A Public Relations Analysis (Edited)
By Mustafa Stefan Dill
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Recently, I came across an interesting blog at www.getreligion.org (GR), a nondenominational eagle-eye squad of journalists keeping a sharp watch on journalism and religion. In two recent articles, which covered Cordoba House: Monday’s “Don’t leave Cordoba reporting to pundits” and the earlier “An important Cordoba distinction,” they do a decent job of wading through the thicket of press coverage on the Cordoba House controversy, and the discussions generated via the comments on both articles (despite some occasional minutiae sidetracks).
Between their analysis and references, as well as some independent scouring of my own, several crashing failures from a PR perspective can be gleaned from the Cordoba House controversy. I won’t take sides on the debate – that arena is thick with voices already- but GR gets credit again for surfacing one of the few articles on the subject in the Crain’s New York Business, that succinctly delineates the debate as “about whether building the Islamic center is ‘a right’ or ‘the right thing to do.'” Pushing aside the rhetoric from all corners, it all boils down to that essence.
Without weighing in on its merits, the PR and web failures of this initiative are exhaustive and severe:
1) One huge hurdle is that there still appears to be some confusion in the public perception over whether (a) the project is a community center, an Islamic center, a mosque, or a mix, which got stuck with the label “Ground Zero Mosque,” and (b) questions about the entire project’s organizational structure.
It’s called the Ground Zero Mosque because that’s what the group behind the mosque called it.
Yes, they’ve backtracked on that in recent weeks. But their plans were riddled with the phrase until then.
If you don’t think that the group should consider the location important, that’s your beef with them. But as a journalistic issue, it was the billing of this mosque as the Ground Zero Mosque — even more than the close proximity — that got some folks riled up.
I haven’t had time to independently confirm Mollie’s claim (will do so in the next couple of days, insha’Allah). While it might be an accurate assessment, Imam Feisal’s opening statement of the press conference of May 20th seems to contraindicate her assertion, unless she’s going back earlier. At any rate, any mention of a “Ground Zero Mosque” is absent from both the Park 51 and Cordoba Initiative (CI) websites. What I can’t confirm is if such nomenclature was ever officially used.
If the name originated with the initiative, at the very least it shows some poor judgment and lack of forethought or pre-planning on how such a name might resonate. If it was originated by the media, then clear, unequivocal steps should have been taken to correct it at the outset. The failure to control branding early on meant that the damage and perception became firmly entrenched, and Park 51 and CI tweets are now having to continually fight the ingrained erroneous brand, frantically tweeting “It’s a community center with a prayer space, not a mosque”.
(b) I’m not sure it’s clear to the public what the relationship between Park 51 and the Cordoba Initiative is. The best discussion on this can be found in an interview with Park 51 developer Sharif El-Gamal on altmuslim, which also appeared on beliefnet, but neither altmuslim or beliefnet have the mainstream reach of CNN or MSN or Yahoo (a quick Google and Bing search for El-Gamal doesn’t reveal any mainstream media interviews or coverage that I could find; lack of media availability from both El-Gamal and Imam Feisal is an issue I’ll address in more detail below).
For those interested in the story -and especially for those who want to follow it via social media- this means there are two separate media paths to keep track of, one for Park 51, the other for CI: two websites, two Facebook pages, two Twitter accounts, etc. Such duplication is burdensome and confusing for both the end user and media professionals, and runs the danger of not being consistent (they’re doing reasonably well on that point last I checked , but it’s an unnecessary high risk) and sends an overall impression that’s not very solid or cohesive.
2) The web and social media outputs of both outfits is a mixed bag of good and bad strategies, good ideas and poor execution or surfacing, lack of detail, and misunderstood and/or underutilized resources.
The respective websites actually do a fairly good job of explaining and articulating their mission, but from a crisis management perspective, they are spending far too much time and effort across the board chronicling articles about outside support and nowhere enough space addressing or responding to concerns or clearly asserting some key positions.
One thing that does work – but falls far short of its potential – is the embedded youtube clip right on the CI home page of Imam Feisal’s May 20th press conference. However else they may have lost control of their message, this piece is a succinct encapsulation from the founder about the initiative’s purpose. The problem is that they lose huge impact by the generic title for the video, “Imam Feisal Press Conference.” Snooze.
A much more effective approach may have been to headline it with the date of the press conference (important, to indicate this has been their position all along) and the imam’s first words: May 20: “This Is Not A Mosque”
Again, it’s finding every nuance and opportunity to own and take control of your message from the get-go.
Small details on the site could be improved: The link to the Facebook page from the CI site doesn’t work properly, for example. A bigger problem is the link for “Cordoba House NYC” under the “What We Do” drop down menu on the Cordoba Initiative website yields a “The requested page could not be found” message; not a good thing to be absent right now.
