Sometimes It’s Best to Just STFU

Cn_image.size.hurricane-sandy-satelliteLast week was a tough week.  Hurricane Sandy walloped the East Coast, and the NY/NJ metros were hit particularly hard.  If you weren’t living amidst the wreckage, however, even though (like everyone else) you’d been sickened by scenes of the destruction in the aftermath, it was still all too easy to forget the very real human impact.

The PR industry always wrestles awkwardly with tragedy. You see, our role, in part, is to serve as the mediascape’s eternal optimists. Given our druthers, we only want to share good news, and that good news is about our clients.  And PR firms’ clients – while sympathetic human beings mostly – still have metrics to hit when it comes to column inches, moving the needle, ROI, call-it-what-you-will.

So while the client contacts are empathetic in the immediate wake of a disaster, at the end of the month when the PR pros didn’t get the WSJ hit – because the WSJ reporter was too busy bailing water out of their basement to give a rat’s ass about the client’s latest breakthrough – someone’s still getting in trouble.

This leads to two types of problems when it comes to PR agencies’ response to tragedies:

1. Exploitive and Reprehensible: “As the effects of Hurricane Sandy begin to wane, CIOs are wondering about the safety of their data. Luckily, customers of XZY Storage Widget Company were assured of unparalleled data storage protection and uptime, during and after the East Coast’s Frankenstorm…”

2. Too Soon: This would be “a typical pitch” that by itself is harmless, but which to most reporters will come across as tone-deaf and thoroughly unwelcome.

While I hold our own agency to the highest standards, and would consider an exploitive pitch like the one above to be a firing offense, we are human; we did fall prey to the “too soon” error last week.  We’re nimble, and we fixed it (including discussing fresh changes to our internal training curriculum) to ensure a smarter and more empathetic response in future, but ultimately it just comes down to being a reasonable creature.  Sometimes it’s best just to STFU, and take your lumps when that client contact conveniently forgets how hard it was to find a reporter with a working phone (and an open mind) in the aftermath of disaster.

Posted on: November 5, 2012 at 10:40 am By Todd Defren
8 Responses to “Sometimes It’s Best to Just STFU”


  • Any such pitch is defiantly too soon. The PR industry should be very careful with their actions after a disaster.

  • veljkogaloo says:

    Yep, I agreed with Edward… Its always “too soon”…

  • M. Edward (Ed) Borasky (@znmeb) says:

    I’m of the opinion that *any* such pitch is “too soon”. It’s *always* too soon to deliver an irrelevant, impersonal or robotic message.

  • You remind me of my brief tenure with the Mass. State Auto Dealer Association, Todd…during which 9/11 occurred. The very next day (9/12), I was contacted by a dealer who wanted my take on his launching, with my promotional assistance, a special “buy a new car and a percentage of the sale price would go to help victims’ families” deal.

    My advice to the dealer was simple…”too soon.” Nice underlying thought, but his action would be perceived as blatantly capitalizing on a tragedy to boost sales of his cars.

    We had a thoughtful conversation, and he agreed to hold on his idea and wait to see if another, more appropriate opportunity might arise to show his genuine caring. (It did, and he did.)

    We have a tricky path to follow in public relations, but there is a path, guided by ethical codes and common sense. Great, thought-provoking post.

  • Alex Kirschner says:

    I certainly hope the person that sent that pitch didn’t get fired. Hopefully you talked to his/her manager to get to the bottom of why such an inopportune pitch would even go out the door, then educate and correct. Is the account in a wonky place and the team is desperate to get instant hits? Is the client contact really hard to work with – and to that end – are they even worth working with any longer?

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