If Perceptions Are Everything -- What Can We Learn from Rolling Stone and Rachel Jeantel?
This week two stories captured the nation's attention -- the acquital of George Zimmerman and Rolling Stone Magazine putting acused Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, on their cover. In both of these very different situations I was stunned by what appears to be a lack of forethought on how the public would perceive things. It makes me wonder where the communications professionals were in counseling the parties involved on what to expect? When dealing with particularly sensitive and even explosive situations like these, someone needs to be asking the question, "What's the worst that could happen?"
Let's start with Rolling Stone. Clearly they knew what they were doing. In a world of shrinking printed magazines, Rolling Stone and its iconic cover still carries weight. And although they almost always put musicians, entertainers and politicians on their covers, Tsarnaev isn't the first "monster" to grace their cover. In 1970 they put the notorious cult-leading murderer, Charles Manson on their cover. In fact, if you look through a gallery of their covers you will see that they've often intended to grab attention with topical individuals presented in always eye-catching and sometimes conversation-provoking poses. In publishing an 11,000+ word piece on Tsarnaev, it was clearly going to be the cover story. Now, there are hundreds of photos of Tzarnaev they could have chosen for the cover. By taking the one that presents him almost like a latter day Jim Morrison with his messy mane and soft, non-threatening look they knew it would create buzz. But they clearly underestimated the angry blow back from the public, particularly in Boston, where stores have refused to sell the magazine and the mayor, Tom Menino, issued a statement condemning them for their insensivity to the victims and the impact on Boston.
Rolling Stone's unpreparedness played itself out in two very public ways. First, the senior editor Christian Hoard tweeted and then quickly deleted a response that many found tasteless and condescending. Next, well after the public blowback from many fronts, the magazine issued two different statements explaining their position.
So what does this tell us? For me it says they really didn't think everything through. I'm not saying they shouldn't have written the story, and the cover is their choice. But they should have had someone telling them that if they did so they should expect a strong reaction and wouldn't it be a good idea to get ahead of it by providing a clear, single message on their justification for their choice. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Next up we have Rachel Jeantel the star witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial. As the close friend of Trayvon Martin who was on the phone with him just before the altercation with George Zimmerman, she was the prosecution's best asset in helping them make their case.
Unfortunately for them and Rachel, many believe her testimony actually ended up hurting more than helping. Why? If you followed the reporting of her statements throughout the trial, it really wasn't what she said, it was how it came across. The combination of her body language, delivery and inconsistency with prior statements created a negative perception, which called her testimony into question.
It left me thinking, how well did the prosecution prepare her for this? The proof to me that they fell down on the job was her subsequent appearance on Piers Morgan's show in which she has changed her look and is much more effective in discussing the case. Perhaps the pressure of the moment was too overwhelming for her. Nevertheless, it seems pretty clear that someone should have spent much more time preparing her for the cross examination and helping her present what she heard more effectively.
We should all hope and pray that we're never put in these kinds of positions. But with any communication activity there is always the chance for a problem to come up. So let this be a lesson that considering what is the worst that could happen and being prepared to respond to it before it occurs is always a sound communication practice.