Ronn Torossian, CEO, 5WPR
There’s an unwritten principle in public relations: bad news can snowball. The basic driving force behind this principle is “similar stories get easier traction.” For example, if one well-known author gets in trouble for plagiarism, you can almost guarantee that, tomorrow or later this week, there will be another story about another author in the crosshairs…
And you can bet the word “allegation” will be prominent. But a lack of salient facts will not stop the headline from running. This idea is, in many ways, the impetus behind the high-profile “#MeToo” related stories that have brought down many careers in entertainment and media. Reporters had a trending story, so they just kept digging… only to find out the well didn’t really have a bottom.
And that brings us to the latest public figure apologizing for blackface. This time, it’s USA Today editor Nicole Carroll, who is preemptively answering for a “racist photo in her college yearbook,” according to media reports.
Carroll spoke out via a statement on USA Today’s website, in which she said: “The news is full of blackface pictures… There can be no debate about whether or not such images are racist and hurtful. They are… It was recently brought to my attention that I was involved in publishing such a photo when I was in college. I am sorry for the hurt I caused back then and the hurt it will cause today…”
How was it that a photo in a college yearbook that this editor was in some way responsible for made it into the spotlight? Well, because of a major push by the media to find it – and others like it. According to reports, some Gannett-run newspapers are conducting a “nationwide review of yearbooks” in the wake of the revelations of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s blackface photos in his medical school yearbook.
Reports state the photo Carroll referenced, published in a yearbook in 1989, depicts two students at a Halloween party dressed as Mike Tyson and Robin Givens. Now, the paper that “broke” the story, the Arizona Republic, said it would not publish the photos because “the identities of the people in them were not clear…”
Carroll was not in the photo, but she was a former editor at the Arizona Republic and the editor of that yearbook, responsible for that photo spread. So, that brings us to a lot of people and organizations working to get out ahead of the story.
Arizona State University went to CNN to describe the photo as “a sad reminder that this kind of insensitivity was all too common in past decades…” The statement also said: “Things are changing for the better, for which we at ASU are grateful… but that doesn’t take away the possibility that the picture caused or will cause pain. For that, we are sorry.”
Carroll was quoted as claiming she has no memory of the photo in question: “The 51-year-old me understands and is crushed by this mistake… I want to apologize publicly… We must hold ourselves accountable as we do others, and it is important to call myself out for this poor judgement.”
So, the apology is out there. The question now, from a PR perspective, is was this a necessary exercise in getting out ahead of a story, or did Carroll just cast herself, unnecessarily, as another bad guy in this national conversation?