Issues Management Lessons

What’s the PR lesson from Conan O’Brien’s battle with NBC?

O’Brien’s emotionally charged jokes and attacks on the network bosses have been poignant and hilarious at times. Last Friday’s Tonight Show was no exception as O’Brien didn’t pull any punches:  “In the press this week, NBC has been calling me every name in the book. In fact, they think I’m such an idiot they now want me to run the network,” O’Brien said.

The Hollywood publicity game is certainly different from corporate PR. For starters, publicists tend to trade on softer news. That said, handling issues such as the O’Brien vs NBC fight provides some good lessons.

Boardroom battles can be influenced by headlines and often repeated sound bites. O’Brien has mastered this truism via monologues delivered to a growing, captive audience.

It’s easier to identify with someone we know and understand. The NBC execs are basically faceless while O’Brien has repeatedly told his side of the story. Even if you didn’t watch the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien before and just started tuning in, it wouldn’t take long to decide if you bought his message or not.

Of course it helps that O’Brien is at the top of his game; a talented, funny pitchman can make people buy just about anything.

The third lesson, which is a good reminder for big businesses, is Main Street and mainstream media are wary of corporations. If your company’s credibility is suspect in light of an employee or customer complaint then be prepared for an issue that may blow up.

No matter what the NBC leadership says and even if their decision to juggle their late evening talent was the best solution for a ratings problem, the big corporation is looking bad and we get to watch.

Lastly, working with big personalities requires a strong communications lead who can bring smart ideas to emotionally charged situations. O’Brien looks to be making the most of his decisions on his way to victory. However, not every client or lead spokesperson can as effectively operate in the eye of a storm. Communications teams need to be prepared to offer wise guidance.

Of course the network is also reaping the benefit if big ratings while its dirty laundry gets aired and NBC and its shareholders may get the last laugh. However, if O’Brien starts another show on another network and NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno returns to mediocrity, then the O’Brien fiasco may be another example of how bad communications and issues management are bad for business.

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