Passing Thoughts On Remembering Public Figures

Just heard about the death of Jack Smith, founder and CEO of Acme Corporation. My client, Paul Pundit is available to discuss the impact on Acme’s share price, and his many missteps. Paul also has some good intel about the search for Smith’s successor. Please let me know if you’d like to arrange a call.

Chances are, a pitch like this would end up where it belongs: the trash folder. It reeks of opportunism and overlooks the sad reality that a human being has left behind a void among his family, friends and coworkers. While the business aspect of the loss must be assessed, pouncing on a chance to get publicity from a tragedy is not just bad PR, but bad humanity.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s impossible to contribute to the legacy of a public figure with dignity. Obituaries of celebrities and other public figures are an unavoidable part of the news cycle. The key is sharing insights that illuminate the subject more than the source.

When legendary physicist Stephen Hawking passed away last month after a long battle with ALS, our client, American Friends of Hebrew University, had a unique perspective to share: Hawking’s dialogue with a physicist at the university, the late Jacob Bekenstein, helped establish the theoretical foundation for black hole thermodynamics.

A colleague of Bekenstein’s, Professor Barak Kol, who had met Hawking on several occasions, wrote a moving op-ed celebrating the scientist’s achievements, recalling the black hole exchange and also delving into the somewhat sensitive subject of Hawking’s views on an academic boycott of Israel.

In the op-ed, which we placed in newspapers across North America, Professor Kol concluded: “Putting aside this disagreement, it was both an honor and a pleasure to have met Dr. Hawking on several occasions, and I will always remember his wit and how he faced his challenges with a smile, his typical defying grin.”

Useful information to an obituary writer or a general reporter covering the impact of a loss might include the deceased’s philanthropic activity, unreported acts of personal kindness, an insight that was ahead of his or her time, or an obscure career aspect likely to be overlooked.

When veteran radio actor Arthur Anderson passed away in 2016, DLPR senior vice president Sean Dougherty, who served on an organization board with him, reached out to the New York Times noting that Anderson had appeared in an historic production of “Julius Caesar” on Broadway with Orson Welles, and the photo of them on stage became iconic over the decades.

Anderson also had another quirky credit: starring as the Leprechaun in commercials for Lucky Charms breakfast cereal.

“Once those hooks were in place,” says Sean, “we were able point out his roles on radio, including 19 years on “Let’s Pretend,” a major league children’s radio show from the mid-30s to the early 50s, and his role in starting the Episcopal Actors’ Church, which he founded so that actors who were on shows on Sunday mornings would be able to worship.”

Any good PR professional knows the dangers of ambulance chasing – the effort to score a hit in news coverage involving tragedy. Going out of your way to avoid this reputation and erring on the side of dignity is prudent. For example, in the wake of the recent Parkland high school shooting, we decided to put on hold a pitch about preventing cyber attacks on schools, to avoid any possible perception of linking to the tragedy, and because it was an awkward time for that discussion when the focus was on the victims and improving physical security.

Good PR is always about positioning clients’ expertise to increase the depth of public discourse. Unless you’re talking about a criminal or fallen tyrant, begin with a sense of reverence for what the person has accomplished. And remember a simple rule of thumb: Share insights that can add to the figure’s legacy, not build your own.

By Adam Dickter, senior account supervisor at DLPR.


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