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Q&A: On the Covington Catholic High School controversy and the use of ‘dark magic’ crisis communications

A recent attendee to a Hennes Communications presentation by Bruce Hennes was prompted to email us this question, regarding the incident in Washington, D.C., involving high school students from Covington, Ky., two different groups of activists and whether clever use of crisis communications on behalf of the students had made the incident “go away.” Here’s that exchange, edited for length:

Dear Mr. Hennes: I thoroughly enjoyed and certainly learned from your presentation yesterday. Having the benefit of your “dark magic,” as the author terms it, probably caused me to read this article with a different perspective. The author doesn’t seem to understand the difference between PR and crisis communications as you  explained it but he is clearly chastising the media for its cowardice in backtracking and is attempting to get the anti-Covington train back on track—“testosterone-and-anti-abortion-rhetoric-fueled MAGA kids.” I recognize it is an opinion piece but it made me angry.

Dear Sir: I’m Thom Fladung, the managing partner at Hennes and a 33-year veteran of newspapers. Thanks for raising these points. The D.C. incident, in my view, got at the heart of the many challenges we all face in this era of instant communication and our instinct to rush to judgment in a manner I have not seen in my lifetime.

I don’t know the author of this piece and while the definition of “journalist” is broad and may be confusing, he is not a journalist in my view. The piece he writes is pure opinion and conjecture, with no reporting. And as you quickly discerned, he clearly comes at this subject with a distinct point of view. That’s OK. The piece is prominently labeled as analysis or opinion, and he’s entitled to his.

I agree with you, though, that he seems to have only the barest of knowledge about crisis communications – at least as we practice it at Hennes. As I’m sure Bruce emphasized, all our strategy is built foremost around this concept: Tell the truth. It’s not “dark magic” and it’s not spin.

Nor has the issue “gone away” because of the efforts of the communications consultants involved on behalf of the students, as the author asserts. Indeed, reporting and opinion writing about the incident continue – from all sides – more than a week later. (For my money, one of the more thoughtful opinion pieces on the value of waiting for more facts came courtesy of The Atlantic. And here’s another piece with an interesting perspective on the students’ White House invitation, from the Cincinnati Enquirer and a reporter I worked with in St. Paul, Minnesota.)

My main takeaway from the situation in D.C., for everyone, is simply this: Slow down. Don’t take to Twitter with an opinion based on one viewing of a video that shows one angle (and perhaps one point of view). And can we please start listening to one another? For journalists, I think it’s more detailed – and critical. Report, report, report. Question every fact and every supposition. We had a saying in my newsrooms that I always particularly liked: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.


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