4 PR lessons from the backlash over HBO’s ‘Confederate’

‘Our mistake was thinking that we would be able to announce an idea that was so sensitive and require so much care in a press release,’ said the network’s president of programming.

How you announce a new offering can go a long way toward ensuring or hindering its PR and marketing success.

HBO recently highlighted that lesson after viewers lashed out at the network for a trailer of its upcoming show “Confederate.” The trailer was accompanied by a press release highlighting the show’s creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff (who also created “Game of Thrones”).

NPR reported:

According to the release, Confederate will be set “in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.” Emailed to journalists just a few days after HBO aired the widely-anticipated first episode from Game of Thrones new season, the announcement sparked lots of coverage and bitter criticism.

Writing for the New York Times, Roxane Gay declared “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” The Daily Beast called it “white nonsense.” And social media posts by the hundreds snarked at a pair of white, male producers from Game of Thrones, a show long criticized for its lack of diversity and depictions of sexualized violence, tackling such an incendiary topic.

Business Insider reported:

Weiss and Benioff are familiar with criticism. Their hit series, “Game of Thrones,” has received a lot over the years, but one of the biggest has been that it sorely lacks diversity. And the fact that Weiss and Benioff have done so little to tackle the diversity problem on “Game of Thrones” has left some wondering how the two will deal with a topic as sensitive as slavery.

But Benioff and Weiss are not the only producers of “Confederate.” Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman, who are both African American, will also be producing the show.

Aside from forgetting an important element in its news release (namely, that African-American filmmakers are intimately involved in the show’s production), here are four lessons PR pros can take from HBO’s misstep:

1. Know when a press release is not the right strategy

At the 2017 Television Critics Association press tour on Wednesday, HBO’s chief of programming, Casey Bloys, told reporters he regretted the way the show’s announcement was handled:

I would file this under hindsight is 20-20. If I could do it over again, our mistake, HBO’s mistake, the idea that we would be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive and requires such care and thought on the part of the producers in a press release was misguided on our part. If I had it to do over again, what we ended up doing after the fact with the four producers, [was to] have them sit with journalists. Richard [Plepler, HBO Chairman] and I had the benefit of sitting with these four producers. We heard why they wanted to do the show, why it was important to them so we had that context. I completely understand somebody reading the press release would not have that at all. If I had it to do again, I would’ve rolled it out with producers talking on the record so people understand where they’re coming from.

The next time you whip up a news release and prepare to hit “send” on an email blast to every journalist in your database, consider whether a press release is the most effective strategy for the situation.

In HBO’s case, its news release gave reporters fodder to rip apart the concept of the show without offering the chance to learn more from the show’s creators.

Your press release, if not well received, might not end in such a backlash—but it could damage a potential relationship with an editor or cause a journalist to blacklist your email address. The chances of this happening are greater if you continue to issue press releases without properly targeting or making sure they’re the right fit.

Don’t always rely on a press release as your go-to PR tactic. Instead, consider publishing the news yourself and embracing brand journalism. You can also work with passionate fans and influential social media users to spread the word online and drum up interest.

2. Provide as much context as you can

Consumers, viewers and fans who don’t understand the context of your organization’s big announcement can cause major problems for your PR efforts.

That’s one of the quickest lessons HBO learned after backlash over “Confederate” grew.

Vanity Fair reported:

“We assumed it would be controversial,” Bloys admitted of the project as a whole, saying that he understands “people didn’t have benefit of the context of the conversation with the producers” that the HBO executive team did. “I understand people reading the press release would not have that at all.”

But when asked whether the online controversy had given HBO any pause about proceeding with the series, Bloys was steadfastly supportive. “The bet for us is on our talent—Nichelle, Malcolm, David, and Dan. My hope is that people will judge the actual material, as opposed to what it might be. … These four writers are at the top of their game. They can do anything they want, and this is what they feel passionately about.”

Don’t expect your audience to be on the same page as you, with all the information about an upcoming product, show or initiative. Instead, share as many details as possible.

Also, remember that not all press is good press. You might think an announcement or product line is controversial, but if consumers think it’s offensive instead of edgy, you risk losing money over your failed campaign. You also risk hurting something even more valuable: your reputation.

3. Don’t distance yourself from your audience

On July 20, the day after HBO’s announcement, Vulture released an interview with Weiss, Benioff, Spellman and Tramble Spellman.

However, the interview came as a result of the publication asking HBO to talk with “Confederate’s” creators, and HBO agreeing at the last minute. Vulture reported:

… As the backlash to Confederate began to build on Twitter, Malcolm Spellman — a frequent and vocal presence on Twitter for years, often commenting on political and social-justice issues — quietly began responding to some concerned commenters, assuring them the show would not be about “whips and plantations.” But Vulture was still curious about how and why the Spellmans became involved in Confederate, and what Benioff and Weiss thought about the reaction. So we emailed HBO publicity Wednesday afternoon to ask if the four producers would be willing to get on the phone with us to talk about the project. Late Thursday, with a half-hour’s advance notice, HBO called and connected us with the four scribes.

The interview gave a more in-depth look at where each creator was coming from, along with promises that the material was being treated carefully.

Tramble Spellman also told Vulture that although she understood viewers’ concerns, she wished people would hold back from making a decision about the show until after watching the pilot episode:

I do understand their concern. I wish their concern had been reserved to the night of the premiere, on HBO, on a Sunday night, when they watched and then they made a decision after they watched an hour of television as to whether or not we succeeded in what we set out to do. The concern is real. But I think that the four of us are very thoughtful, very serious, and not flip about what we are getting into in any way. What I’ve done in the past, what Malcolm has done in the past, what the D.B.’s have done in the past, proves that. So, I would have loved an opportunity for the conversation to start once the show was on the air.

The interview would have been far more effective if it had been arranged before critics lashed out at the network for seemingly capitalizing on controversial material.

The importance of connecting with your audience is integral for PR pros, especially when you consider that our current social and political climate has many people passionately divided on current events and issues.

The Hollywood Reporter wrote:

“What makes the premise fundamentally problematic is that it threatens to erase the actual history,” activist and artist Bree Newsome, who made headlines in 2015 when she was arrested for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

“There has been so much deliberate miseducation around the Civil War, and this basically rewrites black history of the past 150 years,” she adds. “We combat racism through educating people on history, so it’s dangerous to present alternative histories when people are still not clear on the facts.”

PR pros shouldn’t assume that their audiences have the proper context, but they also shouldn’t back away once criticism is sparked. Instead, listen to questions, comments and concerns and respond with as much information as you can, as quickly as you can.

4. Prepare for the worst possible outcome

Even if HBO had ditched its news release and instead arranged interviews with “Confederate’s” creators—and then worked to respond to fans and critics—backlash might have still hit the network.

Vox reported:

Still, it’s very early in the life of Confederate, and Bloys doesn’t yet know many specific details about the series — such as how it might present a version of slavery that exists in the modern day — because its producers are so early in their process (and two of them are about to be deeply buried in producing the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones). Until there are more concrete details available about the series, it will, necessarily, exist in a space where it is both its best and worst possible self, simultaneously — and all the perfectly handled press rollouts in the world can’t change that.

PR pros should do the best they can to prepare for a potential crisis situation, which includes making sure your boss or client knows the potential blowback for a decision or announcement.

What lessons have you taken from HBO’s announcement of its upcoming show, PR Daily readers?

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