Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rick Santelli and CNBC commit classic PR faux pas

Last night, Rick Santelli and CNBC learned the hard way why not responding to the press, taking the equivalent of the "no comment" route, can backfire in the most obvious situations.

On February 19th, the CNBC reporter went on a rant from the Chicago Board of Trade floor, protesting that President Obama's bailing out of people whose homes were going to be foreclosed was "promoting bad behavior."

No matter where you stand politically, it was not TV journalism's finest few minutes, as a reporter's personal bias and opinions have no place in a forum like that. Either it should be labeled as a commentary or moved to an opinion segment on the network.

The flare-up was the buzz of the social media world, his segment on CNBC's web site attracted enough traffic to fill the borough of Manhattan, and it prompted an invitation from Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" to come on and talk about this spontaneous outburst.

At first, Santelli was booked for the show last night, but on Friday, he backed out. CNBC spokesperson Brian Steel said "we all made a decision that it was just time to move on to the next story."

Santelli and CNBC broke one of Michael Sitrick's cardinal rules of Spin: Always respond -- and respond fully -- to a press inquiry, no matter how off-base.

When you turn down an invitation from a high-profile satirist like Jon Stewart, you know you are going to take your lumps really badly, far worse than anything he could possibly say to you in person.

And boy, did Jon Stewart go to town. Not only on Santelli, but the entire CNBC network, mocking them for butt-kissing CEO's saying one thing while their companies were in very serious trouble. Stewart made CNBC look like the national platform for liars and buffoons. It was very funny, incredibly nasty and it hit home hard.

The right PR move for CNBC was to media train Santelli and go on the show with a ripe sense of humor about the whole thing, make some self-deprecating jokes, and take the air out of the whole balloon. Stewart joshes you about it? You laugh, take it like a pro, and make your own joke. Show the public that you can roll with it and you're not treating the rant with dead-on seriousness.

And what immortal words did CNBC's spokesperson Steel say to the Associated Press today, with the network's tail squarely between their legs when asked about Stewart shredding them down?

"Neither the network's executives nor Santelli would comment on Stewart's broadcast."

Maybe it's time for somebody to send Steel a copy of Sitrick's book.