Ever since the recording of Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks was broadcast, anyone who has ever said anything, in public or private is having second thoughts. Clearly, the dialogue surrounding privacy in America – particularly for people of influence – has changed. Regardless of how offensive Sterling’s statements are, the incident should serve as a reminder for everyone alive today that some of our freedoms are forever lost. Everybody is a journalist and we are all in public relations. Everyone with a smartphone, a Facebook page, or a Twitter account can “report” from the street, the boardroom, or the PTA meeting.
From civilians on the streets of the Middle East filming a revolution, to bar-goers recording former Dior designer John Galliano’s racist comments, to mommy bloggers deciding which juice box or diaper-maker gets a time-out; broad swaths of the population are creating publicity by taking their thoughts and opinions and sharing them with the world. It’s an exciting, yet scary state of affairs.
For those of us who do PR for a living, it has changed the world of “professional” organized PR as we know it.
And it is yet another reminder that, whether due to ones’ temper, youthful indiscretions or a drunken incident; in a single moment, one’s life can forever be changed. Getting noticed is simultaneously easier and more difficult than it used to be. The right of entry for the media used to be via blue-chip birthright, a degree from journalism school, an internship at a newspaper, or an apprenticeship with scrappy newsmen, but no more. Everyone can now record and everyone has cell phones with cameras. Whether you’re giving a speech in front of a tiny group or a massive one, that’s media. If you’re recorded drinking a Pepsi and you work for Coca-Cola, you could be out of a job.
There is a court of law and a court of public opinion. Sure, there are laws against illegal recordings that can protect you in a court of law, but they cannot protect you from the financial or public relations fallout when comments are released. Yes, you can quibble about whether or not it was “fair,” or “right” that Sterling’s private conversation caused him so much public embarrassment, but no matter where that argument goes there is still a massive public relations mess to deal with. AND RIGHTFULLY SO. But, for arguments’ sake, in the old days, how would a mistress have proved allegations against a powerful billionaire?
This is the reality of interacting in a world where tabloid journalism and salacious rumor mongering is now a 24/7/365 big business enterprise. Dealing with paparazzi has always been a reality in entertainment PR, but now anyone with name recognition, money, power, or influence is vulnerable. You have to protect yourself.
The bottom line is that one must assume that anything and everything said or done is being said or done in public. Anyone with a cell phone can potentially catch you in a slip-up, embarrassing moment, or compromising situation. One of Sterling’s comments in the aftermath of all of this was very telling. He implied that he should have just “paid her off.” While this proves nothing, it implies that he had been approached about the tape and was being asked for a specific sum in exchange for privacy.
How would you react in that situation? What would your PR plan be if the person decided TMZ would pay more? In a world where every cell phone can be used for instant muckraking and career destruction, how will you respond?