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2009 — the Year MSNBC Was Caught Napping

My winner of December’s “Worst PR Assignment” is the cable channel’s spokesman

My winner of December’s “Worst PR Assignment” is MSNBC’s spokesman.

A few days ago amid mounting criticism, he declared straight-faced that his employer’s decision to reject live coverage of the Christmas Day terrorism attempt and, instead, drop quickie newsbreaks into canned tabloid programming was reasonable.  

I wondered if he’d used the trick taught to me by a TV anchor who would drive the tines of a hidden fork into the palm of his hand when forced to read something likely to make him laugh.

But instead of leaving it at that, the flack pointed out that what aired — mainly MSNBC’s usual grab bag of weekend white trasherama starring stalking spouses, psychopath teens, deranged pedophiles and chatty inmates — does quite well in the ratings.

I’d bet Santa wasn’t the only one last week with a twinkle in his eye.

MSNBC’s got news avoidance issues. And it’s rightfully getting beaten up. Its initial non-coverage of the Northwest Airlines near-disaster, now one of the year’s biggest stories, is only the latest example. It previously skimmed last June’s dramatic weekend protests over the Iranian elections, a transformative news event that inspired global demonstrations, made a young murdered woman named Neda an icon and evolved Twitter into a serious social network.

There are other examples of MSNBC choosing to stay on the sidelines while its competitors successfully leveraged such opportunities: CNN reminding us of the worldwide news firepower it wields and Fox showing that it’s not conservative spin 24/7 but, at times, delivers solid journalism, too. Because while network news coverage of major off-the-clock stories might be critical for many reasons, including public service, most of all it’s a huge PR opportunity directly related to revenue, ratings and respect.

First, the most obvious: After the first few times when news viewers discover a network isn’t covering the moment’s big story, it’s tough to bring them back. 

I have recent first-hand experience: While spending Christmas with my parents, avid TV news junkies with non-denominational viewing habits, intently following the terrorism situation, not one of us thought to switch over to MSNBC.

As viewers vanish, so do advertisers. But newsmakers do too. What official, expert or politician wants to appear on newscasts that audiences don’t know exist? Most networks wage quiet PR campaigns to woo such bookings to their shows. A series of decisions such as last week’s can set these efforts ’way back.

And a big news story is the single best place for networks to promote their stars. One reason the top anchors are paid so well is because they are, in essence, firemen: on hand mainly for showing off their incredible skills when the big fire erupts. No coverage? No starmaking.

Bad PR trickles down to broader employee relations. It’s tough for journalists to stay competitive or even enthusiastic when they’re not called in for the breaking big ones. It’s worse when they see what should be their airtime turned over to the residents of a Tennessee women’s prison, the 40th repeat of the Jeffrey Dahmer interview or “The Vampire Killings,” a documentary where “a self-described leader of a vampire cult murders a couple in Florida” (coming Saturday, Jan. 2 at 3 p.m. on MSNBC).

One of a publicist’s toughest tasks is convincing management that the best spin in the world can’t erase bad executive judgment.

MSNBC just announced some New Year’s resolutions, mainly more news coverage on its daytime schedule following the failures of a pair of new morning shows.

Let me offer the network three more.

First, admit your past decisions were wrong. Offer lots of mea culpas. Blame the economy, the unions, a strategic cross-promotional multiplatform synergistic deal between NBCU and the US prison system that you couldn’t violate. Just remind us that you’re a smart news organization. And if this apology doesn’t get enough traction, encourage Keith Olbermann to mock it.

Next, get out there first, fast and furious when the next big weekend or holiday story breaks. Call in your best folks, spend lots of money, own the coverage and promote the hell out of your work. And do it before Comcast takes over because despite its recent praise for journalism, that company didn’t blink when it killed its own news operation.

And finally, we hear NBC News spent about $100,000 to land the exclusive interview with David and Sean Goldman by transporting them from Brazil back to the U.S. by private jet and lots of chauffeured cars. That decision too is getting bashed as a case of extreme checkbook journalism that crossed ethical lines.

So here’s our idea. 

The next time an NBC news unit is tempted with a tabloid interview that needs $100,000 to score, resist the urge and instead invest that money in a fund for real news on MSNBC. That amount could help cover overtime, last-minute travel expenses and satellite hook-ups. 

And earmark a little to provide those MSNBC working stiffs with decent catered meals for the duration of the breaking news story. It’s the least you can do if you’re making them work on a sunny Sunday or Christmas.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.