Saturday, June 12, 2010

Young adventurers

An event can stir the imagination...and controversy. Being prepared for all angles is an essential component of public relations. Otherwise, the pitchforks are out.

When Abby Sunderland left the California coast for a solo, around-the-world sail, the 16-year-old was dispatched with mostly well wishes. Perhaps in a calculated way, Abby's parents chose to focus on her skills, the journey, the equipment and not dwell on the dangers. They probably knew there would be plenty of adults with questions and criticisms. Not much they could do about skeptics, they figured. They had the experience already with their son and probably expected the same with their daughter.

If anything is certain, no two events are the same.

Public relations professionals prepare for the worse, and conduct deep analyses of public sentiment. If handling a client or project where controversy is apparent, a key goal of our work is to ensure "our" side is heard and understood. It's not spin. Our jobs are to ensure facts and other points of view and perspective are considered. We know there are plenty of critics - educated and otherwise. News is generated from controversy. As a famous newscaster once said, "We don't report on the number of planes that take off and land safely."

So, the key is to anticipate controversy and how reporters and bloggers will cover the story.

From there, public relations professionals utilize their skills and experience to design and execute a plan that brings balance and fairness to the coverage, or, by other means, get our client's story "heard" by the public.

There are hundreds of case studies detailing how a solid public relations strategy and program helped bring balanced news coverage of a controversial subject. And, there are plenty of examples detailing either a failed or non-existent public relations program.

Perhaps the Abby Sunderland story will be a case study.

As Abby sailed out of sight from the cameras on Jan. 23, the criticism subsided. (Perhaps just as her parents anticipated). Other matters took our attention, like an oil spill. But when disaster struck this week and Abby's boat lost its mast in a fierce storm requiring a rescue, the lions were out for the kill.

Now, unlike their son's successful end to his around-the-world sail, Abby's parents were faced with the next-to-worst ending.

News coverage questioning the sanity of Abby's parents to "let" their daughter take this trip was brutal. In his lengthy Associated Press article, reporter John Rogers sought out a variety of experts to offer their insights and points of view. One sociologist said parents are pushing their kids too hard to excel, and questioned the maturity of any 16-year-old to handle a journey like Abby's. This is certainly the most prominent argument heard from parents and others criticizing Abby's parents.

So, what would have been a public relations strategy to manage this? Some key messages would have been nice for the dad. Not the "life in general is dangerous" or "no more than driving a car" ones. Those have only enabled the critics to build ranks and get louder.

Perhaps the strategy would have started last summer. Let a reporter go along for a sailing trip with Abby as she put her "Wild Eyes" to the test. Have an expert sailor join her to evaluate her skills. Perhaps have a sociologist or psychiatrist put her through some tests about her reasoning skills. Or, find an expert to discuss how children are growing up faster and many are handling tasks and challenges much tougher than previous generations. (Let's not forget that 16-year-olds have gone into battle, given birth, run families, etc.) The goal here would have been to show the world that Abby was not your typical 16-year-old.

Perhaps an additional strategy would have been to line up the "women's" support. The sexism is now very obvious - what was okay for Abby's brother, who also sailed around the world solo as a teenager - was not okay for her.

And, where were the supporters of adventure?

There is still time to bring balance to this story, but the Sunderland family will need to act fast. They have a few days before the "reunion" photo/event. They can line up the supporters. If not, the pitchforks won't be put away.

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