Who could forget Tom Cruise’s notorious response to Today show host Matt Lauer, when Lauer asked Cruise whether nor not he had considered the possibility that the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drug Ritalin — the use of which Cruise opposes — might actually work for some people.
Well, Lauer was again at his glib best Tuesday (Nov. 1) in an interview with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. The producers of Today invited Mr. Schultz on air to discuss the launch of a program through which Starbucks, with the Opportunity Finance Network® (OFN), is accepting donations for the Create Jobs for USA Fund in every U.S.-based, company-operated Starbucks.
According to the Starbucks news release, the program works like this: Donations to the Fund, which has been seeded with a $5 million contribution from the Starbucks Foundation, will help create and sustain jobs in underserved communities throughout the United States. The Fund, managed by OFN, will pool donations from Starbucks customers, employees and others. Donors who contribute $5 or more receive a red, white and blue wristband emblazoned with the message “Indivisible.”
First, Lauer (claiming to represent the “cynicism” bred by “tough times”), asked if this wasn’t just some evil scheme to sell more pumpkin-spice lattes. “The guy [Schultz] wants to do good, he wants to create jobs,” Lauer began. “But one of the other reasons behind this is because, if you don’t have a job, you can’t afford a $4 cup of coffee.”
Schultz, to his credit, didn’t take the bait. “I can assure you,” he replied, “this is nothing about marketing. This is our responsibility as a company, and recognizing that we as business leaders should not and cannot wait for Washington … businesses and business leaders have to do more.”
So, if it’s not about selling more coffee, Lauer reasoned, then it must be about generating positive press. “You say it’s not about PR,” Lauer moaned, “but it sounds a little like a PR campaign.”
Schultz again showed himself to be a skilled communicator with the keen ability to stay on message. “Not about PR,” he said, “It’s about Starbucks using its scale for good … about a problem in America and the fact that business and business leaders have to step up. We can’t wait for Washington. This is about leadership.”
The problem with Lauer’s glib characterization of the Starbucks initiative as some sort of public relations “ploy” was elucidated brilliantly by Karen S. Miller in her article, “Public Relations in Film and Fiction,” which originally appeared in the Journal of Public Relations Research.
“The problem with an inadequate discussion of the work of PR is … that the audience is left with two opposing and equally deficient views,” said Miller. “Sometimes, PR is magic, which only a magician with secret knowledge can perform, while audience members wonder how they have been tricked. In other sources, it is almost embarrassingly easy — a phone call or a cocktail with a reporter is all it takes. Neither view explains the PR process, and because strategies and tactics are unexplored, practitioners’ effectiveness seems ominous.”
Beyond that, Lauer’s tone was dismissive and pejorative toward an entire profession, and discourteous toward a guest the producers invited into the homes of millions of viewers. I wonder if Lauer engages his own public relations professionals and, if so, what they would think.
What do you think?
Arthur Yann, APR, is PRSA’s vice president, public relations.