Kim Mulkey
Kim Mulkey

For all who were asleep in biology class, the reptile or reptilian brain is a layer of the brain that is linked to the survival response. It is autonomic and purely reactive, primarily triggered by stress, and geared to the preservation of self or offspring.

According to Science Direct, that part of the brain “does not learn very well from experience but is inclined to repeat instinctual behaviors over and over in a fixed way.”

That certainly describes LSU Women’s Basketball coach Kim Mulkey’s reaction to the prospect of a lengthy Washington Post profile by award-winning sportswriter Kent Babb that appeared on March 30, a week after a fiery show Mulkey put on at a routine NCCA tournament press conference.

Ripping the WAPO story as a “hit piece,” Mulkey said she had hired the nation’s “best defamation law firm” and would sue if the paper published a “false story” about her reported with “sleazy tactics and hatchet jobs.”

Axios, citing the media monitoring platform Memo, said Mulkey's comments drew the attention of over five million people who read about the article before it was even published. “The speculation and buzz surrounding the contents of the ‘hit piece’ attracted significantly more readers than the paywalled article itself,” Axios said.

And, as it turned out, as New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick put it, “What makes this comical is that whatever ill might have been written of Kim Mulkey, the primary source of the info is — ta-da! — Kim Mulkey.”

Moreover, though Mulkey had declined repeated interview requests for more than two years, the WAPO story is larded with instances in which the paper shared the story’s content with Mulkey’s attorneys, who answered or passed and even provided a statement from a former player.

Mulkey’s mistaken frontrunning of the WAPO story before she had even seen it subsequently made her and the LSU team—defending national champions—a target of ridicule, taking shots from every columnist with space to fill.

Mulkey is not alone in her struggles with the reptilian brain. Many CEOs and other successful people also act instinctively, without thinking—sometimes going to destructive lengths. They say they want to uphold their reputation or protect the reputation of the brand or institution, but what they really want is to avenge themselves on the media for past slights or perceived transgressions.

If you find yourself counseling someone like that--or worse, serving as spokesperson or media trainer for an organization headed by someone like that, assume your calmest demeanor and urge everyone to think strategically about the implications and potential consequences of adopting a scorched-earth policy toward the media. The adage about not arguing with someone who buys ink by the barrel still applies, even if it is digits instead of ink.

In fact, it applies even more in the 24/7 news cycle.


Bill Huey is president of Strategic Communications and the author of Advertising's Double Helix: A Proposed New Process Model. Journal of Advertising Research, May/June 1999. His article about advertising effects has been cited in books and academic papers around the world.