond to voice outrage over the cover choice. Why? Vogue die-hards want to know what Kim and Kanye have to do with fashion, other than being able to buy a lot of it.

Ah, but that would lead to the assumption that Vogue is merely about clothes. No no, asserts editor in chief Anna Wintour. “Part of the pleasure of editing Vogue…is being able to feature those who define the culture at any given moment, who stir things up, whose presence in the world shapes the way it looks and influences the way we see it,” Wintour is quoted as saying. Another reason? Sales have fallen 20 percent; desperate times call for Kim and Kanye covers.

The question in this internet age is whether controversy translates into cash, or if talk – when done online – will cheapen the effect. Time and sales figures will tell. For now, everyone is talking about Vogue‘s cover.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Vogue.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Talk is expensive, and may even cost you. It’s not easy these days to dominate web chatter, be the object of debate and even satire, and garner a large chunk of chat shows. Vogue‘s cover has done all of that, albeit probably not for the reason Wintour wanted. At the risk of riling the faithful – though dwindling – core audience, people are talking about Vogue. Better to be controversial than boring.

The PR of Pulling the Plug Before Opening Night

 The PR of Pulling the Plug Before Opening Night

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Radio City Music Hall’s “Heart and Lights.”

Radio City Music Hall’s big draw is the Christmas Spectacular, but owner Madison Square Garden Company had big plans for a similar annual attraction for the spring tourist season. “Heart and Lights,” a musical production starring the Rockettes, is a $25 million extravaganza that was set to debut this Thursday. Instead, the show has closed before it’s even begun.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times details the fallout: millions in lost ad revenue and ticket refunds, the theater dark for five weeks. What has been gained is immunity from reviews that might have killed the show permanently.

Another gain is bad press. The first question facing MSGC executive chairman James L. Dolan was whether to let the show run and work out its kinks in previews, though apparently the problems were too large. Decision made, the next issue is the explanation of why the multi-million dollar show would not go on. Publicist Leslie Sloane Zelnick chose to let Dolan come relatively clean in an attempt to control fallout. A win, or a loss? More like a toss up.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Radio City Music Hall’s “Heart and Lights.” Now there are two storylines to fix.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When the news is bad, you’re less damned if you do than if you don’t. Rarely will producers shut down a show as expensive as this a mere week before opening night. There’s no way to contain press that bad, except to open the door on it. In this way a flak can form the script: True, the show isn’t great – but MSGC would rather take the loss and put out a better show. Or so you hope the media and public will believe. Failing that, all will be forgotten by the show’s new opening night, a year from now.

To read the Times article, click here.

More Errors Than Answers in Missing Flight Mystery

 More Errors Than Answers in Missing Flight Mystery

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for the Malaysian government and Malaysia Airlines. (Pictured: Hishamuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s Minister of Transport.)

At press time, the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was nearing its second week. As time goes by it seems the Malaysian government knows less, rather than more – and what was thought to be known is corrected.

As a NewYorker.com article details, the few facts on hand are fluid. There is the timing of the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, first reported as being turned off 12 minutes before the final communique from the cockpit. Now authorities admit they don’t know when it was switched off. The direction of the plane before it fell off radar was also wrong, costing time and untold millions in wasted search efforts. And while the crew and even passengers were initially not suspected as part of the disappearance, all, especially the pilot and co-pilot, are under intense scrutiny.

Relatives waiting for news of their family members have progressed from shocked to angry, shouting at Malaysian officials at press conferences. Some have become so mistrustful of the information being given, or withheld, that they’ve threatened a hunger strike. Experts, unable to guess what might have happened (with one quiet exception) can only agree on one thing: the Malaysian government has, in trying to handle this situation alone, prolonged and even contributed to the mystery.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for the Malaysian government.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: In times of disaster, opt for complete transparency. Had Malaysia accepted offered help from the United States and other governments, there might have been at the very least a few more iron-clad answers. Even the US and Russia collaborated at the Olympics to thwart terrorist threats. At this point experts are coming to the conclusion that we may never know what happened to Flight 370. The only thing anyone can be sure of is that in situations such as this, being secretive never pays.

Shadow Over GM Recall Grows Longer

 Shadow Over GM Recall Grows Longer

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for GM.

The news from General Motors continues to get worse. Last month the carmaker began a worldwide recall of over one million of its vehicles, including the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ions, due to faulty ignition switches that resulted in 12 deaths. Then, a federal review of those GM vehicles dating from 2003 to 2012 found that faulty airbags were responsible for an astonishing 303 deaths.

