Three Media Relations Lessons from Christine O’Donnell’s CNN Disaster

I sure hope there’s a PR team out of work after the epic failure of Christine O’Donnnell on Piers Morgan August 17, 2011. Didn’t see it? Check this out first.

The team handling Christine O’Donnell committed three cardinal sins of media relations that should be addressed in any, thorough PR education.

Lack of research

I’m willing to bet the team handling O’Donnell don’t know much about the interview style of Piers Morgan and clearly did not prepare their client for handling tough questions. Morgan, a fairly new face to Western media, was a former editor of The Daily Mirror, and in fact a figure of intrigue during the recent phone hacking scandals that rocked british media.. The tabloids in the U.K. are known for challenging their leaders and making enemies exposing fraud, ethics issues and more. Quite honestly the interview should have never been accepted based on the colorful history O’Donnell carries.

Lose control

O’Donnell’s team clearly failed just by making the decision to put their client at the mercy of Piers Morgan’s inquiry. But what’s worse is that it seems clear that her team did not prep her or coach her on media handling. Every good PR pro should have tactics in their tool belt to redirect interviews gone awry. While O’Donnell attempted, it was clear she was shook up and Morgan had the upper hand. Three tips for controlling the interview

  • Rehearse being badgered by an interviewer
  • Be firm, but not offensive or aggressive in redirecting the question
  • Have rehearsed responses and repeat ( Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann is a queen at this!)

Walk off

No matter how bad the interview is, do not, under any circumstance EVER walk off, particularly if the camera’s are rolling. For the last day and a half the clip of O’Donnell being a difficult guest and avoiding a direct question has been repeated. Leading up to the Piers Morgan show you can also bet the network made promos of the now infamous walk off.  Further, the PR pro who walked in front of the camera should be the first firing by the O’Donnell camp! Appearing unresponsive and walking away from a question never reads well.

What do you think? Was O’Donnell and her people right in how they handled the media? Were there other failures?

Ryan Ruud is a Minneapolis based communications executive with more than a decade in media communications filling roles from broadcast to public relations in both profit and not for profit organizations.

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  • Michael Ward

    Wow, a stunning FAIL for O’Donnell. But I can’t imagine she had any bonified ‘PR pros’ on her team, based on this clip.  Political handlers, yes. But a PR team? Unlikely. And sadly, not very surprising. Because media relations for a ‘hot property’ like O’Donnell is, you know, so simple that, like, anyone can do it, right? 

    •  Thanks for the comment. If there were no PR pros on her team, then it is definitely a case for and reminder to have some support when dealing with an international program like Piers Morgan.

  • O’Donnell ran her own communications and marketing firm and cut her professional teeth doing the same for others. Piers Morgan’s show may be new to the US, but he’s not an unknown in media/journalism circles by any means. O’Donnell should  have been prepared for Morgan’s badgering interviewing style. Because she, more than some, knows the PR drill and this isn’t her first rodeo, the responsibility falls on her shoulders.

    • Well said and a nice addition to the post. Thanks!

  • Nice post Ryan.  The one thing that stuck out for me about this debacle was her subsequent interviews on other media outlets after the Piers interview.  Instead of talking about her book (which undoubtedly she was trying to promote) she spent the whole time defending herself and the botched Piers interview.  I saw some reporters even dragging up the “witch” references from a few years ago when she admitted that she had practiced witch craft when she was younger!  The PR horror!  Talk about taking the punch out of a book promotion campaign, in turned into a disaster tout suite in her quest to polish up an image that definitely needed a spitshine in an attempt to promote herself.

    • Thanks John. I caught a couple of the follow up interviews too, I thought the walk off was rock bottom, but much to my chagrin it was only the start!

  • Kimberly West

    Ryan great post and reminder. In her interview on the Today show, Christine O’Donnell admitted to Savannah Guthrie that she was aware of Morgan’s interview style but did the interview anyway. Now what her PR team was aware of is another story, but obviously they did not communicate well. Guthrie posed the same question as Morgan (not necessarily the same line of questioning leading up to O’Donnell’s position on gay marriage) and the clearly irritated O’Donnell answered. Guthrie also brought up the “witch” references reminding O’Donnell that she addressed both in her book. Guthrie was tough with her questioning (after all she is the chief legal analyst) and did not let her “get away.”

  • Jlahner

    Should we entertain the idea that her walk-off was staged? She is many months past the limelight, so what better way to generate some new news and promote her Going Rogue knock-off than to walk off the Piers stage (walk off the end of the pier???) and then fan the flames with a “borderline sexual harassment” comment a few days later. Am I giving her too much credit?

  • Jlahner

    Should we entertain the idea that her walk-off was staged? She is many months past the limelight, so what better way to generate some new news and promote her Going Rogue knock-off than to walk off the Piers stage (walk off the end of the pier???) and then fan the flames with a “borderline sexual harassment” comment a few days later. Am I giving her too much credit?

  • Anaik Weid Melman

    I feel we should be playing “seven errors” with this. She should never be in CNN without serious preparation, let alone with Piers Mogan! 

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