I would like to see an embedded Google map somewhere on the site showing the precise location of the center in relation to Ground Zero, since one response CI is touting is that it’s not actually right at Ground Zero. For non-New Yorkers, this could be a helpful illustration.
The Cordoba Initiative Blog is an incredible waste of lost opportunity. The blog consists overhwelmingly of links to or reposts of articles from other sources or organizations in support of their initiative, duplicating in large part material that’s already severely overrepresented on their main site. Earlier, there are posts detailing Imam Feisal’s media appearances but no direct communication or posts from the imam himself, save for one that he co-signed with the CI team but doesn’t read like its actually written by him, unless he likes to refer to himself in the third person.
Nowhere, at first glance, is there a sign of direct engagement or correspondence. That’s generally a good use of blogs.
The sparse calendar widget makes it hard to tell at first glance if there’s an archive index or not. Once found, I discovered three very critical articles by the CI clarifying some positions, buried deep out of quick reach:
After a little consolidation and tightening, these pieces should have been, from the outset the main articles readable on the front and center on the CI and perhaps Park 51 home pages. They could still be. All the articles on external support can easily be moved into a headlines index on the home page sidebar.
For their social media output, they’re not really responding to questions on their Facebook pages when I last checked, and their Twitter strategy ranges from good (responding to followers, even if their own tone gets a little testy and unprofessional and on the verge of losing their cool) to downright poor; long stretches of tweets with consecutive blanket links to articles of support is in no sense any kind of true engagement or conversation. An occasional tweet to do that would be fine -it’s a useful service for your followers in moderation- but at the very least, it should be personalized with a quick intro of a few words then use bit.ly or some other link shortener. Long portions of their Tweet feed look as if an autobot hijacked their Twitter account.
CI’s YouTube channel is also grossly underutilized. They have only three self-produced clips: two from their Sudan initiative, and the clip of Imam Feisal’s press conference on May 20 regarding the Cordoba House. A simple Flip cam could document any and/or all of the following: Imam Feisal or El-Gamal’s responses to some of the more visible outcries and attacks that are proliferating on youtube; sessions with the architect and designers to show where the prayer space is in relation to the rest of the community center’s other activities, where the proposed 9/11 memorial will be and renderings of the exterior to show that it wont be a ‘mega mosque’; documenting the working sessions with other interfaith leaders; and especially finding stories of Muslims who died in the Sept. 11 attacks and talking with their families (see below). The list and opportunity is endless, and it’s painful to see them have only one video up about the current issue.
3) Among the points raised in the comments discussion in both GR articles is that stories of Muslims who perished in the Sept.11 attacks, and what their families think of the Cordoba initiative, are under-reported. Cordoba and Park 51 organizers should have anticipated this and should have had several stories and compelling accounts from family members of Sept. 11 Muslim victims on hand, even if a few of them are opposed to the project. I saw a similar failure after Ft. Hood, where you had to dig deep for stories of Muslims who have given years of service or even their lives in the American military defending this country. While a lot of their word space mentions the fact that Muslims died in the Sept. 11 attacks, there are no stories, no accounts that users can resonate with. The immense value of offering a story versus merely including a sound bite or statistic I’ve discussed elsewhere.
4) and 5) A seeming reluctance to address some of the concerns raised about the project, coupled with a general lack of media presence or availability by Imam Feisal or El-Gamal, runs completely contradictory to the most basic tenets in any PR crisis management evaluation: be available, and answer your critics. The lack of accesibility and unwillingness to take on questions may be the most damaging course the groups have taken out of everything I’ve covered.
A rudimentary lesson in any PR crisis management campaign is to monitor the news about you and address the concerns. In this day and age, it’s even more critical, since the news about you quickly turns into the conversation about you, shared among many through social media. But CI seems much more interested in flaunting the support that comes their way rather than trying to scrub the media to find concerns that need responding to. That imbalance must be corrected.
While they may be acknowledging the more high-profile flashy rhetoric that’s taking potshots (see the Palin quip at the end of the altmuslim article), under their noses are articles that raise legitimate questions that aren’t being addressed. Claudia Rosett at Forbes raises questions about the money for the project (her first two questions seem on the level; the third one a bit more snarky), and ups her ante when Imam Feisal is hard to pin down, drawing concerns about the state sponsored trip in a second article.
Good media monitoring would include the comments and discussion components from various articles as well, from where one would glean that ‘Why not a 9/11 memorial?’ is a recurring question or issue. CI does mention that in the third article from their blog that I singled out (emphasis, mine):
A community center, much like the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) or the Jewish Community Center, is where people from any faith are allowed to use the facilities. Beyond having a gym, the Cordoba House will house a pool, restaurant, 500-person auditorium, 9/11 memorial, multi-faith chapel, office and conference space, and prayer space. After speaking extensively with the residents of lower Manhattan, we found that these were some of the most vital needs for the community.
