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PR Pitching After A Tragedy: Do's And Dont's

Written by Ken Gaebler
Published: 8/2/2014

Here's an example of a bad PR pitch that ties a very recent personal tragedy into a PR agency client's thought leadership. For our audience of business owners and entrepreneurs, there's a "mistakes to avoid" lesson in this one. Take heed.

It's great to have a news tie-in for a PR pitch, but when the news is gruesome or unsettling, PR pros have to be careful.

Bad PR

Yesterday, the day after a company CEO was shot in Chicago, we received this emailed PR pitch (names have been changed to protect the guilty):

Media Alert: Managing Workplace Violence

[Company Name Redacted] President Available for Comment in Light of Recent Events

Yesterday Chicago experienced a frightful tragedy after a disgruntled employee fired shots at an office building located in the financial district. According to [Executive Name Redacted], President of [Company Name Redacted], a human resources outsourcing company, this brings to light the issue of workplace violence.

"Yesterday's events are terrifying reminder of a serious issue -- workplace violence. It's extremely unfortunate that at least one life was taken," says [Executive Last Name Redacted]. "I encourage employers and HR departments to take a proactive stance as often as possible to thwart workplace violence."

[Executive Last Name Redacted] suggests a few techniques, "Remain vigilant at heightened times, including after terminations, demotions or disciplinary actions. Be aware and recognize unstable employees and have an outlined plan to assist with their workplace frustrations. In addition, employees should remain in contact with HR regarding coworkers, especially if they seem unstable. In addition, it's vital to ensure all employees are aware of the HR procedures, including the termination policy. There should also always be an exit interview procedure in place."

For more on this topic or to speak with [Executive Last Name Redacted], please contact me.

Thanks,

[PR Firm Employee First Name Redacted]

[PR Firm Name Redacted]

Why This Was a Classic Example of a Bad PR Pitch

Maybe I'm a little oversensitive here because I went to grad school with the shooting victim, who is now in life-or-death critical condition because of this incident. He was a year ahead of me at Yale and I used to talk to him at Yale School of Management network events. We were not good friends per se, but we were, are I should say, acquaintances.

Regardless of my relationship with this particular CEO who was shot, could anybody read this pitch, could anybody have written this pitch and blasted it out to countless reporters, and think that this is smart PR?

It doesn't have a single empathetic or caring word. It's all business, as if a human life, and the battle underway for that life to survive, is not even something one should bother to care about.

For more in the spirit of full disclosure, I own a PR firm, Walker Sands, so I'm very attuned to PR pitching and what it takes to be successful. I know very well that if you can tie a PR pitch into current news, it makes it that much more likely that you will get media placements.

But you should never appear to be profiting at the expense of an individual or family's death, or near-death. That is just not cool. It's exactly the type of thing that gives PR a bad name.

PR firms, here's some advice. If Target's customer credit cards get hacked, feel free to send out a pitch to reporters touting the expertise of your cybersecurity consulting client. For some reason, it's OK to piggyback on the bad news of a company (after all, despite what the Supreme Court says, they are not people). But it is not OK to quickly piggyback on a personal tragedy -- and particularly not a death or a shooting. Never ever ever.

Do you think any PR firms pitched the attributes of their client's bulletproof windows the day after JFK was shot? Did a security firm tout their skills to journalists right after the Newton shootings. I should hope not.

Weeks later, months later, perhaps, you can reference a personal tragedy news event in your pitches about gun violence, workplace violence, mental illness, and the like, but you should not do it the day after the shooting, the suicide, the explosion, the whatever.

Doing so portrays you as unfeeling and not overly bright. It makes it less likely that you will get a placement for your client, and it probably hinders your ability to get placements for the rest of your clients.

Now, had you simply sent out a pitch months ago, source filing your client as an expert on workplace violence and how to prevent it, you might have gotten some media placement action. After a tragic incident like this shooting, some "expert" will be quoted in article about workplace violence that references this type of shooting. But it's not because they callously reached out the day of the shooting, it's because they established a relationship and built credibility months before tragedy hit.

I have set a Google News alert for the company's name that sent me the pitch above, and I am pleased to say they have no placements so far. If they do get a media placement from this pitch, it will sicken and sadden me.

I know I'm on the edge here myself. I'm referencing this bad news and writing about it, capitalizing on it myself in some small fashion. Am I too piling on? I hope not. I don't think so. I've tried to not reference any specifics. I'm sorry to all if I am. (My heart goes out to you, Steve and your loved ones. You are all in my family's thoughts and prayers).

The bottomline? The do's and don'ts of PR pitching immediately after an individual or family tragedy effectively boil down to this: don't do it ever.

It is playing with fire. You are putting yourself at risk of losing far more than you can ever gain. Enough said.

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