We spend a lot of time at Franco talking internally about public relations best practices and providing that counsel to our clients.
Occasionally, we must tell clients why attacking the media in public for a story they do not like is fraught with peril. Our advice is to always think very carefully before taking any action. Think not only about your perception of the story, but about how the media outlet’s readers or viewers are likely perceiving the story and, therefore, how the community will view your criticism of the media.
The City of Uvalde, Texas is learning these lessons the hard way.
In recent weeks, Uvalde has been conducting a masterclass in how not to do public relations. The city’s public response to the mass shooting that occurred at Robb Elementary School on May 24 has been bizarre, tone deaf and – for both the families of the victims and the media – incredibly frustrating.
Best I can tell, the only thing they have achieved is to keep the Robb Elementary School shooting a top national story – even amid other massive national stories such as the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe V. Wade and the Jan. 6 Congressional hearings.
Some will argue the deaths of 21 people – 19 students and two teachers – should still be a national story. I don’t disagree.
But why is the Uvalde tragedy still in the news when other mass shooting incidents are fading away? In general, it’s because of conflicting stories told by law enforcement and a lack of transparency.
Recently, the Uvalde Police Department produced 77 minutes of footage of its police response and was planning to show some of it to the victims’ families. That video was leaked, and the Austin American-Statesman edited it down to a four-minute clip that showed the officers inside Robb Elementary School fully armed with gear and weapons charging down the hallway to classroom where the shooter was – only to retreat in fear when they heard more shots.
As soon as the Statesman published the video, it went viral on social media and CNN aired it.
That night, the mayor of Uvalde and a city councilman attacked the newspaper during a public meeting and used some swear words to characterize its motives. You can watch a video clip of Mayor Don McLaughlin and Ernest King’s comments in this tweet and you can read them in this Vice News story here.
The backlash from residents was immediate: “You should attack the cops who did nothing,” said one resident in the audience.
The social media response was just as brutal.
It was actually bold and brave for this media outlet to release this edited version… it knew it would hurt some feelings. But in light of the unusually tight lid of this investigation, this sunlight was appropriate though tough to watch for the families. #Uvalde
— John Scott Howard (@johnscotthoward) July 13, 2022
For its part, the Statesman thoroughly explained its reasoning for publishing the video here: Why the Austin American-Statesman chose to publish video from inside Robb Elementary
“Our decision to publish, along with our news partner, KVUE, comes after long and thoughtful discussions….Our goal is to continue to bring to light what happened at Robb Elementary, which the families and friends of the Uvalde shooting victims have long been asking for since the tragedy on May 24.”
The Associated Press provided the following context:
Only one officer from the scene of the deadliest school shooting in Texas history is known to be on leave. Authorities have still not released names of officers who for more than an hour milled in and out of a hallway near the adjoining fourth-grade classrooms where the gunman was firing. And nearly two months after the massacre, there’s still disagreement about who was in charge.
It’s easy to view the City of Uvalde’s ham-handed response to the Stateman’s decision to publish the video as an extreme and obvious example of a poorly thought out and emotional response to a news story.
But I’ve often seen companies get very angry about a story in the media they believe is incorrect or unfair. Clients feel like they have been attacked – and there is a natural instinct to want to hit back publicly at a media organization or an individual reporter and call out mistakes or biased coverage.
At Franco, we will not hesitate to ask a media organization to correct factual errors and we will strenuously argue for fair coverage and for the company’s viewpoint to be included. But publicly criticizing a media organization should always be a last resort and is almost never a good idea unless the coverage is egregious and the company’s response is measured, thoughtful and factual.