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Why Was NBC’s Damage Control So Weak?

It’s PR 101 to shape both the messaging and the tactics — including proactive ground-laying

 The analyses, tick-tocks, hypotheticals and finger-pointing about NBC’s programming debacle are at full blast. It’s the first time the country’s come together since, well, Balloon Boy.

There are many burning questions being asked. I have two.

First: Whoever his employer, how quickly will Conan decamp for the East Coast? My bet’s on “very fast.” He’s seemed so damn miserable in L.A. from the very first "Tonight" show, in fact even since his premiere date and relocation were announced. And not just because he probably has to bathe in SPF 70 to simply wait at the Ivy valet stand.

But my other question: Why was NBC’s damage control on the story so weak?

In her Waxword column, TheWrap.com’s Sharon Waxman reported on the chain of events behind what is arguably NBC’s most successful drama in years. Interestingly, her sources barely mention the PR strategy that played out. 

Maybe because from all indications, one wasn’t there.

In the spirit of a little kumbayah with my fellow flacks, let me note that no matter how influential (or tough) a PR person might be in his or her seat at the management table, time and media pressure stand still if executives are frantically juggling bad news, talent egos, lawyers and the urgency of a viable Plan B. Of course, that’s when they need us the most.

Also, most PR people will agree that no matter how confidential our relationships are with our CEOs, there are inevitably times when they suddenly think we aren’t working with the media but for the media. And that translates to keeping us out of the loop until the last minute. Despite the fact that secrecy and loyalty – even to the biggest corporate dopes – are embedded in our DNA.

Were these the problems behind the curious crisis management decisions made at NBC? Who knows. But there are other facets of this story that are real head-scratchers. 

Among them:

Why was NBC apparently caught so off-guard when this began to leak?

The 10 p.m. scheduling decision has been in the cross-hairs since it was announced and affiliates’ frustration has been apparent for months. As we’ve now learned, NBC was seriously planning the May cancellation of the 10pm Leno show; entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin simply moved up the date. 

The moment such a scenario begins to percolate and long before the slightest chance of leaks might arise, it’s PR 101 to start shaping both the messaging and the tactics, including proactive ground-laying. All of which should’ve been able to be tapped now.

What was up with those initial statements? 

During situations such as this, business affairs types, agents and program heads unite and think they’re Ben Bradlee. As a result, they usually wind up collectively framing a lot of language about nothing. Or, in this case, two different lots of nothing. It sure feels like it was negotiated that there be two distinct statements issued with some distance between them: the first one favoring Leno, the second leaning toward Conan O’Brien.

Both read like wordsmithing by committee. And neither sounds like Gaspin, whose frank explanation of NBC’s dilemma in front of the national media at the TCA Press Tour was smart and refreshing.

Why does NBC, even as it takes care of its affiliates, continue to piss them off?

The most important task of the networks’ 10 p.m. shows has been to provide the best possible lead-in for its stations’ critical late newscasts. NBC’s recurring theme in its comments about the Leno show’s status and cancellation has been that it met NBC’s goals but meh, not so much those of the affils.

This repeated positioning – that the network’s 10 p.m. priorities aren’t necessarily aligned with those of their station partners – is either the narrowsightedness of someone coming out of the cable business or else the biggest unreported cannonball in the platform wars.

Finally, my biggest question is aimed at the media: What took you all so long to pick up on this?

The Waxword column offers a timeline for the snowballing station frustration, which manifested itself through one-off local media and trade articles that started appearing just weeks after the show’s premiere. Trust me:  at least half those stories weren’t conceived by the journalists who wrote them.

But despite stations’ roles as linchpins in networks’ business strategies, reporting on them has never been a sexy assignment. Faced with interviewing general managers in Indianapolis and St. Louis vs covering Real Housewives or Simon Cowell, a journalist’s choice is obvious. 

Yet despite the affiliate board’s reported threat to NBC that stations would begin taking their concerns public, probably 80 percent of the GMs would’ve happily spilled, on or off the record, over the last two months if courted appropriately.

Then, NBC’s announcement that it would be developing 18 pilots was the equivalent of dropping Bekins boxes in the Tonight and Leno production offices. And, finally, with so many industry players – who had so many disparate agendas to spin – brought into the discussions, it’s inconceivable that this stayed quiet so long.

Of course, it’s also unimaginable that NBC would get itself into such a fix in the first place.

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.