Thursday, November 19, 2009

Transparency and the Power of Free Speech

My guest blogger today is Travis Ferber, a senior account executive at Makovsky + Company, who addresses the PR issues raised by the recent talk by Justice Anthony Kennedy at the Dalton School in New York.

quill and parchmentLast week there was a small article on the front page of The New York Times — just below the fold. It covered an evergreen news topic: hypocrisy. Not just simple hypocrisy. No. This was a case of high-powered hypocrisy involving the sacred ideals of journalistic integrity, allegedly violated by a stalwart proponent of free speech: Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

According to the article, a new employee of Kennedy’s office gave notice that coverage of Kennedy’s recent speech at a Manhattan high school could not appear in the high school newspaper until it had been reviewed for “accuracy.”

In response to the online uproar that ensued, Kennedy was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Kennedy’s response — “as ‘the captain of the ship,’ he said, he accepted responsibility for requests made in his name” — is a perfect example of how to communicate in a crisis: Address the situation, take responsibility, clarify your position and the facts surrounding the incident, and get a well-respected publication to publish your response.

It is not unusual for requests for accuracy reviews, nor for journalists to grant them. In an era where under-staffed and time-constrained journalism is the norm, the need for fact-checking is greater than ever. Nonetheless, the Kennedy case teaches us all a few lessons.

First, the simple fact of the matter is that if you are famous, if you have power, if you are ”newsworthy,” you can get away with a lot more. The decision to grant review of a story is driven by the power of the person being interviewed. While this is common knowledge among media vets, it is quite an eye-opening experience for those outside or new to the profession (in this case, the high school newspaper editors).

The Fourth Estate is not as free as some would think.

There is also a lesson here for PR professionals. Kennedy’s response was perfect, but the fact that he had to respond shows how quickly small mistakes can turn into big problems. A few years ago it would have been inconceivable to see a high school newspaper trigger a national communication crisis.

So in today’s transparent world, perhaps the best advice we can give echoes Polonius’s command: “This above all else, to thy own self be true.”

True to thy own self and, I would add, everyone else, too.

Technorati Tags: freedom of speech, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Dalton School in New York, The Fourth Estate


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