The Obamacare Show Must Go On

 The Obamacare Show Must Go On

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for the launch the Affordable Care Act.

On Tuesday, the Affordable Care Act – the long-awaited and controversial US health care program also known as “Obamacare” – launched amid a US government shutdown and a host of technical glitches. A bungling of presidential proportions? Not necessarily.

The federally-mandated marketplaces that are the cornerstone of the new US health system opened for business on October 1. That’s the same day a Congressionally-led shutdown, sparked by the program’s opponents, closed iconic American memorials and national parks and furloughed more than 800,000 workers. As if that weren’t inauspicious enough, millions of Americans were met with error messages when they tried to check out their state’s exchanges, many of which are managed by the federal government through its portal.

But these factors didn’t cast a PR pall over the program – at least not initially. The fact that the health care exchanges opened on time, despite a government shutdown, was a PR coup. It also seemed to elevate the program above the Congressional bickering that has come off as childish and impotent. As for the technical problems, they’re being met with a shrug. These days, inability to immediately access the latest technology platform has become almost de rigueur; opening-day delays imply overwhelming demand. For Obamacare, there will be a short grace period for the program to get its act together and start signing people up. After that, though, all bets are off.

THE PR VERDICT:  “C” (Distinctly OK) for the launch of the Affordable Care Act, debuting in a timely manner and piquing the interest of millions of Americans.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: The show must go on. Having come this far, President Obama would have invited a PR disaster had he given in to demands to delay the launch of the health insurance exchanges. If the product is useful, intriguing, or novel enough, consumers are willing to endure a few headaches at the outset. All that said, the countdown has begun: Obamacare needs happy customers, and soon, if its going to establish itself as the viable solution to America’s health care woes.

Oprah Incident: Swiss Boutique’s PR Goes to Hell in a Handbag

 Oprah Incident: Swiss Boutiques PR Goes to Hell in a Handbag

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

Until recently, perhaps only those in a certain income tax bracket knew the name Trois Pommes in Zurich. That changed last week, when the high-end boutique became more well known – and not just for its pricey merchandise. Trois Pommes is the shop where Oprah Winfrey, the African-American entertainment magnate and billionaire, said a sales clerk refused to show her a handbag because, the clerk said, she couldn’t afford it. Winfrey, who was in town to attend the wedding of singer Tina Turner, said she politely requested to see the $38,000 bag three times but was rebuffed each time. She finally left, without making a scene. Winfrey recounted the incident during an interview to promote her new civil rights-era film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in response to a question about ways in which racism has affected her life. The revelation, which has generated international media coverage, is a black eye for Swiss hospitality. Both the Swiss Tourism Office and Zurich Tourism have apologized to Winfrey, which only slightly makes up for the feeble explanation by the owner of Trois Pommes, Trudie Goetz, who claims the encounter was a “classic misunderstanding.” The clerk, Goetz said, is a native Italian speaker who thought Winfrey had asked to see the bag in less expensive materials. This isn’t the first time the 59-year-old media mogul, Oscar-nominated actress and philanthropist has been snubbed while trying to buy a tony handbag. In 2005, Winfrey was locked out of Hermes store in Paris when she tried to enter just at closing time. THE PR VERDICT:  “B” (Good Show) for Oprah, who handled both the incident and the disclosure of it with characteristic grace. THE PR TAKEAWAY: Emotion is often the enemy of productive discussion. Of course, Winfrey would have been within her rights to kick up a fuss, either at the time or in the press, but such behavior can sometimes backfire (“You were discriminated against while shopping for a $38,000 purse? Poor you!”).  She took the higher road, however, and that has made her story more compelling. By recounting the incident calmly and with perspective, Winfrey has prompted a serious discussion on racism and how it transcends bank accounts and borders.

Today Show Scores a Great “Get” With Deen

 Today Show Scores a Great Get With Deen

The PR Verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) to The Today Show. (Pictured: Paula Deen and Today Show host Matt Lauer)

How quickly PR fortunes can change. Last month, NBC’s The Today Show was facing a PR fiasco, with falling ratings, a scathing cover story in New York Magazine, and a tell-all book that painted a rather unflattering picture of host Matt Lauer. At the same time, Paula Deen was enjoying success with shows on The Food Network, her own magazine, many cookbooks, and heading a multi-million dollar empire. This month, everything has changed for both.

Last week, Deen’s PR began to flame out amid allegations that Deen used racist terms and condoned a racist atmosphere at her restaurant. She quickly scheduled a damage control interview last Friday on The Today Show, which she then blew off, citing exhaustion. After being dropped by The Food Network and one of her sponsors, Deen rescheduled her Today interview for this morning.

Ratings are sure to be high, and it’s a great “get” for Today, even if it’s a “re-get.” In addition to having to answer questions about the allegations, Deen must address blowing off Matt Lauer, as well as her apology videos that have been criticized as widely missing the right PR mark. The only better “get” would be missing NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – and no one will be surprised to see Today get him first.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to The Today Show for reversing their poor PR.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Nothing kills bad PR like success. The Today Show took its lumps, but it kept right on going, and when opportunity knocked, it pounced. Having been a friendly interrogator in the past – Deen chose Today when she revealed she had Type 2 diabetes, known to be caused or aggravated by the high-fat cuisine she’s famous for – Today was a natural choice for Deen’s public mea culpa. The lesson presented: When hit with bad PR, you can’t afford the luxury of pain. Get up and find every opportunity to get back to what you were known for.