Lawmakers are pressing for answers as to how long GM knew about the issues and what they did about them. GM’s answer has been to launch what chief executive Mary T. Barra calls an “unvarnished” investigation. Leading this investigation will be the law firm of King & Spalding – the same firm that had been defending GM in wrongful death lawsuits.

Conflict of interest? Whether it will be in reality or not isn’t really the question. The firm will have to do enough digging to preserve their reputation while still being able to call GM one of their main clients. But if anyone asked internal PR what this move would look like to the outside world, GM apparently ignored that information as well.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for GM.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Even in times of triage – perhaps especially so – appearances matter. When faced with a product issue that has resulted in death, companies must quickly go into damage control. The smartest take immediate measures to prevent further injury or loss of life, own up, and set their PR firms to work on image rebuild. In GM’s case that time is over. And ironically, the company’s goal – preserve the bottom line by presenting the image of taking action – can shoot itself in the foot with the implication of more coverups, this time by the company’s trusted law firm. It’s an action, but it’s hardly a strategy, and it may cause more damage than it controls.

She Said What? Celebs Are Uncensored Again

 She Said What? Celebs Are Uncensored Again

The PR Verdict: “D” (PR Problematic) for Lena Dunham (above) and Elisabeth Moss (below).

Blame – or credit – for the sterility of celebrity interviews and quotes goes to Pat Kingsley, the legendary publicist who allegedly controlled questions and answers for Tom Cruise at the height of his fame. Since then, only stars willing to take risks might speak off the cuff about failed romances or to make an unscripted quip. Lately, things are changing, and thanks – or blame – can be given to Girls star Lena Dunham and Mad Men actress Elisabeth Moss.

Dunham’s star has been on the rise since Girls, now in its third season, debuted on HBO. This past weekend, she hosted Saturday Night Live. The show featured a skit about Adam and Eve, during which the 27-year-old Dunham got naked; nothing new for her, as Girls features many a nude scene. When someone tweeted to Dunham, “You don’t always have to get naked!”, Dunham replied, “Please tell that to my uncle, mister. He’s been making me!” After a slew of criticism that molestation jokes aren’t funny, Dunham took the tweets down and apologized. 

 She Said What? Celebs Are Uncensored AgainMoss got naked in a different way, dishing to New York Magazine about her eight-month long marriage to Portlandia star and writer Fred Armisen. “It was extremely traumatic and awful and horrible,” Moss says. “I’m glad I didn’t have kids.” She takes tabloids to task for making up things about her while admitting she reads them and trashes celebrities who want fame and awards while asserting that her own level of fame means “If I do the movie, it will get made, and if I don’t do it, the movie won’t get made.”

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for both Lena Dunham and Elisabeth Moss.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Get people talking about you, not against you. It’s hard for celebrities to stand out in this under-interesting time of overexposure, but being crass isn’t the way to go. Be funny and self-effacing, but don’t make fun of taboo subjects, and don’t talk smack about other celebs. No matter what anyone says, there is such a thing as bad PR.

Newsweek Gets Press, and Controversy, With Bitcoin Story

 Newsweek Gets Press, and Controversy, With Bitcoin Story

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Newsweek.

Venerable news journal Newsweek returned to the stands on Friday after a 14-month absence. Clearly a big cover story was needed, and they had one: the identity of the founder of Bitcoin, the digital currency with mysterious origins. Apparently, there’s still some mystery – and a lot of controversy over the article.

Newsweek reporter Leah McGrath Goodman said she had proof that Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto was the founder of Bitcoin. Nakamoto, described by the New York Times as “a reclusive train collector,” then gave a two-hour interview to AP denying Newsweek‘s claims. At the heart of the debate is a brief conversation that took place outside Nakamoto’s home; Goodman’s interpretation of his response to questions about Bitcoin was that he was the founder. Nakamoto says he misunderstood her questions.

The magazine issued a statement saying they stand by the story, with well-worded acknowledgement of the online attacks toward Goodman, her reporting, even her character. Others in the media are calling into question Goodman’s proof and journalistic ethics. Given that Bitcoin has recently given investors a tumultuous ride, some speculate the Newsweek article has put Nakamoto in danger, without strong enough proof of association.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Newsweek.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: With great risk, there are two outcomes: great rewards, or spectacularly bad problems. Clearly, Newsweek needed a big story after over a year off the stands and many questioning the future of print media. (A few might also scratch their heads as to why the online version gives free access to the entire feature; isn’t the point of magazines to sell magazines, not give the content away?) This explosive story gave Newsweek the media splash they needed, and the negative attention they never wanted. Well, they got people talking. Should their sources be proven wrong, they may wish they’d gone with something slightly quieter.