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Author - Lecturer - Strategic Communications Adviser

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Kerner at 50: A Lot Has Changed, and Much Remains the Same

It’s been 50 years since the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, declared “our nation is moving towards two societies, one Black, one white – separate and unequal.” Named after Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr., the panel consisted of 11 elected officials, labor and civil rights leaders from across the country. Formed at the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the group was charged with not only determining the origins of the race riots of 1967, but issuing recommendations on how to prevent such upheavals in the future.

Just seven months after they began their investigation, the commission detailed their findings. Chief among the findings, the commission determined that the media was partly culpable for the riots. They found that “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”  They did this by maintaining predominantly white staffs, and greatly sensationalizing coverage of African Americans. To remedy the problem, the commission recommended racial diversity in the media.

Five decades since the explosive report, and newsrooms around the country have a long way to go to ensure racial diversity in hiring and promoting staff of color. In their 2017 annual survey of newsrooms, the American Society of Newsroom Editors “…found that 25.5 percent of the news organizations reported having at least one minority journalist among their top three editors, and 74.8 percent reported having at least one woman in a top-three position.” While this is progress, it is not the ideal.

It’s not that there hasn’t been improvement in the racial composition of media outlets. But journalists of color are too often locked out of high-profile political reporting assignments. Since the issuance of the Kerner report in 1968, reporters covering the White House as correspondents, are mostly white.

Even when the ranks of journalists of color swelled, the increase didn’t necessarily correspond to an increase in power or decision-making authority. This has disastrous consequences for people of color. Without racial diversity, media coverage of people of color sometimes lacks context and humanizing information. And sometimes the words and phrases used to describe African Americans are belittling or less-than-flattering. In an article describing American Urban Radio Network White House Correspondent April Ryan being omitted from the White House Holiday Party, Newsweek labeled her “combative.” Black women already contend with the “angry” label, and the media doesn’t need to pile on.

Separately, many media outlets and reporters tend to humanize white subjects, even when they are accused of heinous crimes. When Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock opened fire from his Mandalay Bay hotel room, killing 59 people and injuring at least 500 others, multiple media outlets, as Sarah Ruiz-Grossman pointed out, charitably labeled him a “lone wolf” and a “country music fan.” I can’t imagine an African American, Latino, or Native American man inflicting as much harm as Paddock without media outlets reporting on a pathology of crime and criminal mischief.

In articles highlighting police brutality, some reporters and media outlets highlight the victims’ mistakes as if to suggest they are undeserving of sympathy or to blame for their poor treatment. After McKinney, TX police officer Eric Casebolt aggressively manhandled 15-year-old Dejerria Becton — grabbing her by her braids, shoving her face-first into the ground, and then straddling her vulnerable body – several media hosts suggested she provoked the attack. NBC’s Megyn Kelley, who at the time worked for Fox News, quipped that the 15-year-old child “looked like a woman, not a 15-year-old girl” and that she “wasn’t a saint either.”

When Brock Turner stood trial for sexually assaulting a female student, some media outlets referred to him as the former “Stanford Swimmer,” rather than a sexual abuser. I’m not suggesting that people who make mistakes shouldn’t be afforded grace, but too often the grace is given based on race. I believe greater diversity in media newsrooms would correct for this, but everyone loses when media corporations hire one profile of people.

If we want to build bridges that allow people from all races and walks of life to “see” and sympathize with one another, racial diversity in the media must be a higher priority.

Roughly 50 years after the Kerner report, a lot has changed and much remains the same.

 

Jennifer R. Farmer is a strategic communicator and author of “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide.” Follow her on Twitter @Farmer8J.

 

Does Credibility Still Matter?

Early in my career, I learned public relations professionals should dutifully manage relationships with the media. Above all, I was instructed to guard my credibility; without it, I’d be of no use to my employer or the causes I represent. Having spent the last few weeks watching President Trump’s administration interact with the press, it’s tempting to consider whether the rules of professional decorum between journalists and the subjects they cover still apply. Further, is credibility a relic of the past?

Contrary to current events, credibility and decorum are as important today as they’ve always been.

