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Sex, the Inauguration and a PR Blindside

Sex, the Inauguration and a PR Blindside

Sex, the Inauguration and a PR Blindside

The presidential inauguration took on new meaning in our little corner of the world last week when President Obama’s inaugural committee named Richard Blanco the inaugural poet.  Richard’ brother, Carlos, works from an office down the hall and is both a friend and client.  While I know little about poetry and even less about Richard (I have never met him), I plan to watch the inauguration to hear what the “other Mr. Blanco” has to say.  Media coverage of Richard’s sexual orientation has also raised some hackles.

Richard was born in Madrid and raised in Miami.  He worked as an engineer before earning a Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Florida International University (this is big news for FIU, too) and has earned many poetry-world accolades for his work.  Now living in Maine, he was, indeed, plucked from relative obscurity and named the inaugural poet.  He’s Hispanic, spent his formative years in a state crucial to presidential candidates and, as no news outlet has failed to mention, gay.

The prominence given to this aspect of Richard’s life has been a subject of conversations between his brother and me.  When a local television station interviewed him about his brother, Carlos said all the right things: “We’re thrilled for him and proud …”  However, the station chose to produce a segment that included some Miami musicians also   participating in the inauguration.  The musicians happen to be gay as well, so the reporter decided that would be his angle.  Carlos was taken aback by the coverage asking: Why is this “a gay thing?”  Here’s a link to the segment, also embedded below if you want to pass your own judgment. http://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/South-Florida-Musicians-Poet-To-Appear-at-President-Obamas-Second-Inauguration-186258042.html

As a public relations consultant, I wasn’t surprised.  While you can deliver the perfect message points to a journalist, you have no control over what they will ultimately write or broadcast.  In addition, in the news biz, one uncommon instance of something may be deemed “interesting,” but two uncommon instances become a “trend.”  Reporting on Miami gays (plural) at the inauguration was too tantalizing for this particular journalist.  When the musicians in the segment offered sound bytes that aligned with the reporter’s angle, the story became about sexual orientation at the D.C. ceremony and not talented individuals at the inauguration.

Preventing a Blindside
What happened to Carlos and Richard is difficult (sometimes impossible) to prevent, but you can try.  As I mentioned earlier, one of the things you give up when offering an interview to a reporter is control over what is ultimately printed or broadcast.  If a reporter is sloppy, unprofessional or maybe just not that good at their job, you can get a result that you don’t like.  Frankly, I think instances of journalists doing wildly dramatic stories for the sake of ratings are rare – usually confined to political and entertainment reporting.  Here are a few things to consider so you don’t get blindsided:

Develop Message Points and Practice
I don’t advocate scripted interviews, but preparation of main message points and practicing possible tough questions prevent a lot of grief.  Think about two or three main points that you want to convey in an interview and write them down.  Review them before your interview, and if it’s a phone interview, have them in front of you.  We also recommend thinking about possible questions which might make you stumble or trip you up (PR people are usually good at helping with these).  In most cases, if you know how to answer the toughest questions, the others are easy.

Avoid Distractions
I have seen instances when people lost their train of thought during an interview and even completely forget what they said to a reporter.  Remember, you are always “on the record,” so try to avoid distractions.  If doing a phone interview, sit in your office with the door closed, computer monitor turned off and your phone on vibrate.  Focus on the moment and keep your message points in front of you  (This tip is doubly important for anyone who gets nervous during interviews).

Take it Seriously
While it is OK to make small talk with a reporter, be sure to keep it serious – don’t try too hard to be funny.  Humor cuts tension but when dealing with a reporter who doesn’t know you, it can be a recipe for disaster.  While you needn’t be stiff, being serious helps prevent you from saying something that can be misperceived.

Set Some Ground Rules
If a topic was reported incorrectly in the past or if reporters tend to get it wrong or miss the nuance, feel free to set some ground rules – carefully.  For Carlos, this might mean telling reporters, before an interview, that he has been disappointed in prior coverage because reporters focused heavily on his brother’s sexual orientation.  He can tell reporters that, while he can’t stop them from reporting the facts, he would prefer it if the story focused on his brother’s talents and this accomplishment first and foremost.  Most reporters that I know, and I know hundreds, would take that into consideration.

Don’t Go “Off the Record”
While I sat-in on many interviews where sources went “off the record” to their advantage, I generally don’t recommend it.  The simplest tactic is to treat everything you say to a reporter as on the record.  If you don’t want a reporter to know something, don’t say it.  Most reporters honor “off the record” information, but placing the burden on the reporter makes a blindside (even an inadvertent one) more likely.

This and That
Just for curiosity’s sake, I checked to see if you could buy tickets for the swearing-in or other inaugural events on Stubhub.  Because most of the events are free, Stubhub’s site says it won’t offer them for sale.  Craigslist and EBay share no such ethical commitment as tickets there have been fetching as much as $2,000 apiece.
When not shooting the bull about his brother, Carlos has his fingers in a number of entrepreneurial endeavors.  He is one of the principals of ER Texting, a company that enables hospital emergency rooms and urgent care centers to offer wait times via text message.  He also recently started Aftermath which offers post-divorce services in a one-stop, online environment, helping with everything from getting a new passport to properly dividing retirement accounts.  

Be sure to tune in to the inauguration on Monday to hear Richard’s poem.  We will have it on at our office in the Dadeland area if you want to stop by.  Coffee’s on me.

Do you have any tips on how to prevent a PR blindside?  Please feel free to share them.


Author: John P. David

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