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5 Rules For Exploiting Tragedy

And the award for The Crassest PR Pitch I received this week in the wake of the Virginia Tech slayings goes to … Sam Sims, of Jones PR in Oklahoma City! (Take a bow, Sam.)
And the award for The Crassest PR Pitch I received this week in the wake of the Virginia Tech slayings goes to … Sam Sims, of Jones PR in Oklahoma City! (Take a bow, Sam.)In his pitch, Sam started out with "In light of Virginia Tech's lack of notification, …" thus not only blaming the university but also compressing the death of 32 students (and one gunman) into the real issue: "lack of notification"! He also managed to toss in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing, all within the space of two paragraphs, to get publicity for "cell broadcasting" technology.

Now that's flackery.

PR people wishing to take advantage of major tragedies, natural disasters, and the deaths of large numbers of people are serving a useful business function -- who among us didn't think, in the aftermath of the Blacksburg massacre, "I wonder what this means for critical real-time mobile messaging services at the nation's institutions of higher learning?" (Nathaniel Eberle, of the Racepoint Group in Waltham, Mass., did -- and he began his pitch with the classic, "Today we are as a nation looking for answers to Monday's events.")

But if you're trying to exploit a tragedy for free publicity, there are a few simple rules to follow:

  1. Don't be obvious. Wait until at least the second paragraph to mention the connection to the late unpleasantness.
  2. At least be touting a product that has some connection to the events at hand, however tangential.
  3. Don't insult your audience. Trying to push a blatant exploitation pitch as important news related to this week's disaster doesn't work. Trust me.
  4. Avoid fake gravitas (see Mr. Eberle, above).
  5. Better yet: Don't do it. Hit erase. You'll feel better for it.