Death as a PR opportunity

I got a pitch email the day after Kobe Bryant and his daughter died in a helicopter crash. It was from a PR person, offering me the opportunity to interview and get quotes from a trauma expert. I found it ghoulish and appalling. But it made me wonder: there is so much death and so much trauma in the world, where must a PR person draw the line?

Here is the email I received:

Pitch: Kobe: Trauma Therapist on Kobe’s Wife and What She’ll Face Next

From: Jo Allison jo @ successinmedia.com

Josh,

Does this story work for you?

-Jo Allison
MediaAmbassadors.com

Trauma Therapist on Kobe’s Wife and What She’ll Face Next
She can also talk about Kobe’s other kids and the complexities of how this will play out.

Dr. Colleen Cira is a trauma therapist, licenced clinical psychologist as well as a wife and mother herself. She can see the next phases of this process for Kobe’s wife and other children.

Available: Dr. Colleen Cira,
Trauma Therapist (Bio / Ambassador Page)

What Dr. Colleen Cira Can Say on This Topic:

-There is some real complexity here. His wife just lost a husband and child at the same time. What must that be like for her?

-Something of that magnitude combined with reaction from presidents and celebrities and millions of fans is more than most people will ever experience.

-As a mother and wife I am near inconsolable every time I think about his wife and the unspeakable pain she must be in. It feels simply too much.

-AND how as a trauma therapist and sexual trauma survivor, I am also feeling so much for the women that he has hurt in the past.

-…His death can be triggering for them too – seeing his face and name EVERYWHERE – but also sexual trauma survivors in general.
-And how simply acknowledging this complexity is not being disrespectful of him or negating his impact on basketball, young people, the Black Community, etc but simply acknowledging another equally true and less pleasant reality.

-I know that when people die we all (especially the media) appoint them to sainthood and as that wears off we are left with a mix of feelings.
It can be tough for some people to hold both truths in their head at the same time.

Colleen can talk more about the grieving process for Kobe’s wife and kids when people are killed in a tragic way, die early, and the public focus (does it help or hurt.)

Josh,
Do you want to interview or quote Dr. Cira?

Jo

Contact:
Jo Allison
PR Managing Editor
MEDIA AMBASSADORS
Success in Media, Inc.
Jo @ SuccessInMedia.com

I am not much of a basketball fan and my knowledge about Kobe Bryant is minimal. However, I do know that millions of people are grieving the tragedy of a great player suddenly dead at 41 years old along with his daughter. So the pitch struck me at horrifying and wrong.

This was clearly a very broad blast. I am on some general list at Meltwater of “influencers” or media members or the like. If it hit me, it probably hit thousands of other random people, nearly all of whom are unlikely to respond. Many of them are people for whom this is not a random tragedy but a personal one. (I know how I would feel if one of my sports idols had tragically died too young — and one almost did last year.) This pitch is sure to strike such folks as offensive and wrong.

In short, any benefit it might generate for Dr. Cira will be far outweighed by the pain it causes. While I can see the argument that Dr. Cira’s publicist might make that putting her on TV or quoting her might help people attempting to deal with tragedy, this pitch comes off as exploitive and awful, not helpful. (Do you agree?)

Jo Allison is trying to get publicity for her client. I have provided her email address here, which she should be fine with, since it extends the reach of her email blast. (She failed to respond to my invitation to interview her for this post.) If you send me an untargeted blast, I think you should be fine with seeing it reach a bigger audience. If you want to talk to Dr. Cira, please contact Ms. Allison.

Where, exactly, is the line?

Once I got over my immediate revulsion, I began to wonder which pitches of this kind would be ethically appropriate. Here’s a thought experiment for you. Which of these pitches suggesting an expert to interview would be allowable, and which are reprehensible? (These are all based on actual tragedies.)

