The Future of….Media Management
– by Susannah Clark, Global VP Communications at King
I have a confession to make.
I really love trashy American reality TV.
I particularly love Keeping up with the Kardashians.
For years, I have defended this to my many reality TV detractors by pointing out that I need to stay across pop culture for the benefit of my career (true) and that I have always had a great respect for their business acumen.
So, when news broke that Bruce Jenner was transgender and was finally able to, quite rightly, live as he saw fit, the element I was most intrigued by was how the family would handle the inevitable media frenzy.
In April, various tabloids started publishing fuzzy pictures of Bruce Jenner wearing a dress at his Malibu home.
The Jenners/Kardashians could have done what many people – and certainly some companies – do when a potential media crisis starts brewing – panic and hide.
Instead, they decided to get out in front of the story, and work their media contacts to ensure the story was told in a way that both suited them, and went some way towards highlighting the struggles faced by many people in the transgender community.
Whether you love them, or hate them; whether you think Caitlyn’s story is a true reflection of the issues people in the transgender community face every day (it’s not – but it’s one person’s story), I hope that anyone with an interest in the media and PR can admire some of the strategic choices they made in telling their story.
Here’s where I think they got it right:
i) They took the sting out of the tail (or in this instance, the tale)
Sure, the tabloids had some pictures. Sure, they were doing the best they could to peddle gossip, drama and intrigue. But the crucial thing they didn’t have was any facts.
Bruce Jenner did. The family did. And they made sure that a few major, trusted journalists did – the first being Diane Sawyer. Before the Sawyer interview aired, they circulated the news that a ‘special in-depth interview’ would be aired soon. Wait, what? They actually TOLD people that it was true and that they’d give all the details soon? That’s right – and it meant they got to take back some control of the narrative.
No journalist in their right mind (even the tabloids) would risk writing trash and getting facts really wrong just ahead of the definitive truth going to air. So they didn’t (or certainly not as much). Instead, they wrote about the fact that the interview would tell all – and wondered what ‘all’ might mean. And just like that, no more fun, no more intrigue, no more gossip…no more sting.
ii) They were unmistakably human, and built allies by being ‘real’
In two special episodes of ‘Keeping Up with Kardashians’, which they titled ‘All About Bruce’, the Kardashian and Jenner families talked about how they were feeling during Bruce’s transformation into Caitlyn.
Yes, it was clearly well produced and edited, but their emotions seemed very real and gave at least a glimpse into what other families going through a similar situation might be facing. For a small amount of time, they let other people see them as humans, not just celebrities.
And you know what? For most people, it’s pretty hard to be truly nasty about someone once you see them as human beings. By showing their emotions and acting in a ‘human’ way, they built a legion of supporters who could also help stand up against any bullies – be they tabloid journalists or social media trolls. Those bullies didn’t necessarily disappear, but against a backdrop of overwhelming support and empathy, they suddenly lost a lot of their power.
iii) They acted fast, but did it in their own time
Speed in a brewing media storm is important. The longer you say nothing, the more erroneous information becomes ‘fact’. But sequencing of information is also important. In what order should the truth be told? To who?
First, they filmed the Sawyer interview, and seeded the fact it was coming with media. This slowed the tabloid feeding frenzy to a point. Once that aired and people had some facts direct from the source, they aired the two-part special as part of their reality TV show, which built some all-important support.
The goodwill built from these two key pieces of coverage, before Bruce Jenner had transitioned publicly, paved the way for the final key piece of coverage, when Caitlyn Jenner was introduced on the cover of Vanity Fair to a huge amount of praise and support.
None of this was an accident. These key moves were carefully planned to ensure that a major event in a famous person’s life was met with goodwill and understanding. Certainly, some have criticised Caityln Jenner’s actions, either saying they were a cynical abuse of celebrity, or in fact, her experience doesn’t represent the true experience that many in the transgender community face (this is true, but it is her experience nonetheless).
However, in my view, the Jenner/Kardashian clan have just taught a masterclass in how to communicate effectively, own your own story and turn a potential issue into a moment that can have a powerful and positive influence on many people.
– with thanks to the author, Susannah Clark, Global VP Communications at King