Facebook Does the Right Thing, But Doesn’t Get “Liked”

FB mastect crop Facebook Does the Right Thing, But Doesnt Get Liked

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Facebook, regarding mastectomy photos on the site.

Remember Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy story? Of course you do. The attention she garnered propelled Facebook, the Internet’s favorite whipping boy, into a conversation about breast cancer survivors that it never wanted, and from which it could never gain.

A photographer posted dramatic photos of mastectomied women and was temporarily banned from the social network under Facebook’s vague guidelines regarding nudity. His cause was taken up by an activist outraged at Facebook’s seeming insensitivity. The activist, a Stage IV cancer survivor herself, started an online petition calling on Facebook to reverse itself – and got more than 20,000 signatures overnight.

Facebook, to its credit, reached out to the activist and clarified its policy on post-mastectomy photos, which is now its own paragraph on the site’s community standards page. In a statement, Facebook said it had always permitted such photos, but took some down after users complained. The reworded policy made their acceptability on the site explicit. The action should have generated “win-win” type headlines. Instead what emerged were headlines of Facebook “bowing  to consumer pressure.” For Facebook, no good deed goes unpunished.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Facebook, for suffering the PR consequences without complaining.

THE PR TAKEAWAY:  A measured response is always best. When you have bigger PR headaches – like allegations that you let the Government spy on your users, for example – it could be tempting to look for a way to deflect  negative attention and polish your public image. But doing so carries risks you look callow and opportunistic. Facebook could have made more noise about its policy change to garner good publicity but recognized that the story was not in their control. Better then to take  your lumps and turn the page. In the world of PR, it’s important not to bring a fly swatter to a gun fight. And don’t bring an F-16, either.

The PRV Report Card: This Week’s Winners and Losers

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners and LosersPR WINNER OF THE WEEK: “A” (PR PERFECT) TO Fran and Jane Murnaghan, the parents of a 10-year-old girl, Sarah, who was dying of cystic fibrosis. Because she is under 12, Sarah was not eligible to be put on the adult national organ donor list for the lung transplant that could save her life. (Children are not eligible because most adult-sized organs simply won’t fit inside their smaller bodies.) “Sarah is being left to die,” her parents told the media, causing outrage and a debate. Was this about ethics, politics, or medical practicality? No answer there, but speedy congressional review resulted in doctors being able to request exceptions to the ruling. Sarah was bumped to the top of the donor list within days of launching their effort.  The media had been mobilized. Her transplant was successful. PR can sometimes work miracles.

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners and LosersPR LOSER OF THE WEEK: “F” (FULL FIASCO) TO James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, for his explanation of why he lied to Congress about wide-ranging surveillance programs. In March, when asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) if the National Security Agency was collecting data on millions of Americans, Clapper responded “No, sir…not wittingly.” As we now know, the NSA was very wittingly doing so. This week, Clapper said he felt trapped by the question so gave the “least untruthful” response. As a general rule, truth is pretty binary – something is either true or it’s not. He also said he misinterpreted the word “collect.” Who knew the Director of Intelligence had such comprehension problems? Interestingly, while Clapper’s inability to understand basic English may sink him from a PR perspective, it may also protect him from perjury charges. Perhaps the director is smarter than he seems.

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners and LosersTHE PRV “THERE’S NO ‘THERE’ THERE” AWARD to Kanye West, whose interview this week with The New York Times sets a new standard for unintended self-satire. His narcissistic ramblings on his own “awesomeness” could have appeared, unedited, in The Onion. The self-styled “Michael Jordan of music” has won “the most Grammys of anyone my age” and is “so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things” – like maybe how to conduct an interview? After earning a brief moment of pathos at the mention of his deceased mother, he notes that the “idea of Kanye and vanity are like, synonymous,” and inserts himself in a pantheon of visionaries that includes Miles Davis, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, and Steve Jobs. Of the latter, he notes: “I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period. By a long jump.” After more than 4,000 words of Kanye, mostly from his own mouth, one sort of hopes that will be a long jump off a short pier.


Michael Douglas’s Loose Lips Sink a PR Opportunity

 Michael Douglass Loose Lips Sink a PR Opportunity

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Michael Douglas.

There isn’t a big enough candelabra in the world right now for Michael Douglas to hide behind. Douglas, currently promoting his starring role as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra, shocked the world by telling a British newspaper that his throat cancer was caused by oral sex. Previously, the cancer had been attributed to smoking and drinking in Douglas’ younger days.

The story played out over multiple news cycles, first with the admission itself and then with a clumsy “clarification” by Douglas, who now maintains that he was speaking more generally about links between human papilloma virus (HPV) and certain cancers – an explanation that doesn’t quite jibe with the journalist’s audio tape of the interview. Imagine the scene chez Douglas, with a livid Catherine Zeta-Jones, the Welsh actress and Douglas’ wife, berating her husband for his loose lips, and what this implies about her.

