If I was teaching a PR class, there are some media events that could make great case studies. Take the case of Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., son of the famed civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Jackson, Jr. is currently being hospitalized for depression and another unnamed physical ailment. However, the way this story was drawn out is a textbook case of how not to handle the media.
Here is what they got wrong:
1. They allowed the media to control the story. This story was driven by the media from the beginning. It started off as a thinly-sourced story about Jackson being absent from Congress, which quickly devolved into rumors about drug use and suicide attempts. All the while nothing came from the Jackson camp.
Jackson’s staff should have gotten ahead of the story. They should have called a press conference and announced the congressman’s ailment and that he was under treatment. Unfortunately, because this incident has to do with mental illness, I believe the Jackson camp were reluctant to release the information.
2. There was no clarity. The media starts running with rumors when they have nothing to go on. Reporters often have daily deadlines to meet and they have to report something. If you don’t give them anything, as the Jackson camp did, they will report rumors. It’s better to give provide them with facts.
3. The story was allowed to drag on . The story of Jackson’s illness first appeared in the media about three weeks ago and is still in the news cycle. If the Jackson camp had rolled it out to the media quickly, (preferably on Friday afternoon) they could have gotten all the bad news out in the open and done with quickly. Instead they allowed the media to keep the story going in drips. If they had been more open, the media would have been done with this story in three days, or a week at most.
4. There was no spokesperson. Early on in this news story, someone should have been named the Jackson camp spokesperson to be the go-to-guy for the media. His father, Jesse, Sr., who is well-versed in the media, could have handled this. (He seems to be doing this now.) It’s better to have your spokesman on a story than the media speculating or bringing on talking heads that have no idea about the case.
5. There was no consistency. One of the rules of PR is always stay on message. Well, the Jackson camp had no message whatsoever, and when news did get out, it was often conflicting. Jackson was at home, then he was in a clinic. He was being treated for addiction, then it was revealed that he was being treated for depression. They should have given regular media updates about the congressman’s condition. This is much better than letting the media run with rumors.
I hope the congressman recovers from his ailments. I realize that this is a stressful time for his family, but the situation could have been handled differently to avoid lots of rumors, speculation and bad PR.
Manny Otiko, founder of Otiko Communications, has worked in the public relations and journalism field for about 15 years as a journalist and a media relations specialist. A version of this article first appeared on PR Breakfast Club.