After Robin Williams’s death, some media (and a PR firm) apologize for reactions


Robin Williams (Gus Ruelas/Reuters)

In the hours following Robin Williams’s death, there was a tidal wave of coverage from every media outlet and media-related organization. So, it was inevitable that in the following days, there were also some apologies for how certain places handled the news.

Acting in the moment (and especially considering the circumstances), it seems guaranteed that there will be missteps. And it’s an age where social media doesn’t miss a single soundbite or screengrab of an unfortunate moment — that proves true for everyday people who offer unpopular thoughts on a subject, but even more so for the media and public companies. The incidents range from coverage of the news, to the news itself and possibly opportunities stemming from it.

Among several examples: On Monday night, ABC News sent a helicopter for live streaming aerial shots of Williams’s house in Tiburon, Calif. — after two different statements were released asking that the media respect the grieving family’s privacy. Some viewers thought that was beyond inappropriate, as TheWrap reported that the network had a “Watch Live: Aerials of Robin Williams’s Home” banner on its Web site.

ABC soon stopped the shots of the house and offered an apology: “When we realized there was no news value to the live stream, we took it down immediately. Our intention was not to be insensitive to his family, friends and fans, and for that we apologize,” the network said in a statement.

Beyond reporting on the story, some were forced to apologize for remarks about Williams himself, as officials said his preliminary cause of death was suicide due to hanging.

“Hard to imagine, isn’t it?” Fox News anchor Shepard Smith said Monday night while discussing the story, talking about how much Williams loved his kids. “Yet something inside you is so horrible or you’re such a coward or whatever the reason that you decide that you have to end it. Robin Williams, at 63, did that today.”

Immediately, people criticized Smith’s “coward” comment — the anchor tried to clarify his remarks to Mediaite the next day, and offered an apology.

“If any of his family members and friends were to have seen me use the word ‘coward,’ I would be horrified. I would just like to apologize to the end of the Earth to anyone who might think that I meant to openly call him a coward,” Smith said. “To the core of my being, I regret it. It just came out of my mouth. And I’m so sorry. And to anyone and their families who see that, I am sorry.”

Meanwhile, in another incident this week, PR firm Edelman published a post titled “Carpe Diem: Seize the Day” that had tips for public relations professionals on how to pitch clients when an upsetting breaking news story hits.

Lots of people were pretty offended just by the opener of the post: “As we mourn the loss of Robin Williams to depression, we must recognize it as an opportunity to engage in a national conversation,” it read, adding, “There’s a very careful line they need to walk so as to not seem exploitive of a terrible situation but at the same time, it is a national teachable moment that shouldn’t be ignored.”

Well, many thought they were exploiting the story, and trying to link the publicity opportunities to a tragedy. As of Thursday, the post is updated with an apology. The firm tweeted one, as well.

Emily Yahr is an entertainment reporter and pop culture blogger for the Style section. She joined the Post in May 2008, a week before she graduated from the University of Maryland, and worked on Lisa de Moraes' TV Column and blog.
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