Fraser P. Seitel
Seasoned public relations people understand that the press conference is probably the worst setting for any loose-tongued client, especially one ready to pick a fight.
Think Donald Trump on his worst day — which is pretty awful — Or Mel Gibson after his anti-Semitic tirade. Or Michael “Kramer” Richards after his racist meltdown.
Exposing these ticking time bombs to nasty media questions in an uncontrolled environment is PR suicide. Indeed, no PR person worth his or her hourly rate would ever recommend a press conference when a more controllable sit-down interview would do.
If you doubt that wisdom, consider America’s latest celebrity, self-immolation poster child, Kathy Griffin, who on the advice of her trusted legal counsel, held a press conference and ruined a career, all in one disastrous swoop.
That Griffin’s attorney, Lisa Bloom, would suggest that her Trump severed head-holding client “clear the air” with a press conference isn’t surprising. Attorney Bloom, the poor woman’s Gloria Allred, has made a living using the media to plead her cases.
Bloom may be an expert in handling the press, but her client most definitely isn’t. And Griffin’s disastrous, jaw-dropping press conference should be an object lesson for any public relations counselor tempted to suggest a similar course for a client.
Here’s how the comedian used the press conference to torch her livelihood.
Apologize and mean it
When you’ve done something egregiously wrong — as Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant or Michael Phelps, or now, Kathy Griffin did — then apologize and shut up.
At first, Griffin used her press conference to reiterate that she was wrong to channel ISIS with Trump’s severed head, but then, without missing a beat, she shifted the blame to Trump, Meanie Melania and the rest of the family.
“A sitting President of the United States and his grown children and the first lady are personally trying to ruin my life forever. You guys know him, he’s not going to stop.”
In other words, the Griffin “apology” was merely a convenient segue to get to the real heart of the matter — the insensitivity of the clan and the man who simply couldn’t take a “joke.”
While one valid goal of a press conference is to earn empathy for an offender demonstrating contrition, nobody likes a whiner.
For example, CNBC was properly pilloried last week when it permitted poor, picked upon Hillary Clinton an hour of free air time to complain ad nauseam once again about how she was denied the Presidency.
So, too, at her press conference, a sobbing Griffin droned on about how she had spent her career as an itinerant mid-level comedian, wandering from comedy club to comedy club, regularly subject to the “bullying” of “older white men.”
One wondered if the “older white men bullies” Ms. Griffin referenced included Sen. Al Franken, who disinvited her to a book signing, or the nasty gents at Squatty Potty, who fired her as spokeswoman, or those evil suits at CNN who “severed” their New Year’s Eve relationship with her.
Equally conjectural was how many converts to her side the crying comic could expect from such a cringe-worthy, whining performance.
It’s not about you
If you’ve called a press conference to deliver one message — how sorry you are for what you’ve done — stick to that message and move on.
When Bryant and Woods spoke to the press about their philandering, each directed his remarks to his aggrieved wife and family. When Phelps apologized for his drug-taking and drinking, he directed his comments to the fans he’d let down.
But when Kathy Griffin offered her public mea culpa, it was a lot more “mea” than “culpa.” After grieving about the mean, online attacks and death threats she’d received, Griffin sputtered, “I’m not good at being appropriate. I’m only good at doing comedy one way. It’s in your face. I’m going to make fun of the President. And I’m going to do it more now.”
On the other hand, maybe not, as she added …
“I don’t think I’ll have a career after this. I’m going to be honest, he broke me.”
What really ” broke” Kathy Griffin was a dumb and tasteless stunt to get publicity and an even dumber press conference to try to wriggle out.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He is the author of the Prentice- Hall text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.