  1. A virologist offers expert commentary on the spread of the Coronavirus.
  2. A nuclear power expert offers commentary on the breaching of a reactor and its deadly impact on those around the plant.
  3. An Iranian expat explains how the nation of Iran is grieving the death of senior official in a bomb strike.
  4. A crew coach explains the likely impact on the team and fans of the death of a tightly-knit college crew team in a horrible auto accident.
  5. A beloved business thinker and professor dies at age 67 after an accomplished career, and business leaders make themselves available to describe the impact he made.

If you want to tell me in the comments which of these you’d find offensive, I’d be very interested in the results.

My hands are not completely clean here. I am, after all, writing this post in the wake of Kobe’s death (I waited three days, but you can certainly criticize me for it). And one of the most popular blog posts I ever wrote was about Steve Jobs stepping down due to illness, and it got me a CNBC appearance. If they had asked me to appear after he died, I would have done it.

And I’m just talking about pitches. There are other ways to get publicity in the wake of events — it’s called newsjacking, and I do it all the time. In the matter of Kobe’s death, which of the following would you find allowable, and which gruesome?

  • A blog or Facebook post about his contribution to basketball?
  • A post about a personal connection someone had with him, or about how he inspired them?
  • A post about how this event teaches us all to value the loved ones around us, because they can be taken at any moment?
  • A post about how people react in moments of extreme grief? (This post is what Dr. Cira might write.)
  • A YouTube video or Instagram post about any of the above?
  • A Podcast about any of the above?
  • A tweet or Twitter thread about any of the above?
  • An email newsletter that talks about any of the above, sent to subscribers who signed up for it?

Any of these seems much less awful than the email pitch. Part of the reason is that people reading them are people who asked for them, or clicked on them. They aren’t going to be hitting unsuspecting people at a moment of extreme grief. And they are primarily intended to help the recipient or reader or viewer with that grief, not generate visibility for the expert. While these are all forms of newsjacking and content marketing, they don’t seem so blatantly exploitive.

I am not on solid ground here — I have a lot of uncertainty about where to draw the line. So I ask for your help. In the wake of tragedy, what do you believe is acceptable content marketing or publicity work, and what is not?

10 responses to “Death as a PR opportunity

  1. Hi Josh

    Is the line not one the broadcaster should decide? I think it’s one thing having a PR offering access to an expert in the aftermath of a terrible event; it’s quite another for a broadcaster to take them up on it and broadcast an interview.

    Mike

  2. My Dad used to say there’s only one thing worse than an ambulance-chaser and that’s a hearse-chaser. Although I see some wisdom in that, I draw the line when the personal tragedy is personal. This topic is too voyeuristic for me. I don’t want to know how his wife and family will cope. That’s an invasion of their privacy on the TMZ scale. I want to know how I can cope, or my husband can cope–people who are fans or admirers of talented athletes, artists, and the like. That’s my take.

  3. Here’s my take as an ex-journalist:
    1. A virologist offers expert commentary on the spread of the Coronavirus.
    IF the virologist can cut through what are apparently huge loads of misinformation and make an impact, then yes, this is hugely appropriate and necessary. There’s clearly tragedy (80-plus deaths) and uncertainty. We need more knowledge.
    2. A nuclear power expert offers commentary on the breaching of a reactor and its deadly impact on those around the plant.
    Almost the same as #1, though the danger is more contained. It’s a little more voyeuristic, but if we have loved ones in the area then it can provide help and value.
    3. An Iranian expat explains how the nation of Iran is grieving the death of senior official in a bomb strike.
    Iran is pretty closed off from communications with the rest of the world. How would this person know what millions of people are thinking? We saw images from protests against the US following the killing of Suleimani, but how controlled were those by state media? Too many questions like that for this to provide real value.
    4. A crew coach explains the likely impact on the team and fans of the death of a tightly-knit college crew team in a horrible auto accident.
    If we want to know the likely impact on the team, then let’s hear from the members of the team. The coach may be trying to fend off the press bugging people in mourning, which is totally understandable, but he or she may develop a narrative that’s not quite the reality.
    5. A beloved business thinker and professor dies at age 67 after an accomplished career, and business leaders make themselves available to describe the impact he made.
    I always felt weird about contacting grieving people in the wake of a high-profile death, but more often than not the people I contacted were happy to talk about the impact the person made. As long as the people contributing actually knew the person and had direct, unique information about this person’s impact, then it’s totally appropriate.

