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In one of a plethora of posts about the fallout to Phil Robertson’s now infamous anti-gay remarks to a GQ reporter, TMZ, ironically, struck upon a key nuance to the situation that other publications have entirely missed: Where was Roberton’s PR counsel when the notorious interview happened? The publicist supporting Robertson was missing in action when the infamous anti-gay statements went down.
Which points to one of the most fundamental aspects of PR 101: when a reporter is present, you are always on the record. Always. On. The. Record.
Phil Robertson’s now famous interview with the GQ reporter took place in several phases. The network’s publicist attended, in accordance with A&E’s rigid PR policy, TMZ says—but when Robertson and the reporter hopped onto ATVs, the publicist didn’t come along for the ride. Bingo. Opportunity knocked, the reporter took advantage of the casual setting to ask a personal question, and out popped the offending remarks.
Surely the Duck Dynasty team has received ample media training and counsel over the course of their hugely successful series, and yes, Phil Robertson is a bona fide adult who can and should be held accountable for his statements.
But had his PR counsel stayed by his side, the attentiveness could have changed history in two ways: 1) A reporter is far less likely to ask the out-of-left-field question with PR counsel standing by, and 2) Whether it took a kick in the shin, a dirty look or an outright interruption, PR counsel could have prevented the ad hoc statement from ever happening or could have at least softened the impact with a quick retraction, a follow up remark, or an apology on the spot. As it was, the PR counselor (and the network) learned of the statement in the worst possible way–along with the rest of the world, when the interview went to print.
As a career PR lead, I believe this nuance is critical. As unacceptable as Robertson’s crass remark may have been, could the knowledge that it was a casual remark he made in the midst of a seemingly social ATV ride make a difference? It might. Or it might not. Robertson is entitled to his personal opinions, but if TMZ’s reporting of the circumstance is accurate, it seems clear he never intended to issue the blunt statement for print. (However, an apology is still in order for the rudeness and insensitivity of the comments, even if they were made in a social setting and may possibly have been intended in jest.)
Time will tell. But Robertson (and his PR counsel) have reinforced a basic lesson in public relations in the hardest possible way.
Off-the-cuff remarks are on the record. Questionable or not, the remark you make during lunch, under your breath on the way to the elevator, or in casual conversation “after the interview’s over” can become headlines, particularly as they can be far more interesting to the reporter than the carefully worded “official” statements you’ve made. (Which leads to another word to the wise on public relations: Give an interesting interview. If responses are so tightly scripted they offer little genuine insight or interest, what’s a reporter to do?)
For spokespeople and PR counsel to miss this nuance is a breach of PR that ranks right up with forgetting to make sure the mic is off or the conference line is clear before giving counsel to a speaker after the formal interview’s through. (As a columnist I’ve been privy to a few of those private “after remarks” myself. It’s amazing how often the basic rules are forgotten.)
Yes, Robertson and the Dynasty clan must own the responsibility for their statements. But this is yet another case where attentive PR guidance that could have been a game changer has failed.
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