After all the public relations gaffes in the last year, some muckety-muck, powerful executives still don't get it. Because I live these types of decisions every day, it must be too intuitive to me how to handle the most basic and obvious PR decisions. That's why I really shouldn't be surprised to read about the latest bumbling move by Hackensack University Medical Center.
This type of PR blunder has happened for as long as newspapers existed. The Record, a daily newspaper owned by North Jersey Media Group, was preparing to write a controversial article about the questionable Board connections of the Medical Center. So, right out of a "PR 101 Never Do This" guide, the hospital's Board threatened to pull its entire ad campaign if the paper had the nerve to run the piece.
Kudos to the brave daily (especially in this economy.) With the threat looming overhead, the publisher never flinched and the article was printed that Sunday. And, like clockwork, the Board pulled all of its advertising budget. We all know what comes next in this story. The Record printed another article simply stating what the Board did (threatened it and then pulled the advertising campaign.) And now, the Medical Center is on its heels, back pedaling because it looks so stupid (like a big, bad bully) through more negative publicity.
Now the Board has issued an apology and offered to reinstate the ad campaign. (The statement was issued through its PR firm.) And, I'm reading this latest article (with a few million other people in The New York Times). Need I say anymore...?
What's the lesson(s) learned here? Well, there are a few. First, I don't care how powerful you are, don't try to control national or daily newspapers with threats or money. It simply won't work. In actuality, the more powerful and/or famous one is, the greater the chance he/she will be covered by the press because that's what sells newspapers.
Secondly, our world is much too transparent now to ever think that a threat like that one given by the Medical Center Board won't be leaked or reported. So, one better understand how one story will surely evolve into more ongoing embarrassing news if this bad strategy is enforced.
Lastly, these executives (in this case The Hackensack Medical Center Board) need to learn to just deal with the issue at hand in a sensible way. Because, there are no easy answers once a crisis begins. If the Medical Center indeed does have bad practices at the Board level, well... it should have looked at its vulnerabilities and fixed these. Since it seems like that ship has sailed, then the Board needs to retain the right crisis communicators/managers to counsel them better on openly and honestly dealing with the problem.
Step one (these days) means having a truthful conversation with The Record to explain what the issues are and how they will be changed for the better.
Yes, I'm sure the Medical Center would have still taken some knocks for its questionable practices. But, assuming changes are forthcoming, the negative coverage might have stopped there and an important media relationship would still be intact. Of course, this is not the reality now.
Thankfully, the ethical boundaries separating advertising and editorial still exist in most reputable newspapers. That's important, so that you and I can continue to believe (most) of what is written these days. Hackensack Medical Center (a very good hospital, by the way) learned this reality the hard way.