A Lesson in PR- American Idol-style

Since millions of people are watching American Idol each week and since a certain incident happened last week that could have used a good public relations professional, I thought I would focus more attention- albeit, from a different standpoint- on the issue that had Idol fans buzzing.  For a couple of weeks, American Idol contestant David Hernandez made entertainment and Internet blog headlines with news that he worked as a male stripper at a gay night club prior to being selected to appear on American Idol.

American Idol spokespeople have not commented publically on the issue, and Hernandez basically said publically, “No Comment.” That is, until he was voted off the show.  When asked by Entertainment Weekly prior to last week’s performance to address the rumor, Hernandez said: “You know, honestly, I’m here to sing… I’m just focused on singing, because that’s what I’m here to do.”

Last week, the interview question asked of each contestant prior to their performance was, “What was your job prior to coming to American Idol?”  

To be sure, tongues were wagging at the thought of what Hernandez might publicly reveal of his rumored past. Instead of mentioning the gay night club, Hernandez said he had worked at a pizza bistro. Hernandez was voted off the show the next night. No one knows if his refusing to address the burning question or his tepid performance of a Beatles song earned him his ticket home.

The day after he was voted off, Page Six published an interview with Hernandez. In it, he said he believed that his past as an exotic dancer didn’t factor into his early ousting.

“I think America is smart enough by now to know that people’s personal lives should not influence their musical career,” he said.

He said American Idol producers knew of his past all along.

“If they weren’t comfortable with it, I wouldn’t have been on the show. Everything was totally out there and open,” he said.

So why the big denial until after he was voted off? I think the topic warrants some discussion, because it offers the opportunity to learn how to approach what is perhaps the most nerve-wracking aspect of public relations: answering the question you hope no one will ask.

As a Lakeland public relations professional, I had my own ideas of what I would have done. Chief among them being to ‘fess up immediately. When you address that which is spinning rapidly around the rumor mill, it has a way of knocking the wind out of the situation.

According to the Page Six interview, David Hernandez was quite open and honest after being voted off. What prevented him from doing that before?  When you deny or avoid accusations that have taken on a life of their own on Internet gossip sites, only to admit it later, you earn yourself zero credibility points, in my book. If you’ve made some decisions in your life that in hindsight, you might have done differently if given a second chance, say so. Did he misstep by avoiding the question prior to being voted off? A bit.

I posed several questions on this subject to other public relations professionals in Central Florida over the weekend. One person said you should keep restating what you want your public to hear and know “and what will eventually be repeated in print and video.” I agree in part. He could have admitted the truth and followed it with a “let’s all remember why I’m here” remark, similar to the one he told Entertainment Weekly. However, I think it’s inaccurate to believe that the message you keep repeating is what will appear in print and video, especially when sources all around you are saying something different- and airing the photos to prove it. 

A PR professional with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, who deals with negative news more often that she would like, was to the point in her remarks: “Tell the truth.  Be as specific as possible, and make it as quick as possible.” 

When Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd spoke to the Florida Public Relations Association’s Dick Pope/Polk County Chapter last month, he made several points regarding media relations. One comes to mind right away, she said: “Bad news doesn’t get better with age, so deal with it quickly.” 

Another area PR professional known for his just-the-facts-ma’am advice said: Face the negative news head-on.  “Look at the examples of crisis-type situations handled the best, those firms or people always faced it head-on.  There will be pain and embarrassment, but nothing like what will occur if you bob and weave.”  

He also offered these wise words: “The questions you don’t ever want to answer are the questions your PR advisor should prepare you for first.”

So if there’s something to be learned from all of this, I think it is that, like your mother taught you, honesty is the best policy. How’s that for a PR no-brainer?