Santa Barbara News-Press: How Not to Handle a PR Crisis

Wendy McCaw, controversial owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, parted company with San Francisco PR man Sam Singer about a week ago, and her new spokesperson is Agnes Huff of LA. But there is no discernable change in McCaw’s public relations strategy yet as today’s missive, reported by Kevin Roderick in LA Observed, demonstrates.

Now, the basic job of a PR advisor when a client is having a crisis is to help the client overcome his or her natural reticence to own up to problems, admit mistakes or even wrongdoing, and explain to the public what will be done to correct the problem. The reason a course of action like this is considered “good PR” is that it shifts the focus of the story to the future — what you’re going to do to fix things — while ending the cycles of revelation, denial and admission concerning the past. The client who takes that advice henceforward owns up to the events of the past, takes whatever heat derives from that and, to use the cliche, “moves on.”

Wendy McCaw does not seem ready to “move on,” and thus, her critics also will not move on. Here are some of the things she says, with comments:

First and foremost, this is not a freedom of the press issue. I completely support the rights of a free press. I always have and I always will. It is one of the reasons I bought the paper. I support and understand the need for separation between the editorial, news and advertising pages. There is no place for personal opinion or agendas in news coverage.

She supports separation in principle, but she does not deny or even reference the fact that editorial decisions on two sensitive matters — Rob Lowe’s planning commission fight, and Travis Armstrong’s DUI conviction — were taken away from the editors by McCaw. Does she now think this was a mistake? Or is she challenging the truth of these widely-reported facts?

Violations of our paper’s policies and standards are what brought on this conflict. As owner and co-publisher, it was my responsibility to step in and handle this internal matter.

This appears to be an allusion to the alleged policy that would have prevented publication of Rob Lowe’s address, even though Lowe’s address appears on public documents and was stated repeatedly during cable TV coverage of the planning meeting. Reporters who were disciplined for publishing his address claim no such policy previously existed, which means it wasn’t a “policy” at all, but an ad hoc reaction to a phone call from Rob Lowe.  To be disciplined for violating a non-existent policy strikes most people as unfair.

If the facts are otherwise, McCaw could simply produce a piece of paper in which the “no-addresses” policy was outlined for the editorial staff. She has not done so.  Alternately, she could admit there was no policy, and reverse the disciplinary actions.  Thus far, however, McCaw has admitted no mistakes whatsoever.

Let me take a moment to clear the air about the cease and desist letters that were sent out by the paper. One letter went to three former employees and the other to the Santa Barbara Independent. The letter to the employees was based on the company’s confidentiality policy, something almost all organizations have in place. That policy clearly states that proprietary and confidential information concerning the internal operations of the paper and internal matters may not be disclosed to our competitors or publicly, even after resigning. All employees are aware of this policy and have respected it to our knowledge, with the exception of those who resigned. In the case of the Independent, there was no question that they published material that belonged to the News-Press without permission in direct violation of copyright law. When we raised this, their attorneys quickly agreed to remove all News-Press copyrighted material.

Fair enough and true enough, but this misses the point, doesn’t it? Assuming Ms. McCaw was within her legal rights to issue cease-and-desist letters, the question remains, was this the appropriate way for the publisher of the city’s only daily newspaper to conduct business at this time? The effect of the letters was to supress news coverage of what was happening at the newspaper. The reference to the copyrighted material is especially rich. She’s trying to make this an intellectual property issue? Don’t give George W. Bush any ideas — he might sue the New York Times for leaking “copyrighted” material from the NSA.

One of the basic tenets of good reporting is that there are always two sides to every story. Up to now, most of you have only heard the attacks being hurled at the News-Press by those with other agendas besides journalism. That’s over now.

Good plan. But the problem is, McCaw and her deputies have been striving to supress coverage of this story, and have failed to document any of the counter-assertions they have made throughout this controversy. If she means she will begin acting in a more transparent manner from now on, this will be applauded. If.

I would like to personally thank all of our loyal advertisers and readers for staying with us through this difficult time. I am gratified that in July, our new subscriptions exceeded cancellations, resulting in a net subscription increase of 406. While the vocal minority has tried to make a lot of noise, the quiet majority are showing their support.

Transparency, please. Yes, this information is proprietary, and under normal circumstances, none of our business. But these are not normal times. It is easy to say the advertisers and subscribers are sticking by the News-Press. At this point, she probably needs to prove it. She won’t be given the benefit of the doubt.

Many years ago I accepted the fact that the difficult decisions I must make as owner and co-publisher do not make me popular. I am not running a popularity contest. I am running a newspaper. I will always do what I think is best for the News-Press and our community.

Fair enough and true enough. But the perception is, McCaw caved into pressure from a wealthy celebrity, which is inconsistent with the stance depicted here of a brave publisher doing what is best for the newspaper and the community. She has yet to explain the reasons behind any of her “difficult decisions,” other than various innuendo that she has yet to either clarify or apologize for.

If McCaw thinks this letter resolves her painful, damaging PR problems, she’s mistaken. She’s prolonging them. I doubt this letter is consistent with any professional PR advice she’s been getting. If I’m right, she should start listening to the counsel of the people she’s paying, or else this battle will be endless.  She’ll still own the paper, so in that sense, McCaw wins no matter what.  But neither she, nor the News-Press, will be trusted, and that will have a corrosive effect on every aspect of the business.


