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.

4 thoughts on “Santa Barbara News-Press: How Not to Handle a PR Crisis

  1. Pingback: From the Desert to the Sea… » Blog Archive » Spin This? Society of Professional Journalists Honors Ethics of Resigned Santa Barbara Editors & Writers

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  3. For Immediate Release

    Anti-Torture Vigil at Federal Courthouse

    Santa Barbara, June 23. Opponents of the Bush administration decision to allow torture in the interrogation of battlefield prisoners will hold a vigil in front of the Federal Courthouse at noon on Thursday, June 26. The vigil, a part of the national observance of United Nations Anti-Torture Day, has been organized by the Santa Barbara Religious Society of Friends (Quakers.)
    People will be holding a banner from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture that reads, “Torture is Wrong.” They will hand out a small sheet explaining the legal and moral objections of Quakers and many others to the administration’s decision.
    Everyone opposed to the use of torture by our military is invited to join the demonstration in front of the courthouse at 1415 State Street in downtown Santa Barbara.

    For more information:
    Nancy Michelson, Tel: 687-0165
    Peter G Cohen, Tel: 884-0704

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