During his initial address to White House correspondents on Saturday, January 21, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted that more people attended Donald Trump’s inauguration than any inauguration in history. Aerial scans of the crowd suggested otherwise. Additionally, the Washington area transit authority noted lower ridership for President Trump’s inauguration than President Barack Obama’s in 2009 and President George W. Bush’s in 2005. Following claims of record turnout in 2017, many in the media questioned the administration’s relationship with the truth.

Let’s be clear, Spicer did more than challenge something as insignificant as crowd size; he seemed to chastise the correspondents before abruptly leaving the podium without entertaining a single question. Like the rest of us, former press secretaries Jay Carney and Ari Fleischer seemed puzzled by Spicer’s behavior. Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s one-time press secretary, referred to Spicer’s comments as a “statement you’re told to make by the President. And you know the President is watching.”

When pressed on why President Trump presumably ordered Spicer to quibble about a matter that could be easily disproved, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that Spicer gave “alternative facts.” I’m a proponent of pivoting during media interviews but the alternative facts line was rich.

Just a few weeks after Conway’s now infamous “alternative facts” line, she referred to a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky that never actually happened. When challenged over the false claim, Conway stated it was a simple mistake. She later suggested persons making an issue out of the flub were “haters.” However, it was quickly discovered that she’d referred to the Bowling Green massacre on two separate occasions. Spicer too referred to a non-existent terror attack — this time in Atlanta – when defending President Trump’s proposed travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries.

During the next few briefings, Spicer’s combative and argumentative tone continued. So much so that his interactions with the press were lambasted in a widely-viewed skit by Melissa McCarthy on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL).

I don’t envy Spicer; he’s in a high stakes position, and has yet to find his stride with reporters or the new Administration. If Spicer were the only member of Trump’s team with bizarre interactions with the press, perhaps I wouldn’t spend my time writing this post.

Yet, President Trump himself spent the presidential campaign characterizing the media as dishonest and untrustworthy. That trend has continued into his presidency with Trump declaring notable outlets such as CNN and the New York Times “fake news.” White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon went as far as to declare the media the “opposition party.”

The fourth estate has never been described in such way.

It bears noting that I’m not an apologist for the media. At times, I’ve been critical of some reporters and outlets for failing to provide context or playing into harmful narratives about marginalized communities. Still, attacking the media writ large as dishonest is patently false, if not strategic. With each attack, President Trump’s administration alienates his base from sound reporting, while positioning themselves as the sole arbiters of truth.

Sooner or later, these skirmishes will catch up with the administration. And it may happen much faster than any of us expect. Some outlets have grown so concerned about Conway’s credibility that they considered not booking her on some shows. The White House reportedly pitched Conway as a potential guest on CNN’s State of the Union show on Sunday, February 5, but CNN declined. Conway later took to Twitter to say that she declined the request due to familial obligations. CNN’s communications department then tweeted that they, in fact, declined the offer to have Conway on the show, going on to state, “those are the facts.” Conway’s continued falsehoods are embarrassing, and counter to the level of decorum we as citizens expect in her position. Moreover, to serve in a presidential administration, yet face the possibility of being unable to represent its position in the media due to credibility concerns is disturbing.

Even if the present environment suggests otherwise, it’s imperative to maintain credibility and extend professional courtesy when interacting with journalists, producers and radio and TV hosts. Further, public relations professionals and politicos should strive to make news, not become it; a principle this White House team has yet to grasp.

Jennifer R. Farmer is a strategic communicator and author of Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget. She’s based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @Farmer8J or on Facebook at Facebook.com/Tips4ExtraordinaryPR

How to Relentlessly Advocate for What You Believe In

There’s no escaping the fact that communications and public relations work involves an element of rejection. In PR, the rejection likely comes from reporters who may not be interested or available to cover a story idea you’ve pitched. Rejection also occurs when the strategy you’ve proposed to meet an organizational challenge is overlooked or summarily dismissed.

I’ve been a communicator for more than 15 years, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard “no” from organizational leaders and members of the media alike. Bo Bennett’s quote, “rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success” rings true.

