The continuing controversy of SpongeBob SquarePants versus Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family just keeps getting messier, proving the advice of our own Andy Havens to not pick a fight with a cartoon character.
Dobson and Focus on the Family responded to the coverage by accusing the media of distorting his words (which certainly happened, though a lack of a full explanation and a slow response didn’t help) and encouraging their supporters to e-mail specific members of the media who had made the most vicious comments.
Picking a fight with the mass media is no wiser than engaging a fictional character.
MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann was one of the journalists targeted, and he responded in kind from his blog, taking every opportunity provided to rip on Focus on the Family, everything from their comparably sub par e-mail onslaught, to their blatantly false assumptions about the media, to the fact that MSNBC contacted Dobson’s office explaining their story and were never set straight.
The whole thing is quickly descending to the ridiculous, with neither side coming out pretty (Olbermann’s response to the e-mail onslaught is particularly ruthless, though you can hardly blame him. Dobson devotes his entire February newsletter to the issue.).
So what can we learn about public relations?
1. Choose your words carefully.
It should be a no-brainer, but when you’re talking to the press you need to be careful what you say. Journalists are looking for a dramatic story and something worth quoting. Saying something controversial is a sure way to get their attention, but you better give a full explanation and make sure they understand what you’re saying.
2. Misquotes happen.
Talking to the press means you’ll eventually be misquoted or have your statements taken out of context. It’s unfortunate, but with tight deadlines it happens. Either don’t say something that’s likely to be misunderstood or be prepared for the response. Make sure you’re understood and be prepared to do additional interviews or release a statement explaining what you originally said. If you’re especially worried you could ask the reporter to see a copy of the story before it goes to press, though that’s a good way to discourage interviews.
3. Respond in love.
If you are misquoted or the story is blown out of proportion, it’s important to respond appropriately. As a church, it’s best to ensure that any response is consistent with what you preach. While it’s tempting to fight back, it can backfire. A loving response is more likely to be well received than vehement accusations. It’s certainly possible a loving response will be ridiculed, especially in today’s climate, but you can’t help how they’ll respond. All you can do is respond in a manner worthy of Christ’s church.
4. Be wary.
Dobson received more than 100 interview requests and only accepted one. He avoided the almost certain butchering that would come with live TV interviews. He limited his response to a single interview and his own radio show, web site and newsletter, all of which he could control. Now he’s doing more interviews, but is choosing conservative talk shows and wisely being selective in where he appears.
In the end it’s wise to remember the Biblical advice to be as innocent as doves but shrewd as snakes (Matt. 10:16). While you can’t expect the media to always do the right thing, the church has no excuse.
(thanks to John I. Carney for the links)