During the years I served as a deputy communication director in the New Jersey governor’s office, we dealt with more than a fair share of negative stories.
Some were complete surprises that came out of the blue and required quick thinking about how best to respond.
Occasionally we knew when a tough story was about to break, such as a court ruling, an unemployment report or a political poll. On those occasions, we often tried to “bigfoot” the news cycle by putting out a big announcement designed to take some of the focus away from the negative stories.
Donald Trump has put a new twist on the bigfoot strategy. When he tweets or says something outrageous and shocking, it diverts attention from other issues surrounding his administration. Regardless of one’s politics, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that Trump has become a master at controlling the daily news cycle.
My recollections of the bigfoot strategy were triggered this week by the Diocese of Buffalo’s decision to handpick the reporters it would allow to cover a news conference, effectively banning WKBW’s Charlie Specht, whose reporting has uncovered disturbing information about clergy abuse in the diocese.
I won’t pretend to know the rationale behind the diocese’s decision to limit access to its press conference, so I can only speculate about the factors that led to its decision. But I am speculating as someone who spent more than 20 years as a public relations professional.
I don’t believe the diocese set out to bigfoot the story; I believe its intent was to keep Specht away from the press conference because his reporting has exposed many of the most damaging details of the clergy abuse story.
But bigfooting would not have been a bad strategy.
Put yourself in the diocese’s position. With new revelations emerging about Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone’s handling of sex abuse cases, you know you’re in store for a flurry of bad stories. So you do something unusual and set conditions for a press conference that are shocking. By handpicking reporters and excluding Specht, you create another story - one that is bound to raise the ire of journalists and shift their focus to the circumstances of the press conference rather than its content.
Indeed, the journalism community vocally and justifiably expressed its anger and indignation on television, in print and on social media. But to the credit of the Buffalo press corps, they didn’t allow themselves to get bigfooted, even if the bigfooting was unintentional.
When I Googled “Bishop Malone press conference” on Friday, the results showed the press had done its job and reported in detail on the content of the press conference and the troubling developments involving the bishop and the diocese. The stories about the press conference conditions were there too, but they did not dominate the coverage.
That’s good journalism. Good journalism holds the powerful accountable, and we’re seeing journalism at its best with the coverage of the clergy abuse scandal in the Diocese of Buffalo.