Within minutes of the news of Robin Williams’ death reaching the masses, an email arrived in my inbox with the subject line: “Robin Williams: Addiction Expert Available for Comment.”
The man had only been dead for a matter of hours and already the PR vultures were circling.
For what it’s worth, the publicist jumped the gun, as the focus on the actor-comedian’s death is on his depression and not his addiction issues.
Still, when did a tragic celebrity death become an excuse for PR trolls to trot out their “expert in (depression, suicide, addiction)” clients as sources for stories, even as we’re still processing the news? These flacks are no better than ambulance-chasing lawyers and they’re only getting bolder.
As reported by Gawker, national PR firm Edelman posted a blog on its site about seizing such moments for PR opportunities. Its headline: Carpe Diem, Seize the Day.
The how-to guide — edelman.com/post/carpe-diem — is by Lisa Kovitz, an executive vice president and media relations expert in Edelman’s New York office. She opens her piece with this: “As we mourn the loss of Robin Williams to depression, we must recognize it as an opportunity to engage in a national conversation.”
“Opportunity” is a favorite substitute in PR speak for “taking advantage of a situation to promote our client and/or organization.”
Sure enough, a few paragraphs into the blog and Kovitz says just that: “At Edelman, we are in the business of helping our clients create or join public conversations. We know that appropriate organizations can elevate a public conversation to help those in need. We and our clients can learn from this situation.”
The thrust of the paragraph and the blog is “helping our clients create or join public conversations”; everything that follows is PR spin meant to mitigate the damage of her honesty: “We are paid to promote clients and must find ways to do it, even if it’s a national tragedy.”
As someone who was in PR for exactly four months many years ago, I have more than a cursory understanding of the business of positive promotion. And for those of us in the media, public relations is a resource for interesting stories and knowledgeable sources.
I also know that most PR reps comport themselves with far more professionalism and decency than those I’m ripping. But building client relations on a tragedy not even 24 hours into its news cycle is opportunistic, not opportunity.
Williams hanged himself because he was depressed.
Was it chronic depression? Or something stirred recently because of family, health, career, or financial troubles? I don’t know and neither does anyone else. Parading these “experts” with their speculative analysis and broad talking points in front of network TV cameras and quotable sources for news stories is pointless, and mostly self-serving for the PR firms and the clients who pay them.
According to the Mayo Clinic, depression “affects how you feel, think, and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems,” and those in its grips “may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities … and feel as if life isn’t worth living.”
But as the Mayo Clinic points out: “Most people with depression feel better with medication, psychological counseling, or both. Other treatments also may help.”
That’s what’s really important to this story. If you’re suffering depression or know someone who is, there is help and there is hope.
And that’s not a PR spin.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
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