Mandatory lessons communicators MUST learn from the series premiere of “Who is America?”

Jul 16, 2018 · 8 min read

From the beginning of my career at the AOL Newsroom, to running my own PR firm, to founding and building Help a Reporter Out, I’ve met tons of journalists from all over the world, and I’m honored to call many of them friends.

However: There’s a massive difference between “being friends with a journalist” and “being friends with the media.” The former exists. The latter does not.

I know that when I’m going for a run in Central Park with a friend of mine who is a reporter, we can complain about the run, about the heat, make fun of those faster runners who fly by us at twice our speed, you name it. We can bitch about things that drive us crazy in life, we can confide in each other about our personal lives, as friends do. We laugh, we chat, we connect, because we’re friends.

But if I were to call that same reporter later in the day and pitch a story, whether a client or just a trend I’ve noticed, our connection at that point is completely different. I’m a PR person (or a source,) and they’re a journalist. And I can’t ever forget that, because I know they’ll never forget that.

To put it another way: Any journalist in the world has one job: Report information. If you’re working with a journalist in any capacity, then you need to understand that anything you say to them is exactly that: Information. And if it helps them report the story on which they’re working, they will use that information.

If you’re talking to a journalist, anything you say, EVERYTHING you say, is considered information that could potentially be published. EVERYTHING.

Understand: I do NOT mean that every journalist is out to screw-over ever PR person or source. Quite the opposite — It’s exceptionally rare that I’ve encountered a journalist with the goal of destroying their source or the PR person with whom they’re working. But at the end of the day, it’s NOT the journalist’s responsibility to tell the PR person or source that they shouldn’t mention something, or that they should stop talking. If you’re being interviewed, or giving information to a journalist in any capacity, that responsibility is 100% yours.

A show premiered on Showtime Networks last night called “Who is America.” It stars Sacha Baron Cohen (of “Ali G” and “Borat” fame,) who, using prosthetics and a host of accents, poses as four different journalists, and asks pretty famous people some pretty horrible questions. Even worse, the majority of those interviewed (Dick Cheney, Joe Walsh, Trent Lott, and countless more,) offered equally as horrible responses. Each of them knew they were being filmed, signed releases allowing the footage to be broadcast, and conversed with Cohen like they were talking to an old friend, and not a reporter, despite all having just met Cohen for the first time right before the interviews began.

And yes, while they were told that the interviewer (and the program for which they were being interviewed) were sympathetic to their issues, each interviewee confused that suggested alliance with a “free pass,” to chat like two old buddies would chat in a bar, free of any recording devices or cameras. And this was just the first of a reported seven episodes Showtime will air. Ouch.

So what can we learn from this cringe-worthy event? While the chances of you being duped into a situation such as this are minimal at best, it doesn’t take much to create a PR nightmare that can haunt you for days, weeks, years, or even longer. A PR nightmare that can shut down your business, destroy your credibility, or even send you into hiding, being forced to give up everything you know and start all over again from square one.

Here are several ways to prevent any of this from happening to you:

1) As said above: The media isn’t designed to be your friend, and an interview is NEVER a casual private chat with a close friend. At one point, during segment on gun control, Cohen mentions to a former director of a firearms lobbying group that he was once shot by his wife, and jokingly explains it by adding, “but hey, it’s not rape if she’s your wife.”

As horrible as that off-handed comment is, it’s not the worst part. That comes when the interviewee, thanks to Cohen’s friendly, inviting interview style, completely forgets that this is a recorded, video taped interview, and responds to Cohen’s joke and subsequent smile with a hearty laugh and smile of his own, so much so that he’s visibly red in the face before the scene ends.

Photo: Showtime Networks

LESSON: If you’re giving any kind of interview to any kind of media outlet, stick to the facts. You can certainly smile and show emotion, but again: This is an interview for public consumption. It’s NOT a chat with a friend. It’s NOT private, and no matter how cozy the interviewer becomes, no matter how friendly the journalist is, no matter how much he or she “understands what you’re going through,” or “totally understands where you’re coming from,” it’s still an interview that can go public. Never, ever forget that.

2) The microphone is always hot. History is filled with examples of celebrities, politicians, even presidents, saying things they thought were private, only to find out they were in range of a “hot mic,” that captured every word they said.

LESSON: Say what you’ve rehearsed, answer the questions asked of you. A commercial break or a “three minutes to go to the bathroom” does NOT mean you’re off-mic. Have someone with you who wants to give you advice during an off-screen break, or when the reporter has stepped out? Disconnect your mic, leave the room, heck, go outside and get some fresh air before either of you share your first word.

