The Real Danger in Sinclair Broadcast’s ‘fake news’ Scandal

The Real Danger in Sinclair Broadcast’s ‘fake news’ Scandal

Over the last month, viewers in dozens of local media markets across the country began to hear impassioned warnings from their trusted local anchors about the danger mainstream media outlets and "false news" posed to democracy.

It was soon discovered that these weren't genuine outpourings of principle or belief from the anchors, but scripted monologues mandated by their superiors, and repeated verbatim across the country. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the single largest owner of local television stations in the United States, had sent down marching orders; these were must-runs.

Must-runs are nothing new for Sinclair station employees; they've been happening for ages: prepackaged stories designed to be aired over a specific period of time during local newscasts, and very often politically charged.

They've included mandatory daily terrorism stories, hit pieces on Hillary Clinton, and forceful denunciations of "fake news," a term with which we are all by now deeply familiar. The past month's word-for-word diatribes are simply the latest example of this, and notably, have finally caught public notice.

The Tragedy of Hope Hicks – And How She Failed the PR Profession

The Tragedy of Hope Hicks – And How She Failed the PR Profession

The first thing that needs to be said is that Hope Hicks is twenty-nine years old.

Hicks’s relative youth needs to be stated upfront because she’s caught up in a scandalous administration that has felled people with far more experience and expertise than she; politics is nasty even when you know what you’re doing, and I very much get the impression that Hicks found herself in the Trump family whirlwind and, before she knew it, was White House Communications Director – a post two others had vacated in under a year before her, and which her immediate predecessor held for less than two weeks. In other words, the Trump administration takes its toll on battle-hardened veterans, and Hicks was prepared neither for Washington, nor the unique stresses of the Trump era.

Her failures, then, may be forgivable. Or at least not totally incomprehensible.

 

Imagine, if you will, her career arc; a neophyte PR professional-turned-model is discovered by Ivanka Trump, who asks her to model for her clothing line before whisking her into the Trump organization, where she quickly becomes one of Trump’s primary advisors and shoulders to cry on; he then embarks on a quixotic presidential campaign that manages to win against all reason; the boss she has closely served is now President of the United States, and she is a top West Wing official. All of this in the space of less than five years. There are few career arcs as startlingly exponential. Which makes her stunning fall all the more dramatic.

Her admission last week in front of a House panel to telling “white lies” on behalf of her boss, which precipitated her almost immediate exit from her role in the West Wing, did profoundly more damage than she likely suspected at the time; I found it nothing short of baffling, not that she had admitted to lying, but that she had done so at all. Why did I find it so baffling? Because of what PR is supposed to be.

The Year Ahead in Public Relations

The Year Ahead in Public Relations

There is an undeniable hopefulness in doing year-ahead trend articles. They’re affirmations, at the darkest time of the year, that life will continue much as it has. Against all odds, we made it to 2018 (relatively) unscathed. Despite some saber-rattling bluster from both Washington and Pyongyang at the beginning of the year, no nuclear war has as yet proved forthcoming, and while the ongoing tumult of the President’s twitter account remains a source of constant chaos, it hasn’t turned openly destructive in ways that can’t be contained. So, with the self-aware caveat that this list will be entirely invalidated should missiles start flying, let’s take a look at the remaining 354 days of the year ahead of us and the PR stories I expect to undergo significant developments and dominate the headlines.

Torpedoes be damned! Full speed ahead!

The Reckoning

The #MeToo movement was easily one of the biggest stories of the year, netting its key figures recognition as TIME’s collective Person of the Year. But it’s part of a much larger movement facing the private sector: open revolt against toxicity in business. The common features we see amongst the companies and public figures caught up in #MeToo’s net are focused on the abuse of power and the exploitation of the weak, and those are issues we can see extending outward in non-sexual ways as well: Amazon’s ongoing PR difficulties regarding how it treats its workers, Uber’s frat-house corporate culture, which the mere ouster of CEO Travis Kalanick alone can’t and won’t stop, and the rampant sexism and xenophobia blowing through Silicon Valley, evidenced by the famous “Google Memo.”. Uber itself has suffered a difficult 2017, but Amazon didn’t, even though both have long faced criticism for abusive treatment of their employees.