The great shame here is not the potential cause of Douglas’ cancer, but that he missed a golden opportunity to turn an embarrassing gaffe into a cause celebré. Before his backpedaling, Douglas was being lauded by health experts and pundits the world over for openly discussing the touchy subject of HPV, considered an epidemic yet still a taboo topic because it’s sexually transmitted. Having a major celebrity recount his experience and urge HPV prevention strategies could have prompted a much-needed national conversation, but Douglas wouldn’t put his reputation where his mouth is.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Michael Douglas’s clumsy retraction and lost chance to redirect the story toward a good cause.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Everyone makes mistakes, but with the right PR they can be spun. As much as Douglas may not have relished becoming a spokesperson for HPV, the truth is that everyone now believes this is how his cancer was caused. By turning the blunder into a platform, Douglas could have both spun himself out of a PR mess and contributed to the greater good. If a celebrity can’t handle the truth and its consequences, perhaps it’s better for him to keep his mouth shut in the first place.

Hospital’s Unhealthy PR Response to Lawsuit

HUGUETTE CLARK 150x150 Hospitals Unhealthy PR Response to Lawsuit

PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Beth Israel Hospital. (Pictured: heiress and patient Huguette Clark.)

The story of copper heiress Huguette Clark (left) has all the makings of a soon-to-be optioned movie. Clark was a Manhattan heiress with an estimated $300 million fortune and no direct heirs of her own, who lived in seclusion on Fifth Avenue. In 1991 she was admitted to Beth Israel, a leading New York hospital, and continued to live there until her death in 2011 at the age of 104. During her stay she gave the hospital some $4 million in donations, not counting the $1,200 a day she paid daily in out-of-pocket expenses.

Beth Israel is now on the receiving end of a legal suit launched on behalf of the heiress’s distant relatives. Their accusation? That the vulnerable heiress was subjected to a relentless fundraising campaign that included showering her with trivial gifts and  exercising undue influence to encourage the donation of cash and highly valuable art. The case will be heard in September.

So far, Beth Israel has declined comment, referring the media to its publicly available legal filings. “Having provided lifesaving and compassionate care to a person of Ms. Clark’s wealth, it would have been surprising if Beth Israel had not approached her for donations . . . the amount of money she gave to Beth Israel was not very large, considering her vast wealth,” the filings state matter-of-factly. Hardly a face-saving PR strategy, for one of New York’s major hospitals.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Beth Israel for a truly disastrous response.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Separate PR from legal. Relying on filed defenses for a PR response is only tempting the fates. While wise to decline to comment on the specifics, why not reaffirm that Clark was a beloved and admired patient at the hospital during her twenty-year stay? Express regret that the distant relatives have decided to launch civil proceedings over donations that have been put to good use (and then mention what $4 million has bought). Above all, avoid saying it wasn’t very much anyway. Huguette Clark is unlikely to have agreed with Beth Israel’s assessment – $4 million, even in her book, was presumably not chump change.

To read more, click here.

Angelina Jolie’s Brave Announcement

Screen Shot 2013 05 14 at 9.37.25 PM 150x150 Angelina Jolies Brave Announcement The New York Times editorial started off sentimentally, with superstar Angelina Jolie writing of how her mother died young, at just 56 years-old, and before she had a chance to meet all of Jolie’s six children. Soon, though, it was clear Jolie was making a shocking announcement: she had recently undergone an elective double mastectomy after learning she carries a genetic mutation linked to significantly higher incidence of both breast and ovarian cancer.

The decision to have her breasts removed without a cancer diagnosis was surely an anguishing one for the 37-year-old Jolie, considered one of the world’s sexiest women. In the editorial, she explained her decision-making process and went into detail about the procedures. She addressed the emotional impact that mastectomy can have on a woman, and the critical role that partners (in Jolie’s case, the actor Brad Pitt) play during this difficult time. By saying she “started” with breast removal, she also hinted she may continue with more prophylactic surgery, such as a hysterectomy.

In all likelihood, Jolie could have kept mum about this life event. However, she said, she chose to go public to raise awareness about the genetic testing available to women and to give reassurance to those agonizing over the same decision. As one columnist at National Public Radio noted: “Someone will think about having a mastectomy and remember that Angelina Jolie had one, and she wasn’t embarrassed, and she still felt pretty, and she told everyone that it can be survived.”

THE PR VERDICT:  “A” (PR Perfect) for Angelina Jolie, whose announcement was a flawless example of using one’s celebrity platform in a constructive and selfless manner.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: The way an announcement is made can be crucial to how it is perceived. Ms. Jolie shunned a huge press conference or one-on-one interview in favor of writing a thoughtful editorial in one of the world’s most venerable publications. In doing so, she was able to express herself fully and eloquently yet also remain protected from a barrage of follow-up questions. Perhaps most importantly, by writing the op-ed she made her announcement more about a health concern shared by many women and less about Angelina Jolie. Well done.