3) Trust your gut. If something feels wrong, IT PROBABLY IS. Humans were given instincts at the beginning of our existence, and for good reason — Instincts have kept our species alive throughout the ages. Instinct told us to not walk into that dark cave because we heard a roar and if it’s a Sabertooth tiger, it can kill us.

Several of those Cohen attempted to interview backed out either before, or in some cases during the interview, and didn’t sign the releases needed for the show to legally use their footage. They had a feeling in their gut, and they listened to it.

At the end of the day, the few times in my life that I’ve truly screwed up can usually be traced back to one moment where I ignored my gut, back when it had the chance to die a simple death, as opposed to becoming a crisis of epic proportions.

Lesson: LISTEN TO YOUR GUT. It’s almost always right. If something feels off, walk away. Much better to walk away and potentially burn one bridge, than to stay and light a fire that burns them all.

4) Question everything! If you’ve been pitching a story and a reporter bites, great! But before you let down your guard and start celebrating your win, do your homework.

Is the reporter crafting this story with the same idea you offered when you pitched it? In other words, if your pitch was about how local zoos in your state (including the one you work for) are excited to be receiving greater numbers of rare animals, is the story being reported the same? Or, is it a story about how more and more rare and endangered animals are being forcibly captured and stuck into zoos for the rest of their lives?

Now sure, that’s an extreme example, or is it? I remember promoting a company that made phone cards back in the early 2000s, before mobile phones were fully commonplace. The story I pitched showed how phone cards could help people living in the US stay in touch with their families overseas at incredibly cheap rates.

The story that ran, however, focused on how people with families overseas had no choice but to “buy phone cards no matter the price, if they ever wanted to speak to their loved ones again.”

It didn’t matter that the price was totally affordable! It was not what I pitched, and it caused considerable grief, both for the companies featured, as well as me — the PR person who not only pitched his client, but convinced three other phone card companies to be included in the article.

Lesson: Trust, but verify, verify, verify.

5) Finally, if you or your client do happen to find yourselves on the receiving end of an unexpected hit, then at the very LEAST, don’t make it an even bigger story! In other words, don’t fight fire with gasoline.

As close as week ago, maybe a few hundred people in the world outside of Showtime Networks knew ANYTHING about a show called “Who is America,” let alone that it was going to be this massive powder keg that was about to wreak havoc on the lives of multiple public figures.

Showtime announced the show by releasing a ten-second clip on social media, and that was IT. No millions in advertising. No massive marketing campaigns with billboards and subway car wraps — nothing of the sort. One ten second clip, posted on social. Then, they just waited.

Sure enough, less than 24 hours later, multiple politicians, celebrities, and public figures who had gone on the show went into full-on crisis mode, and they each released statements to the media denouncing the show, threatening to sue, and so on. What do you think happened?

For the next four days, the media proceeded to give Showtime Networks millions upon millions of dollars in free publicity, all spurred on by the very people claiming to have been harmed by their interviews! Almost everyone who knows about this show does because they saw a news or social media report about someone famous who got interviewed, who now thinks they probably said some bad things on tape, and had their PR person tell them that they have to “get in front of the story.”

It wasn’t until Friday, two days before the series premiere, that Showtime ran any advertising to promote the show, online or otherwise. They let everyone else do it for them.

Had everyone just kept their mouth closed, the show would have aired, and sure, the next day it would have blown up a bit. But instead, the audience who watched the series premiere was no doubt exponentially bigger than it ever would have been.

In the end, a lot of this is common sense. But sadly, common sense often takes a back seat to the comforting feeling one gets when they believe they’re talking to someone they can trust, someone who “gets them.’ Similarly, when we believe things are going in our favor, we tend to silence our gut, and ignore any issues that would otherwise set off alarm bells. To put it another way, “when you’re wearing rose-colored glasses, every red flag just looks like a flag.”

Disclaimer: This piece is written without any political bias whatsoever, and simply attempts to focus on how easy it is to dupe people, and how we as communicators, public relations professionals, or just anyone looking to positively grow their brand should think, act, and react.

Peter Shankman is a multiple-startup founder with several successful exits under his belt. He’s a best-selling author, focusing on the customer economy. He’s the founder of Help a Reporter Out (HARO,) the world’s largest source/journalist matching tool, a global corporate keynote speaker, and he runs ShankMinds: Breakthrough, a private, online entrepreneur community with hundreds of members around the world, as well as Faster Than Normal, a leading ADHD podcast and bestselling book, focusing on the benefits of being gifted with ADD/HD. He can be found at www.shankman.com

Peter Shankman

Written by

Host of the Faster Than Normal #ADHD Podcast. Dad, bestselling author, angel investor, marketer, keynote speaker, NASA advisor, HARO Founder. Ironman. Skydiver.

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