Robin Williams, Edelman and the PR Balancing Act

For the past week, the communications world has been abuzz with controversy over a blog post by Edelman PR’s Lisa Kovitz, which many felt attempted to turn the death of Robin Williams into a sales opportunity.  Although the feedback has been overwhelmingly negative, professional communicators should realize that Kovitz’s stumble is actually an “opportunity”—to paraphrase her blog— to engage in another type of national conversation, about the balancing act that we all must perfect.

Part of this act involves engaging in real-time conversations while strategically navigating delicate subjects like mental health.  In other words, know when to speak and when to stay silent, be respectful and choose your words wisely.

In her post Kovitz even says:

“There’s a very careful line [mental health professionals] need to walk so as to not seem exploitive of a terrible situation…We too are balancing that line with this post.”

This would have been good advice if Edelman and Kovitz had followed it.

In a seething response, PRSA urged PR pros to use this blog post and other reactions to Robin Williams’ death as a “learning opportunity” and expresses its wishes for discussions about suicide and depression to become more open.

As such, we cannot completely reject Kovitz’s “carpe diem moment” because her basic idea was correct. Mental health and other health issues are important national conversations, and these conversations should not be ignored because they are sensitive topics and Williams’ passing was an opportunity to raise awareness about it. This is part of the reason why the Associated Press added an entry on mental illness in 2013, to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness as a taboo.

So, how can PR pros in the future approach a national conversation involving mental illness—or other delicate issues—and avoid the backlash Edelman has been battling?

In a post last week, Ken Leiviska suggested that professional communicators should first determine if the discussion at hand is relevant to their organization, but know when to stay away from a sensitive or controversial topic. If the story is a fit, make sure your content is newsworthy and not too promotional.  Be respectful, transparent, and choose your words wisely.  Edelman’s post was perhaps too transparent in one sense – it sounded too much like the business pitch that it actually was. A better approach would have been not to plug the company at all – if the content is good, the company’s expertise becomes implicit.

This is why PR is a balancing act.  Good content succeeds at promoting one’s client or organization in a way that offers newsworthy, relevant information and appeals to readers.  Difficult and controversial subjects are newsworthy, and they present an undeniable opportunity.  However, we must balance that opportunity with the awareness that public sensitivity will be heightened, and that overly self-serving missteps will face double jeopardy in the court of public opinion.

The bottom line? Proceed with caution…but proceed. But make sure you find your balance.