Beverly Hills brands itself as the platinum version of America. These days, however, that luster could use a shine, particularly with its PR handling of the Ronni Chasen murder.
As heartbreaking and terrifying as the crime was, the Dec. 8 Beverly Hills Police Department press conference, promising some closure, was almost laughable.
Held more than three weeks after the murder, the much-anticipated, heavily attended gathering turned out to be brief, vague, contradictory, awkwardly self-congratulatory, full of loose ends and fairly combative.
The BHPD’s opinion of those present was most apparent during the short Q&A when, in response to a question, one official chose to whine about the media coverage. He complained that journalists reported on any and all bits of information and speculation arising over the past weeks, suggesting that the perpetuation of various unofficial scenarios and angles got in the way of the conclusions he was providing.
He also criticized “a lot of quasi-experts on radio and TV that don’t know what the heck they’re talking about.”
The fact that BHPD itself had enabled this Wild West media free-for-all through a PR strategy providing little information and few experts since Nov. 16 didn’t appear to strike the speaker as ironic. At that moment, it seemed as if BHPD might even believe that no one had a right to cover this story until they said so.
Making matters worse, all the rumors and conjecture that gained traction courtesy of the BHPD information vacuum have played into credibility problems now dogging the department’s statements about how the crime was supposedly committed. Within hours after the press conference and continuing still, numerous media outlets such as TheWrap have reported on questions being raised.
Many pieces have quoted friends and colleagues – among them, people who are smart, famous, well-connected and media savvy. They along with other critics have sparked a wave of skepticism as to the accuracy, thoroughness, capability and even the motives of BHPD’s conclusions.
Some crime experts have dismissed this groundswell of disbelief and distrust as a side effect of our culture’s obsession with everything from conspiracy theories to the success of TV procedural dramas.
As a PR expert, I say to them: Baloney.
I’m sure BHPD saw the press conference as a means to put to rest the numerous scenarios flying around and to start closing the file. Instead, they themselves complicated things further.
The BHPD’s PR strategy is responsible for creating the awkward position in which it now finds itself.
For starters, by releasing scarce information and putting forth almost no experts (even to simply maintain visibility while saying essentially nothing, a standard PR tactic) for nearly a month, it unleashed the “quasi-experts.”
Countless people claiming knowledge and insight – including legions of obvious hacks and perennial self-promoters – have gotten a free pass to make pronouncements in any media outlet that would have them since they recognized they’d face no official pushback. Likewise for legit members of law enforcement who seemed to keep turning up as unnamed sources.
Then, BHPD buried the nominal information it did disclose. The only acknowledgement of the crime on the City’s website are two single-page press releases, dated December 3 and 8, on the Police Department’s news page. There, they have no more prominence than Nicole Richie’s traffic accident and the receipt of a donated SMART Car. BHPD’s Twitter account doesn’t offer the usual links to the releases (its Facebook page is actually an unauthorized fansite).
While BPHD officials have distributed additional statements to the media during these weeks too, those aren’t posted anywhere for reference. The press conference video isn’t on the site, despite the City having a comprehensive videos webpage. Nor can it be found on YouTube, UStream or any other standard PR vehicle.
Instead, it’s forced the worldwide media and general public glued to this story to seek out third-party channels where all the videos and statements are embedded in just the kind of reporting and perspective that have been frustrating BHPD.
And finally, there’s that press conference.
There are two logical yet opposing explanations for Beverly Hills’s PR strategy. It might be unhappiness with this giant blemish on its glossy global reputation. The lack of acknowledgement might stem from the misguided belief that this would keep the story contained.
But it’s also that Beverly Hills remains, at its core, a small town. While that gives it character, it also presents a challenge when forced into the spotlight because of a difficult, complex and high-visibility situation – much like Boulder, Colo. and the JonBenet Ramsey case.
Among the remarks at the press conference, a BHPD official stated the investigation was not done but instead “60 to 70 percent completed.” That too has raised questions, confusion and criticism.
But I think it gives Beverly Hills time – 30 to 40 percent of it, in fact – to improve things.
They can recognize the level of media interest in the story and work with – rather than against – it. They can preempt or derail inaccurate assumptions and unfounded concerns. Get ahead of self-proclaimed experts and insiders. Put to rest the many contradictions; for starters, the Mayor’s initial statements that the police believed it was a targeted shooting done from a big SUV.
They can acknowledge and address the numerous holes, loose ends and questions. For instance, I still don’t understand how it’s being labeled a robbery when nothing was taken or why the killer made credible comments about a $10,000 payoff. Offer context.
And finally, remember that sometimes the simplest, most obvious reason requires the lengthiest, most complex explanation.