“End Times”: Imagine a World With No Lollipops

It’s hot, I’m slow, I only got to this story this morning, but I was not exactly charmed by it:shock.jpg

STEAL a toddler’s lollipop and he’s bound to start bawling, was photographer Jill Greenberg’s thinking. So that’s just what Greenberg did to elicit tears from the 27 or so 2- and 3-year-olds featured in her latest exhibition, “End Times,” recently at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles. The children’s cherubic faces, illuminated against a blue-white studio backdrop, suggest abject betrayal far beyond the loss of a Tootsie Pop; sometimes tears spill onto naked shoulders and bellies.

The work depicts how children would feel if they knew the state of the world they’re set to inherit, explained Greenberg, whose own daughter is featured in the show. “Our government is so corrupt, with all the cronyism and corporate lobbyists,” she said. “I just feel that our world is being ruined. And the environment — when I was pregnant, I kept thinking that I’d love to have a tuna fish sandwich, but I couldn’t because we’ve ruined our oceans.”

What nonsense! Jill Greenberg is living in the lap of the lap of luxury, and she thinks it’s “end times.” What a gassy title for her exhibit — claiming for herself the final word before the curtain comes down.

Oh, how I wish there was a time machine, so I could take Greenberg back to, say, New York in the so-called Gilded Age, or London in the 1830s, or really almost anytime in history prior to her own cozy lifespan. Mozart had six siblings; he was one of two to survive infancy, and that was a common ratio, even among relatively comfortable families like his, until only about 100 years ago. If a stolen lollipop is Greenberg’s metaphor for the cruelties that our society will visit upon the next generation of children, she is completely ignorant of history.

The future’s so bright for our society’s kids, on the whole, they won’t even notice the lollipop is missing. There is plenty to worry about, of course, and any parent worries for their child’s fate. 9/11 will happen again. Wars won’t stop, and the weapons of mass destruction loom as a threat. And then, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, there’s “plain old death,” dogging all our steps. But as a society, we are heading into a period of unimaginable prosperity, when many festering problems will find sustainable solutions.

Before you get the vapors, be assured: I’m no denier of global warming. We have a lot of environmental problems, serious ones. And fortunately, we have serious people investing their lives in addressing them. On this blog, I honor the scientists who are working to understand, characterize and hopefully reverse global warming. But I have less respect for people like Jill Greenberg, who prefer to wallow in the apocalypse.

In terms of human impact, the environmental conditions that Jill Greenberg or her toddler are likely to encounter anytime in their lives will be enviable compared with what most people in the history of the world have faced. The bleakest environments are in the poorest countries, there is no scenario in which her child will face those conditions unless she volunteers to do so. There is such hubris in her saying “we’ve ruined our oceans.” Sure, the oceans are polluted. But be grateful that your child is growing up at a time when scientists are able to monitor environmental conditions, and people can organize globally for change. Greenberg acts like she’s just discovered this problem — epiphanies of a tunafish sandwich — and nothing’s being done. Which is partly true. She, herself, is doing nothing. She’s taking pictures and trying to depress people. What good does that do?

jp-morgan.jpgLikewise the incantations of “corrupt…cronyism…corporate lobbyists..,” like that’s something new and unique to our era. Is she serious? Is she saying this in a national publication like the LA Times? Let me throw a few names at her: Boss Tweed. Mark Hanna. J.P. Morgan. Albert Fall. Billy Sol Estes. Bobby Baker. Richard Nixon. Spiro Agnew. Thomas Keating. All of these names and many more are in Wikipedia if she wants to look them up.

Just to pick a juicy one: Is she familiar with Sam Giancana? One president, Eisenhower, used the murderous Mafia chieftain in an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro. Another future president’s father, Joseph Kennedy, got Giancana to help him wrangle labor votes for John Kennedy’s successful 1960 election. When Giancana was found years later with a bullet in his head, the CIA chief actually had to deny having anything to do with it. If there is a political scandal today that rivals two presidents trucking with a Mafia capo, I want to know about it.

Anywhere in the vicinity of money or power, Ms. Greenberg, you will find corruption, and that’s been true for 3,000 years. And yet, somehow, we keep making babies, and most of them grow up to enjoy the blessings of this rare and unusual planet.

Okay, but the story’s absurdity doesn’t stop there. It seems like the Internet has gotten ahold of Greenberg long before I did. The complaint? That she’s hopelessly naive? That she’s spoiled by prosperity? That’s she a doom-porn addict? No. They’re mad at her because she took the lollipops away from the kids before she photographed them in order to make them cry.

Bloggers such as Andrew Peterson called Greenberg’s lollipop technique abusive and exploitative, while Greenberg, her husband, Robert Green, and gallery owner Paul Kopeikin defended the work, the process and one another. The conversation, cycling between rational and hyperbolic, says as much about Net communication as about the art in question.

“Jill Greenberg is a Sick Woman Who Should Be Arrested and Charged With Child Abuse,” Peterson wrote under his pseudonym Thomas Hawk at, a blog that focuses on new media and technology. For Peterson, Greenberg’s technique was “evil.”

At this point, I change sides, and become Jill Greenberg’s defender. Child abuse? Is this man insane? When you pollute the English language by relating something as benign as a photographer’s trick to the hideous violence and cruelty visited upon children all over the world by abusive parents and other authority figures, you dishonor the real victims.

ball_clock.jpgBut the vortex of stupidity didn’t stop there. Greenberg’s husband, Robert Green was so offended by the comments on that he searched until he found the real identity of the previously anonymous blogger, and outed him. As if the idiocy of his comments wasn’t enough to hang him! He had to be cyber-stalked?

We’re in a bad stretch in the politicized culture of America. It might not be the “end times,” but I still wish I had my lollipop.