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NPR: National Public Relations {crisis}

A Google News search serves more than 4,000 articlesA blog search returns 675,000 posts.  A Web search fetches more than 50,000,000 resultsThere’s no doubt about it: NPR has a national public relations crisis.

The irony is revealing, because while some say NPR leans left, its coverage often makes me feel like it has a bent for public relations.  Consider the following:

“…discuss their findings with reporters without being muzzled by public relations.”
“…victims of a sophisticated public relations campaign ginned…”
“…the guy has played the public relations game magnificently…”

In other words, PR is a game played by sophisticated spin doctors, usually at the behest of big corporations, preferably oil companies, that gin up strategies to muzzle scientific research and inhibit the journalistic quest for the truth.

Clearly this not scientific, but I do far more than just sample NPR’s content:  I wake up to NPR.  I listen to it on my commute – to and from work.  I often download podcasts to listen to when I’m puttering around the house, folding laundry or exercising.  In aggregate, I’d say I spend about 10 hours a week with the likes of Steve Inskeep, Renee Montagne, Michele Norris, Robert Siegel and Melissa Block.

If communication professionals can learn anything from NPR’s crisis this week it’s this: public relations is not about spin, it’s about how you relate to the public.  The way a person, a brand or organization relates to the public can have both positive and negative consequences of great significance.  For NPR that impact has been nearly overnight. 

NPR has…

Turned an employee into a critic. NPR has lost a widely respected reporter to a competitive broadcast news organization and put him on the offensive (or a “battle”) on other major networks.

Swayed public opinion against them. The public overwhelmingly calls NPR’s move a misstep – 46 percent says NPR “erred” while 19 percent said they did the right thing.  Thirty-five percent had no opinion.

Created a new political issue. NPR has politicians gearing up to take away the 3 percent of a $154 million annual budget that comes from the U.S. taxpayer.  In Washington, DC, the timing couldn’t have been worse for NPR local affiliate WAMU, which was in the middle of its Fall Membership Campaign.

Disenfranchised its listeners. NPR has disenfranchised its own listeners.  As NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepherd wrote in a post, The overwhelming majority are angry, furious, outraged. They want NPR to hire him back immediately. If NPR doesn’t, they want all public funding of public radio to stop. They promise to never donate again. They are as mad as hell, and want everyone to know it.  It was daunting to answer the phone and hear so much unrestrained anger.

Earned a plethora of media admonishments.  The media fallout has been severe:  Political odd-makers from the PBS New Hour — analysts Mark Shields (D) and David Brooks (R) — agree that NPR was wrong.  Diplomatic as these gentlemen may be, they rarely agree. Even The Muslim Public Affairs Council has spoken publically against NPR’s decision to fire Juan Williams, offering instead, that this event should be used as an opportunity to work towards resolution. Headlines and stories from other media outlets, both national and regional, reflect these notions:

For me, as a news consumer the personal loss is the contribution to an intelligent discussion – I liked having a reporter from NPR on Fox News.  On television, Juan Williams, strikes me as a relatively calm, soft spoken, candid and thoughtful commentator with an uncanny patience for Bill O’Reilly’s bad habit of interrupting guests.  I am grateful to have a commentator that contributes to a civil conversation rather than shout one-lined political zingers across the airwaves. 

If PR professionals can take a lesson from the last week, then so too can NPR. Digging out of this mess won’t come on the ink of a carefully worded press release; rather it will be earned through organizational self-reflection, honest dialogue and transparent decision making.  In many ways, these are the tenants of crisis communications…there’s still ample opportunity to relate to the public. 

Here’s the episode that spawned these events:

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