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CNN and Rick Sanchez: The Case for Saying Nothing

The network’s handling of Sanchez and Don Lemon show that “no comment” can be the best comment

Sometimes the most effective PR is the smallest and least expected.

Two great examples of this theory occurred recently within CNN: the exit of Rick Sanchez and the grace of Don Lemon.don lemon

Sanchez’s Sept. 30 comments and CNN’s presumptive termination of him the following day are old news. But some normally perceptive media critics are now complaining that CNN didn’t use the occasion to issue a substantive statement excoriating the anchorman and decrying his remarks alleging bigotry within his own company and the media industry.

Instead, CNN’s comment was terse:  “Rick Sanchez is no longer with the company. We thank Rick for his years of service and we wish him well."

These critics are wrong. CNN was right. Here’s why.

In less than 24 hours after Sanchez’s remarks, CNN ended his personal services contract, took him off the air, picked a program to replace his for the foreseeable future and let the world know. CNN could not have made a clearer public statement about where it stood.

And media critics, willing to offer analysis on the significance of things as minor as the novel being read by Jimmy Darmody on episode three of “Boardwalk Empire,” know better.

Having participated in countless closed-door executive meetings to strategize the departures of high-profile personalities, let me offer a theoretical dissection.

Deciding to end its association with Sanchez, CNN management had to address HR and legal concerns. If they were claiming contract violation, they needed consensus as to which one and why.  They had to debate the risk of a possible wrongful termination suit and perhaps another charging defamation. The lawyers likely parsed the language in the statement and approved the PR plan. They had diversity ramifications to weigh. And they needed to script the exit meeting. Such a process rarely takes one day.

Not only did CNN move fast, it bypassed the usual first step in such situations: placing the person on suspension. Suspension isn’t just a convenient bookmark until issues are sorted out. It also offers PR distance between a situation and its resolution, whatever that may be, and time to gauge public and industry feedback, which can sometimes drive decisions.

Instead, CNN immediately cut the cord. And in so doing, they told us pretty much everything. At the opposite end of the spectrum, CNN was also the setting for a more subtle and ultimately more remarkable PR situation.

There are few anchors with less in common than Sanchez and Don Lemon. The former nurtures an on-air persona that’s hot, while the latter is cool.

That’s not to say that the anchor of CNN’s weekend evening newscasts doesn’t exude warmth to his viewers, of which I’m one on a regular basis. But rather than being a showman seeking opportunities to inject himself in news stories, Lemon offers up solid anchoring, reporting and interviewing skills. So Lemon’s viewers on Sept. 25 (including me) were stunned to hear him declare, during an interview, that as a youth he was sexually molested by a pedophile.

In an era when reality shows are fully scripted and public figures’ confessions are often marketing tools for new films or albums, what Lemon did was groundbreaking: He offered up unplanned, un-hyped, unproduced candor about a brutal personal matter.

And then, he did something even more shocking: He shut up.

Lemon’s admission came during a round table with three young supporters of Bishop Eddie Long, the megachurch leader accused of sexually abusing four young men. Lemon’s guests were staunchly defending Long, even despite significant consistencies in the alleged victims’ stories.

While Lemon might poke and prod during an interview, he’s diplomatic. Regular viewers paying attention that night, however, could hear a subtle shift in his tone. There was increasing anger in his voice, frustration on his face. I started wondering: is a hidden personal context in play here? My curiosity didn’t last much longer.

Mid-interview, Lemon stopped asking questions and said, “Let me tell you what got my attention about this and I have never admitted this on television. I’m a victim of a pedophile when I was a kid.  Someone who was much older than me and those are the things they do … I’ve never admitted that on television and I never told my mom until I was 30 years old … Especially African-American men don’t want to talk about those things.”

Someone on set gasped. So did I, on my sofa. For a split second, Lemon looked equally shocked at his words. Then he quickly regained his composure and continued.

That evening, Lemon posted a brief thank-you on Twitter and Facebook in response to the many people sending him kind messages. Later, he sent a brief additional e-mail response to some questions posed by a journalism industry blog.

And that was all there was to that.

I’ve been carefully monitoring this story and unless I missed something in the days since, Lemon has been absent from all the usual publicity haunts where people normally take such stories to score self-promotion when such situations present themselves. No profile in the New York Times or People. No one-on-one with “Entertainment Tonight” or “The View.” He’s been absent from our national confessional bookends, “Oprah” and his own employer’s “Larry King Live.”

It’s certainly not for these outlets’ lack of trying. Chasing such follow-up interviews is a standard part of the pop culture media business; the voicemail and email folders of Lemon and CNN publicists are probably still filled with requests. But Lemon’s gotten on with business as usual.

As amazing as it is to believe in this day and age, he chose the high road.

What Lemon said on the air was incredibly brave. What he didn’t say in its aftermath gives his admission honesty and dignity and lets everyone understand it without the obstruction of irrelevance. Much like CNN’s handling of the Sanchez situation, it’s sometimes what you don’t offer up that has the most impact.

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.