But again, this material isn’t properly surfaced, which tells me they’re not paying enough attention to the wider and often legitimate discourse around them. While they’re addressing questions to followers on Twitter, had this or any of the pertinent material or answers been placed prominently and early in a proactive stance, they could have nipped a lot of questions in the bud. Since they didn’t, they’re now mired in a reactive sludgefest.
You don’t have to be from Forbes to have questions about the project and find answers hard to get: Muslim blogger Sabrina Enayatulla also had questions about the project and did her own digging, and ran into a few interesting access issues:
According to an outside consultant working directly with Park 51, who agreed to speak about the project on the condition of anonymity…
and later (emphasis, added):
Most of the buzz is due to Cordoba Initiative’s Cordoba House, which plans to use space at Park 51 for interfaith classes and a designated prayer space for Muslims. Cordoba House will have separate programs and initiatives targeted toward the Muslim community, but representatives at the Cordoba Initiative did not respond to queries about their role in this project and types of programming they hope to offer at Park 51 by the time this article was published.
She did speak with one Oz Sultan, “PR liaison and programming project manager for Park 51,” according to her article, but anonymous insider sources, PR spokespersons and lack of response don’t add up to a reassuring tone and is absolutely the wrong course of action at such a time.
As Rossett says in her second article,
But if Rauf’s aim is truly, as he says, to build bridges, reach out and promote harmony in America, then punctuating his Ground Zero project with a summer swing past fonts of Islamic oil money seems an odd way to go about it. With emotions rubbed raw among some families of Sept. 11 victims, with arguments boiling over the “bridge-building” project Rauf himself set in motion, it would seem far more fitting for him to spend his time in America, answering, not least, the many questions he has repeatedly deflected about the money.
LoHud’s religion writer Gary Stern also notes the lack of access: “One thing that’s becoming clear is that the Cordoba Initiative, the group seeking to build the downtown center, is doing a poor job of PR,” he writes. “Their leaders need to be out there, explaining who they are, what they’ve done and what they hope to do.”
Imam Feisal and El-Gamal should be appearing on every news and talk show there is, answering the issues and hammering the key points to regain the message. Come prepared with specific stories and human accounts, don’t talk incessantly about all the support you have, focus on the concerns and if you dont feel media confident, hire a PR coach to help you with your TV jitters. Blog personally, honestly, and transparently once or twice a week, and keep outside links to support minimal.
Someone pointed me to the excellent NYT article “For Mosque Sponsors, Early Missteps Fueled Storm.” The piece provides some much needed background and timeline about the process leading up to the current debacle.
The article also confirms El-Gamal’s continuing reticence to speak about the affair (emphasis, added):
Mr. Gamal said that since May, he had started meeting in private with opponents to explain himself. But he bridled at constantly defending himself publicly. He said he didn’t want to tell angry opponents how he had injured his eye handing out water to emergency workers on 9/11.
He didn’t feel that he should have to, he said. He refused recently to appear on CNN to debate Rick A. Lazio, the Republican candidate for governor who has come out against the project.
“This is not a debate,” Mr. Gamal said. “I’m an American. I’m a New Yorker. I’m exercising my freedoms in this country.”
Didn’t feel that he should have to? With all due respect, Mr. Gamal, guess again — at this stage in the game of public perception for your project, you do have to. Buck up, brother, and do your part to dissipate the heat and hate.
For an organization that says it wants to establish a community open to all, such callous contempt and disregard for those with concerns — the refusal to engage in the very dialogue and openness it claims to offer — is astounding.
How can you want to engage with the community at large and then decide it’s beneath you to talk to them? I can’t think of a faster, more efficient way to build distrust and suspicion and play right into your detractor’s hands.
He has a valid point in not wanting to frame the issues as a debate, but there are ways to keep control of your message for such TV moments, and there are people who specialize in training you for that skill. Call them.
As the public image downgrades daily and the questions mount, the need to be out in public reiterating key mission points and clarifying the misconceptions is urgent. The lack of accessibility is rapidly becoming a huge concern in itself — and could have been so easily avoided.
Get on every news show and start talking, Mr. Gamal (and Imam Feisal, too). Be as open and welcoming as you say you want others to be.
Mustafa Stefan Dill has over nine years experience in media – from radio to web and social media for both print and television – Mustafa Stefan Dill has lectured on online journalism and social change at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bangalore, India and has been featured in Online Journalism Review, The Media Center’s Morph blog, J-New Voices, motherpie.typepad.com, and participated as a panelist in a national web seminar by the American Press Institute.
Dill covers Muslim and interfaith issues and their relationship to new media, offers social media and PR strategies for the Muslim community and other clients and monitors ongoing developments in journalism and new media in India, South Asia, and the Middle East/North Africa at http://newmedianewmexico.blogspot.com/.
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