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PR lessons learned from the Tucker Carlson firing

by | May 5, 2023 | Public Relations

For years, I have been writing and telling account execs who reported to me to always do what’s best for themselves, because in the final analysis you’re nothing but an employee number, and the agency will always do what’s best for itself.

My saying so wasn’t always appreciated by agency higher-ups, but as long as I made a lot of money for my employers, and had the firm backing of clients who made it clear in conversations with highest management levels that they wanted me to manage their accounts, after management wanted to switch my assignments because they thought I was too entrenched with those clients, no harm was done by my speaking the truth. My “do what’s best for yourself” advice was appreciated by individuals who reported to me. When they reached management level at various agencies, they showed their appreciation by giving me project assignments when I started my own consultancy.

(In at least two cases that I am aware of, clients of two flagship accounts told B-M management that they didn’t care about the agency account structure and they insisted that I continue having the final say about PR plans related to their accounts, even though they knew that my international travel would keep me out of the office for weeks at a time.  One of those clients was a foreign government account, whose project involved my traveling around the world, often as a media advisor with high government officials. The other was a major national domestic account, whose management insisted that I be consulted on all PR plans and have the final sign off on them, even  when I was half-way around the world.

My client at the domestic agency told me that agency management suggested that wearing all those hats would be too much of a burden for me and suggested that I no longer be associated with that account. When the client asked me if I felt that way, I did what I always told others to do – do what’s best for yourself and said I would like to continue working on the account, which probably didn’t please management but was best for me.)

Regardless of what you might think of Tucker Carlson’s commentary, his surprise firing by Fox News demonstrates why employees should follow my “do what’s best for you” advice.

His termination by Fox News was a surprise to almost everyone but Fox News management, considering that his program was the most watched one on all the cable networks.

Reasons given for his termination have been many. My guess is that the main one was that despite his ratings, Fox thought that his profitability for the network wasn’t great enough to justify the incoming flak from his comments.   
I believe that history shows that the profitability of an employee is often the determining factor in whether an employee stays or goes. In Carlson’s case, published reports said that big blue chip companies refused to advertise on his program despite his ratings, thus lessening what Fox could charge. Those who did advertise were lesser entities that paid reduced rates for commercial time, published reports said.

In addition to advising account execs to do what’s best for themselves, there were also other lessons I preach that are similar to Carlson’s situation.

Here’s what I always advise:

Discussing confidential information should never be done in a setting with other people nearby. Take a walk around the block and discuss it outside of the office. If it’s about important enough subjects, it’s likely to become public during a lawsuit or when investigative journalists look into the matter. Tucker Carlson violated all of the above and his supposedly confidential emails to his staff were revealed by Dominion Voting Systems prior to Fox settling the suit.

Emails: Never email or text anything that a client says is confidential to others in your agency. Walk it over to members of your team. If you have to relay the information to other offices, don’t do it via office phones or smartphones. Overnight the information. Tucker Carlson violated the above.

Marking an envelope with a confidential stamp: Handwriting on the envelope “personal” is my preferred method, but there is no guarantee that the envelope will not be opened only by the person for whom it was intended.

On public transportation: I once traveled by airplane to a client meeting to unveil a new program. When we were done with the presentation, our client said he was instructed by a top marketing executive not to let us leave until we were questioned by the exec. What had happened was that we were on the same airplane with the marketing exec and an advertising team that was presenting their plans for a new product rollout. The ad team was discussing their plans on the plane, just one row ahead of the marketing exec. We were told that three different agencies were presenting that afternoon and the exec didn’t know which team was from the ad agency. When it was our turn to be questioned, we were told what happened, received an apology for detaining us and were told the penalty for discussing client information in public was to lose the account, which the ad agency did. Substitute emails or texts for public and Tucker Carlson violated the above.

PR people should never believe that they are immune from their employer’s wrath

Because as I’ve long said, “In the final analysis, workers are nothing but employee numbers and continued employment is at the discretion of the employer. Because of his ratings, Tucker Carlson thought that he was untouchable and would be immune from punishment. He was wrong, and PR people should remember that they work only at the pleasure of their management. So never bad mouth your supervisors to others no matter how you feel about them. Tucker Carlson violated the above.

Cell phones: If you feel that you must vent, never do so through a cell phone. Use a non-office landline.

Human Resources: If you have a legitimate complaint about the way you are being treated, never complain to HR personnel. Their job is to protect management, not you. Instead, keep a detailed diary regarding how you are being treated for a few months. Then consult with a labor attorney who represents individuals for advice.

Important to Remember: In the agency world, there are few gold rings and many brass ones, as well as office spies. And the individual you trust might be after the same gold ring that you are and also might also be the office spy.

Early in my PR career, I worked on local, statewide and national PR political campaigns before joining Burson-Marsteller, where as a senior VP/senior counselor I restructured, managed and played key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs and traveled the world with high-ranking foreign government officials as a media advisor. So protecting client information, even  non-sensitive information, was always in my DNA.

My personal credo is that information not to be distributed to the media should never be discussed in public places and should only be distributed or discussed on a need-to-know basis. That’s a good rule to follow. But too often young PR practitioners are so proud of their contributions to client programs that I’ve heard them discussed while they were unwinding at the bar. Even though he didn’t do it at the bar, Tucker Carlson violated the above.

Students of history know that during World War 2 there was a famous slogan on posters saying, “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships,” meaning that people with knowledge of information that may help the enemy should be careful about what they say. The lawsuit brought by Dominion against Fox and its prime time hosts proves that idiom is still relevant today. Tucker Carlson ignored that advice and the fallout from his remarks are not over.

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.

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