In public relations work, you quickly discover that the Hippocratic oath applies: First, do no harm.
When a story is spiraling out of control, you’re often torn between rapid reaction (“We need to get in front of this story ASAP!”) and thinking things through (“Why are we trying to get in front of a story that’s going to run us down like a herd of stampeding bulls?”). The wrong choice invariably makes things worse. Crisis management is the most unpleasant part of the job, but it’s why you get paid the big bucks.
Few in D.C. have managed more crises than Hilary Rosen, a highly paid flack with a history of putting out fires. A longtime Democratic operative, Ms. Rosen led the Recording Industry Association of America in its war on piracy, earning a cool $2.65 million salary in 2002. She frequently appears on CNN and MSNBC and joined Democratic consulting powerhouse SKDKnickerbocker in 2010. A flack for British Petroleum after the Deepwater disaster, Ms. Rosen (or at least one of the plethora of Hilary Rosens White House Press Secretary Jay Carney claims to know) has visited the Obama White House 35 times over the last couple of years.
Despite her credentials as an elite spinmeister, Ms. Rosen seemed to forget the bit about doing no harm earlier this month during an ill-advised attack on motherhood itself, blasting Ann Romney — the only personable, well-liked surrogate in the Romney campaign — as having “actually never worked a day in her life.” The outrage was swift, the condemnations immediate. Instead of quietly backing away, cracking open a book, and sipping on some fine pinot, Ms. Rosen compounded her error by taking to Twitter, that font of reasoned discourse, and digging herself deeper 140 characters at a time.
“I am raising children too. But most young American women HAVE to BOTH earn a living AND raise children. You know that don’t u?” she tweeted at Mrs. Romney, who joined the medium literally minutes earlier with the sole intent of furthering Ms. Rosen’s misery.
The outrage was bipartisan.
One wonders if it hurt Ms. Rosen’s feelings to have so many of her friends throw her under the bus so quickly. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina tweeted, “I could not disagree with Hilary Rosen any more strongly. Her comments were wrong and family should be off limits. She should apologize.” David Axelrod, campaign surrogate and “former senior adviser” to the president, joined in: “Also Disappointed in Hilary Rosen’s comments about Ann Romney. They were inappropriate and offensive.”
Ms. Rosen couldn’t even catch a break from her fellow ladies. Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said, “Families must be off limits on campaigns, and i personally believe stay at home moms work harder than most of us do.”
The Obama campaign reacted so forcefully and in such numbers because they know they need the gender gap (along with the race gap and the youth gap and all the other gaps the Democratic coalition is built on) to break decisively in their favor once again: 56 percent of women voted for then-candidate Obama in 2008, compared to 43 percent for Sen. John McCain.
On the ropes, it would’ve been the perfect time for Ms. Rosen to take a nap, take a vacation, take a trip to the moon, anything to get out of the spotlight.
Noticeably absent from that menu of options was “Write a blog post defending yourself for the Huffington Post, which has more daily unique visitors than the websites for the Washington Post and the New York Times and, probably, God.”
“Spare me the faux anger from the right who view the issue of women’s rights and advancement as a way to score political points,” she vented in a post that might as well have been titled “Doing Harm: The Hilary Rosen Guide to Crisis PR.”
As someone who spent some time in the PR world whilst in-between journalism gigs, I quickly realized you never want yourself or your firm to be the story. Ms. Rosen must have learned that lesson at some point. Why she ignored it during this flare-up is hard to say.
The Internet has since moved on from Ms. Rosen’s mistakes, as it is wont to do; new crises and controversies have replaced hers. (Have you heard that Mitt Romney hates store-baked cookies and that Barack Obama loves home-baked dog?) The weirdest part about this whole story is that Ms. Rosen, an experienced flack, didn’t seem to understand that would happen. What kind of PR person with a Twitter account doesn’t grok that the Internet’s attention span is approximately 12 hours long?
Perhaps SKDK’s client list should keep this in mind the next time they come to the firm with a pressing problem — if Ms. Rosen insists on abusing her Twitter feed like Kanye West in one of his manic states, what else doesn’t she understand about PR in the Internet age?