Poor Mara Liasson.
The benignly liberal Fox News contributor is a dead duck now that NPR has suddenly discovered the passage in its Code of Ethics that NPR journalists “should not participate in shows …that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”
Or maybe not.
NPR is so mixed up in its handling of the Juan Williams fiasco that maybe they’ll give Ms. Liasson a pass – further compounding their disastrous public relations handling of the whole mess.
NPR fall gal in this media firestorm is President and CEO Vivian Schiller, whose internal memo about Le Affair Juan is a textbook lesson in how not to conduct effective public relations in time of turmoil.
Here’s how the besieged Ms. Schiller embroiled herself in this no-win P.R. imbroglio.
First, she leapt to a conclusion without examining the consequences
Following after Mr. Williams’ Muslim comments Monday night on "The O’Reilly Factor," he was fired on Wednesday night. “We did not feel it would responsible to delay the action,” Ms. Schiller explained to the staff.
Why not? Because the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) complained?
Clearly, a wiser course for NPR to have followed – indeed, the advice any self-respecting public relations advisor would have proffered – would be to take a moment to assess the totality of Williams’ work, civil rights commentary, 10-year contribution to NPR, and intent of his remarks and then decide.
Had NPR taken the time for this analysis, at worst, Williams would have been “suspended” for a month. The network would have been vindicated and not faced with the national opprobrium and potential loss of funding to which this event will surely lead.
Second, she was fuzzily inconsistent in quoting corporate policy
There is a difference, Ms. Schiller wrote, between an NPR “analyst” and an NPR “commentator.” And thou shalt not partake in programs encouraging “punditry and speculation,” said Ms. Schiller. But the fact is that any time any NPR employee appears on Fox or MSNBC or Meet the Press or talk radio or the blogosphere, they are invading the realm of opinion and bias.
It just ain’t your mother’s journalistic landscape any more, Ms. Schiller. And to blame Juan Williams for that defies credulity.
Third, she hit him when he was down
One cardinal rule in public relations is you neither publicly bad mouth your adversary nor pummel a fallen man.
When Ms. Schiller growled in her memo that “this isn’t the first time we have had serious concerns about some of Juan’s public comments,” she not only violated this respectful PR covenant, she alienated anybody whose ever met Juan Williams – as understated and decent an individual as any in the media.
Fourth, she did it for money
Finally, Ms. Schiller lamented to the staff, “We’re profoundly sorry that this happened during fundraising week.”
On Thursday, poor, exasperated Ms. Schiller was still digging herself and her network in deeper. In a speech in Atlanta captured on video, she wondered why the suddenly-outspoken Mr. Williams didn’t keep his comments “between him and his psychiatrist -- or his publicist.” (How dare she denigrate publicists!)
With the damage of NPR’s harebrained decision done and Bill O’Reilly closing in for the kill, Ms. Schiller would be wise to heed the advice of that public relations sage of yesteryear, Archie Bunker, and “stifle herself.”
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, commentator, author and teacher for 40 years. He teaches public relations at NYU and is the author of the Prentice- Hall textbook "The Practice of Public Relations," now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of "Idea Wise."