As 2018 progresses, expect to see the conversation that started #MeToo expand more generally to workplace cultures that perpetuate, not only conditions of sexual harassment and abuse, but to issues of racial discrimination and the exploitation and abuse of the so-called working poor as well. When a company literally has workers sneaking written cries for help into its parcels, we’re looking at exactly the same root issue that animated #MeToo to begin with: people unable to extricate themselves from a bad situation because they depend on it for survival, and people in power eager to take advantage. Expect this to become a much larger issue that companies across the country and the world (an increasingly meaningless distinction) find themselves having to face squarely as the public begins to demand people in positions of power own up to the consequences of their decisions. And with Amazon on the verge of expanding into brick-and-mortar in a very big way with the possible acquisition of Target, those conversations are going to happen no matter what.

A Look Back on 2017’s Public Relations Winners and Losers

A Look Back on 2017’s Public Relations Winners and Losers

It’s that time of year again! Was it really only a year ago that we were talking about Leslie Jones and the Ghostbusters movie, Pokemon Go, and Samsung’s exploding phone? 2017 has felt like a lifetime. And in that lifetime (as one would expect), a lot has happened. Let’s take a look!

The NFL

One of the most contentious stories of the past two years has been the ongoing “take a knee” protests popularized by Colin Kaepernik (who was on last year’s list) and their resulting backlash. The protests, an attempt to call attention to victimization of black men and women in America by police forces across the country, quickly became a cultural flashpoint, with critics claiming the protesters were “disrespecting” America’s veterans who had fought under that flag. Whatever side you fell on, the NFL (and its independent franchisees) were in a no-win scenario; condemn the protest and alienate vast swathes of your audience, or support them to the exact same outcome. The choice to ultimately do and say nothing on the matter simply punted the ball to individual franchise owners whose ongoing disputes over the issue merely kept it in the news – exactly where the NFL didn’t want it.

VERDICT: Loser

The fact that there wasn’t a win scenario here doesn’t mean the NFL hasn’t paid for it. The president has been turning his wrath toward it, players and fans are at each other’s throats, and America’s default national pastime has become hopelessly politicized. While the NFL itself never asked for this problem, it’s place at the center of American leisure culture meant that eventually it was going to get caught in the same vociferous left-right divide that’s affecting everything else, and it handled it about as badly as anyone could.

Everything Counts but Nothing Matters: Roy Moore & the Strange New World of Public Relations

Everything Counts but Nothing Matters: Roy Moore & the Strange New World of Public Relations

There’s a story that outlines, in crystal clear terms, the strange new world that the art of modern public relations inhabits.

It’s a story that just keeps going: the endless parade of powerful men being exposed as sexual predators and serial harassers. It’s beyond unnecessary to give the rundown; we all know the big names, and as their numbers grow, it becomes a torrent that’s pointless to try to keep up with. And the unmaskings have reached Congress as well, having already felled Democrats Al Franken and John Conyers and Republican Trent Franks.

And then there are the accusations leveled against Roy Moore.

Rather than catalog those numerous accusations, which have dominated the news for weeks (a rare feat in the news firehose that is 2017) and with which we are all familiar, I want to take a different course and ask a question I’m not seeing discussed elsewhere: which party is handling this situation better and whether or not, from a political and public relations standpoint, it even matters right now.

That last question isn’t one I’m especially thrilled to be tackling, so let’s start at the top; are the Democrats or the Republicans handling this ongoing crisis better? The answer you may immediately be jumping to – that it’s clearly the Democrats – might prove surprisingly incorrect, because we’re not asking a moral question. We witnessed over the course of the 2016 election that stubborn, intransigent denials can work marvels, and obvious evasions can successfully deflect questions almost indefinitely. Less than a month after the “grab ‘em by the p*ssy” tapes leaked, Donald Trump was elected president; the news cycle moves quickly, and the lesson the Republicans learned is that mastering it means winning the day, not the point. From a PR perspective, modern politics operates in 24-hour increments (if that).

We need only look, again, at last year’s election for proof; the drumbeat of scandal that plagued the Trump campaign meant that all it had to do was ignore a problem long enough for it to go away, while the Clinton administration couldn’t avoid the day-in day-out reminders of a single scandal. Trump knew that all he had to do was win the day and he’d be fine; tomorrow, he’d sort out that day. It’s media-driven public relations more than politics itself, focusing on evasion over confrontation on a daily basis.