Ken Starr Out of His League in Interview Disaster
Aaron Perlut | Partner

*this post was initially published by Elasticity partner Aaron Perlut on AdWeek’s PRNewser. 

The sexual misconduct scandal at Baylor University has been an absolute reputation nightmare on countless levels.  I’ve written about it prior in examining the changing face of journalism, but the entire episode — at least in my mind — was capped by a recent television interview with outgoing Baylor president and chancellor Kenneth Starr.

Starr, of course, is best known for his federal investigation of then-President Bill Clinton and others over the Whitewater real estate investments. During that spectacle, he seemingly embarrassed himself for never really inquiring over the land deals for which Whitewater is named. Yet it pales in comparison to Starr’s performance during an interview with KWTX (Waco, TX) reporter Julie Hays.

During the conversation, Starr was asked about a Nov. 2015, email addressed to Starr and former head coach Art Briles from a woman claiming to have been sexually assaulted featuring the subject line “I Was Raped at Baylor.” When Hays asks Starr about the email, he initially said he may have seen it.

“I honestly may have,” Starr said. “I’m not denying that I saw it.”

KWTX said just after Starr made those comments, PR consultant Merrie Spaeth — who was in the room — then asked the station’s news director not to use Starr’s comment when the piece airs. The news director objected and Spaeth interrupted the interview to pull Starr out of the room. When Starr returned, Spaeth asked Hays to restate the question again. Magically, his answer changed.

“All I’m going to say is I honestly have no recollection of that,” stated Starr, who then — and I’m not kidding here — turned to Spaeth to ask her if his answer was “OK” with the cameras still rolling. “I honestly have no recollection of seeing such an email and I believe that I would remember seeing such an email. “The president of a university gets lots of emails. I don’t even see a lot of the emails that come into the office of the president. I have no recollection. None.”

So what can we take from all of this?

Initially I can only wonder why Ken Starr would not simply go away, out of the public view, after he reportedly worked with Briles and others to sweep sexual misconduct allegations at Baylor under the rug. But simply in focusing on media relations fundamentals, let me go back to some basics in a post I previously wrote: 15 tips for media preparedness.

First and foremost, message is the foundation of everything and anything in the marketing communications and reputation management world. How could Starr not be prepared to respond to questions about what he knew, when he knew it?  He either had no clue he’d be asked about emails he may have received — which I find hard to believe — or that he was so arrogant that he simply disregarded the guidance he was given in terms of how to respond. I’d tend to lean towards the later given being a judge, testifying in front of Congress, and leading an academic institution can have a way of creating megalomaniacal fantasies.

Second, Spaeth and Starr presumably had a strategy going into this interview. In preparation for any Q&A broadcast or otherwise, you should always go into it with at least three key tenets of your message that you wish to stress. Just as important is preparation for any and every question that potentially could be raised, as addressed above.

Third, media hates to be stonewalled, particularly after you’ve answered a question one way and then are clearly lying when you answer it a second time. Certainly Hays and her news director were exasperated after Starr said one thing and then retrenched, and it only led to this story being more embarrassing once it was broadcast.

Finally — and this one is really on Spaeth — never, ever ask a reporter if you can read or watch their story before it airs which applies to specific soundbites as well. They’ll think you’re out of your league, and clearly, everyone involved in this disaster looked as if that were the case.

Aaron Perlut

Aaron Perlut is a cofounding partner of Elasticity with some 25 years of diverse experience in journalism, public relations and digital marketing. He is a former senior reputation management counselor at Omnicom company FleishmanHillard, as well as a communications executive for two of the nation's largest energy companies. Throughout his career, Perlut has counseled a range of organizations – Fortune 500s, state governments, professional sports franchises, economic development authorities, well-funded startups and large non-profits – helping manage reputation and market brands across a diverse channels in an evolving media environment.

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