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‘American Idol’s’ PR Train Wreck Makes Online Fans Pay

“Idol’s” biggest PR mistake was how it treated the online fan community it had invited along

american idolIf Wednesday's “American Idol” announcement of new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez is a harbinger of the show’s coming season, Fox’s reality unit better be in high development mode.

Wow. What a PR train wreck.

The biggest news coming out of the event, held at the L.A. Forum, was that a global media powerhouse had no online audio. But what wasn't so apparent was a series of more subtle missteps reflecting age-old publicity problems and a critical new one.

“Idol’s” biggest PR mistake — the overarching one which ultimately affected everything else — was how it treated the online fan community it had invited along.

“Idol” wound up sending its national web audience a simple message: If you weren’t front and center at the Forum, you just don’t count. Despite promotion to drive online viewing of the webcast, both the judges' announcement (made before those at auditions) and the ensuing press conference (held with media nearby) ended up serving almost exclusively those in person, rather than the millions coast-to-coast whom it desperately wants as viewers next January.

How did it happen?

For starters, there were those humiliating technical problems for online viewers, especially those of us — including me — who chose to follow along on the official "Idol" site.

After starting six minutes late, all but 90 seconds of the eight-minute announcement ran minus sound. The few times audio came through, it was tinny. There was a tsunami of pissed-off tweets from annoyed fans, which unfortunately appeared in a box on the "Idol" site itself.

Then, though the following press conference had begun streaming on various media sites, it was still MIA on the "Idol" homepage, with fan tweets now asking "what's up?" I don't know when it finally was patched into AmericanIdol.com since I'd already switched elsewhere to view it.

The lack of audio matched overall poor production values. Most of the camera shots came from way back in the Forum; for all that web viewers knew, it was Brian Dunkleman up there intro-ing the new judges. The press conference – in a room dressed as nice as a school bake sale — featured eight people lined up at a long table. As that back-of-the-room camera tried to take in the whole group, it was near-impossible to distinguish Fox exec Mike Darnell from Steven Tyler. A second camera providing tighter two-shots rarely caught the person actually speaking.

Making matters worse was the absence of on-screen graphics ID'ing the speakers. If I were Jimmy Iovine, the respected record producer whose role as mentor to contestants was one of the few real news items, I’d have my manager screaming at the PR people this very minute.

Corners seem to have been cut on PR prep, too.

A basic goal of publicity is to strategically advance your story. People should walk away knowing more about you – specifically, what you want them to know – than when they arrived.

Judged by that simple standard, the event also was a fail.

While “Idol’s” corporate line is that it’s all about the performers, the fact is that the judges are the stars: their alliances and battles are obsessively followed by viewers and the media.

The sessions should’ve done everything possible to tease the potential dynamics between Tyler, Lopez and returning judge Randy Jackson. Instead, the trio came off as if they’d just met in the green room. Weren’t they given instructions to, um, interact?

Jackson, a smooth old pro, did his best. But Lopez seemed tightly wound and cautious, carefully choosing her words (not a good sign for a potential judge). And someone should’ve worked with Tyler in advance to stop his nervous habit of playing with a ring.

But rather than let their new stars shine at this critical moment, the various “Idol” suits very consciously stole the limelight. A little better rehearsal would’ve done everyone good.

But the biggest PR mistake is what didn’t happen.

Arguably the most innovative entertainment franchise ever in terms of connecting with its audience didn’t.

When the judges' intro didn't start on time and then it was clear that it was proceeding with online audio — and as fuming fans were venting on twitter and Facebook — “Idol” PR folks were silent. The first official "Idol" post acknowledging the problem appeared on Twitter and Facebook 10 minutes after the judges' intro wrapped; it briefly informed everyone that the fixed segment would be available online.

Nearly an hour later while the “Idol” homepage had a graphic promising the press conference would start shortly — despite the fac tthat it had already begun — no one jumped in to helpfully direct fans elsewhere while the site's problems were being addressed.

Then, for four hours after the events, the “Idol” homepage led with its previous day’s advance story promoting the upcoming announcements. And last I looked, there’s nothing on the show’s site or its Facebook or Twitter pages offering a simple "sorry."

Despite creating perhaps the best single publicity exposure for itself ahead of premiere, “Idol” doesn’t seem to be using the most basic social media tactics to maximize this opportunity by engaging the public.

Cost-cutting? Disorganized? Too many cooks? Just clueless?

My scientific outsider's guess is simply that stuff happened. But when it does, it needs to be fixed.

The eight-month public drama of losing and choosing “Idol” judges made the health care reform bill passage seem quick, smooth, on-message and enjoyable. As part of its revelations, partners Fox, FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment announced their plan to reinvent the franchise. Let’s hope that also includes a better job of letting the public – those beyond the Forum – know.

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.