For all the stories I’ve pitched and placed, countless others didn’t see the light of day. For all of the meetings I’ve requested with members of the media, many were flat out denied, and in some cases, I didn’t get a response at all.

Dealing with rejection is hard. But overcoming rejection and being resilient is critical to being an effective advocate. I focus on relentlessness in my new book, “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide,” and here are five things I’ve learned that may help you relentlessly advocate for the organizations and causes you support:

  • Believe in Something Bigger Than Yourself. From my experience, the key to being relentless is believing in something bigger than yourself. When we believe in something bigger than ourselves, we are likely to stick with it. We’re passionate when we talk about it, and that passion is contagious. When we believe in something, we’ll go to the ends of the earth fighting for it. In my book, “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget,” I talk about being on a campaign with the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and how I believed so strongly in the campaign that I traveled to North Carolina almost weekly to support it. From my first encounter in with the campaign and the people supporting it, I determined I would do whatever was necessary to support the movement.

What I learned from this experience is that you cannot effectively promote something you do not actually embrace. If you believe in something, you’ll stick with it even when the going gets tough.

  • Know that There’s Always a Silver Lining. Sometimes “No!” comes with a silver lining. A “no” with an explanation may be viewed just as favorably as an immediate “yes, I’ll cover your story.” For instance, I asked a member of my team to pitchThe Washington Post on a guest column about the systemic oppression of Native Americans. The Washington Post declined to publish the piece. When we politely inquired as to the basis for the decision, we learned that the essay was submitted too close to the desired publication date. We had submitted the piece for consideration on the Tuesday before the Sunday we had hoped the column would run, which was also opening day of the 2014 professional football season. The feedback from the publication allowed us to better establish internal deadlines to place opinion pieces going forward.

Relentlessness is about patience and persistence. Had we not pressed for an answer, we may not have known The Post’s desired lead time for nonurgent opinion pieces. Had we stopped at the first, second or third “no” – we had pitched the piece to The National Journal, Politico and The Washington Post before MSNBC.com agreed to run it – our piece would never have been placed. Failing to place an opinion piece is losing an opportunity to share your message.

  • Remember, “No!” Isn’t Always Permanent. Just because a reporter or producer doesn’t bite on a story idea today doesn’t mean the idea is permanently doomed. He or she could be sidelined covering breaking news, on work or personal travel, or juggling multiple stories. There’s also a possibility the reporter didn’t see your pitch or press release if you sent it electronically and didn’t follow up with a call. The bottom line is that there are a lot of factors that could cause a reporter to decline your pitch, but that doesn’t mean he or she won’t be willing to consider your source, angle or material in the future.
  • Don’t Allow “No” to Ruin a Relationship. Journalists aren’t obligated to cover your issues. While getting reporters and producers to cover your work is key, it’s not worth losing a relationship over. So, don’t come unglued if you don’t receive the response you were hoping for. Practically speaking, journalists often move from beat to beat and from media outlet to media outlet. You’d feel bad to have ruined a relationship with a member of the media only to have to pitch to that person again if he or she moved to a different beat or media outlet.
  • Know When to Back Off. If a reporter hasn’t responded to multiple emails or a couple of phone calls, you can safely assume he or she is not interested in covering your story. After multiple attempts to reach a reporter by email and phone, don’t continue to press for a response. The reporter’s continued silence is all the response you need. Similarly, if you receive an unequivocal, “No, I am not interested in covering this story ever” response, move on.

Ultimately, relentlessness is about seeing denial as a temporary, rather than permanent, fixture. It’s about viewing denial as an opportunity to tweak and refine, especially if you are lucky enough to receive feedback. It’s not, however, about pestering reporters or others into submission. Used effectively, the principle can lead to impressive results. To learn more, pick up a copy of my new book “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget (Berrett-Koehler Publishers).”

 

Jennifer R. Farmer is managing director for communications for PICO National Network and the founder of Spotlight PR LLC, whose mission is to develop and distribute high-impact communications trainings and workshops. Follow her on Facebook at Facebook.com/Tips4ExtraordinaryPR and Twitter @Farmer8J.