  4. I agree that the trauma expert’s publicist is way out of line. Any publicist trying to capitalize on tragedy is ethically questionable, though this may be an oxymoron!

    Offensive:

    An Iranian expat explains how the nation of Iran is grieving the death of senior official in a bomb strike.
    — Lots of Iranians living/studying/working in U.S. Talk to them. Also reporter could find an activist in Iran and make an online or phone connection.

    A crew coach explains the likely impact on the team and fans of the death of a tightly-knit college crew team in a horrible auto accident.
    — Maudlin and unfair to survivors and memories of the team.

    A blog or Facebook post about his contribution to basketball? YES
    A post about a personal connection someone had with him, or about how he inspired them? MAYBE
    — Depends who it is and whether or not they could write the post themselves.

    A YouTube video or Instagram post about any of the above? YES
    A Podcast about any of the above? NO.
    — Not a strong enough issue and after a while what can you say? Podcast on bball greats with Bryant and other retired or deceased basketball legends would be okay as one episode of this Podcast.

    A tweet or Twitter thread about any of the above? YES
    An email newsletter that talks about any of the above, sent to subscribers who signed up for it? YES

    No on these pitches is for reasons similar to the ones I noted above.

    Also I don’t like to speak ill of the dead but Bryant was credibly charged with rape and later admitted he was wrong bc he thought it was consensual but it wasn’t. The victim says otherwise–he knew it wasn’t consensual. If anyone is doing lengthy writing or podcasting and posting about him this needs to be said.

    All imho of course. But I have been a reporter and editor and currently teach journalism. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics is my guide.

  5. Hey Josh . . .
    I’d love to see your take on “How to become an instant best seller” in regards to John Bolton’s new book . . . according to our math, as of last night’s 6-oclock news, the book has received more than ONE HUNDRED MILLION dollars in free media exposure, based on the cost of a 15 second Superbowl Ad.

    I’ve been in the advertising industry for almost a half century. Back several years ago it was estimated that you might expect to get 7% sales of your merchandising budget. So that sort of would suggest that Bolton has already sold 7 MILLION books … and it isn’t even published yet.

    How easy was it to phrase that one passage nearly exactly like Schiff wrote it, and then get a copy into the New York Times hands! Brilliant. And he wrote it in a book. Nobody can fact check it, nobody can prove that he is wrong. He said, she said — worth a hundred million in free publicity.

    What a strategy! Who ever his publicist is, should get 25% . . . it was a BRILLIANT plan, executed PERFECTLY . . . now get the book on sale BEFORE the impeachment proceedings blow over!

    We should all be so lucky.

  6. My take on your five suggested stories is that none of them is quite as close up and personal as someone talking about a specific individual or family and how they’ll be affected.

    The closest is the sports team that has lost members in a crash, and based on the experience here in 2018 with the Humboldt Broncos bus crash (16 junior hockey players and support staff killed, others catastrophically injured, on their way to a playoff game), survivors often appreciate a chance to talk about the people they’ve lost as a way to pay tribute to them. This could apply to the people who want to show respect for all that the much-loved professor accomplished in their lifetime, too, and how it has affected other people’s lives in a positive way.

    But, in my opinion, the pitch you received is just too intrusive to the Bryant family – media need to show some common decency in situations like this. What ever happened to asking yourself, “If it was me, would I want to answer questions like this or read/see articles like this about my personal loss?” If the answer is no, don’t do it.

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