Rolling Stone PR Faux Pas

flawsome.jpgToday, the sentiment by many an American is to Boycott Rolling Stone. Is that the same reaction by its 20-something readership?

That publication put the Boston Bomber on its cover looking sultry and sexy. Why?

It’s said the editors/publishers put that teenager in the demographic of its readership and thus the publication owed it to (whom?) to cover the topic. In its defense, the magazine did say the kid became a monster on its cover albeit in small print.

The Rolling Stone PR Faux Pas

What exactly is the faux pas of Rolling Stone? It’s abiding by rights granted by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights; freedom of speech in this regard.

What then did Rolling Stone do to piss of America?

It took an emotional issue oriented to terrorism against this country and portrayed it unerringly on the cover of its well- read and highly subscribed to-popular magazine.

Sure enough, Rolling Stone created a global PR crisis for itself. Prior to Rolling Stone publishing its cover, editors and publishers had weeks to prepare for the backlash that would and did inevitably result.

They developed messaging; they consulted lawyers; they trained; they wrote statements for public consumption; they readied the flood gates. They knew it; they ignored it; they welcomed it.

Now, media the likes of Dayton Daily News, a small community paper catering to less than 1 million, are running the story and cover to capitalize on the debacle. Of course, that’s how the gravy train works. Blood sells, after all.

How many Facebook posts did you read yesterday that are anti-Rolling Stone? Did traffic increase exponentially to its website to the point of busting the server?

The magazine didn’t care; it wanted this attention knowing full well the emotional upheaval would come and pass. Knowing full well the teens and 20-something readers and potential subscribers would devour the coverage and buzz about it on their social channels, too.

The outcry against the choice Rolling Stone made to exonerate a soon-to-be-convicted terrorist against the United States of America is just.

What’s unjust are the lives and limbs lost and horrific emotional upheaval as a result of the crimes perpetuated against the Boston marathoners, spectators and this country’s citizens.

In this case, Rolling Stone went too damn far. No act of terrorism should be regarded as opportunistic by media pushing the envelope of public dissent to see just how far it can go.

I customarily applaud corporations for testing waters and planning a publicity stunt for 10 minutes of fame. In this case, that magazine disgusts me for its obvious lack of sensitivity. Please, corporate America, withdraw your advertising spend and put it toward funds for victims of the Boston Marathon. They need help to regain a semblance of normalcy in a life disrupted. Please, corporate America, your customers will thank you.

(Jayme Note: This piece is not for me to capitalize; I rarely write about such things when they occur, e.g. Paula Deen. In this situation, I couldn’t rest.)

Enhanced by Zemanta

I read the article, an amount of effort, considering the article's length and depth that I'm sure a MAJORITY of people condemning Rolling stone didn't bother to make.

The article I read in no way "exonerates" this kid. The cover photo doesn't make him look "sultry" or "sexy." At least not to me. Maybe I'm missing something there.

The point of the article is that to certain people, when life happens, they can wind up doing terrible things, and that the rest of us can't always see it coming; there's not always a "why didn't we see these OBVIOUS warning signs" question to be asked, because sometimes, there are no warning signs to miss.

The point of the photo was not to make this kid look glamorous or any of the other ridiculous adjectives I've heard. It was to show how he looked before this thing went down: if you or anyone else happen to find him attractive, that's fine. The point is, would you have seen this kid walking down the street and immediately thought to yourself, "Oh my God, that's a terrorist!"

Even his closest friends didn't see or think that.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of this whole thing to me is the notion I've heard again and again that Rolling Stone is just a magazine about music. They've covered politics and culture forever. Music is just a portion of their coverage area. Always has been. And as I've pointed out elsewhere, some of the same people complaining about the media in general for its shallowness and lack of detailed, well-researched reporting, refuse to even acknowledge this in-depth, well-researched article. 

Was Rolling Stone trying to sell magazines? Well, sure. But then, that's what they do with every article, not just this one. This was a polarizing issue that shocked the world. If Time magazine had run the same cover and called this kid a "monster" on its cover, most of the furor would never have reared its head.

That should tell us something.

Latest blog post: Saturday Six #485


Jayme, another great post that just begs for conversation. As the son of a lawyer I have been trained to argue both sides, so I will offer up a few thoughts perhaps fanning the fire or simply stating my thoughts.

1. This is all about ears, eye balls and attention. By everyone talking about it I am afraid we give permission to the press to continue to exploit death and suffering. Is this no different then CNN branding every natural disaster or horrific terrorist act. Or how about anti-gun zealots using the death of a 17 year old boy as a rallying cry? Right, wrong or indifferent, this is the world we created and the monster we feed (that's a mash-up for ya).

2. I am sure this was well thought out, and planned. No doubt this is getting the attention and then some they had wished and hoped for. Strategically it is working to perfection. 

3. I wonder if advertisers were warned or informed at least that this was coming. I give it until Friday before advertisers separate themselves from this issue. I certainly would advise my clients to do so. 

4. As previously discussed on another thread on your blog, ultimately the public, Jane and Joe Consumer can decide what's right. I have already read of stores not willing to shelve or sell the issue. Good for them. Will consumers decide to cancel their subscription, write a letter to the publication owner Wenner Media. Speak out and raise hell if you desire. 

5. Finally, I recently wrote a post on talking about the plight of print newspapers and I throw magazines in there as well... sales are down and they are bleeding. They are fighting for attention, is this the way to go about doing it? Like most things time will tell. 

I for one am trying to ignore the attention, and will not read the article. That is my choice and my freedom to choose. Freedom of press allows them to print this, for that as an American I protect that dearly. If that goes away the terrorists win, IMO. Doesn't make it right, ethical or in good taste. But it is their freedom to do so. Just as it is for the consumer to fight back. 

You Rock better then they roll, keep it up Jayme! 


I know I stand in the minority here, but I don't understand what has gotten everyone so upset. 

This is the primary photo that's been used of this kid in news reports. It's an important story, and while I agree it's important to tell the stories of the people who died, it's vital that we learn from stories such as this and come to understand how and why things happen. I haven't had a chance to sit down and read the whole article yet, but my understanding is that it's quite good. 

Rolling Stone has, for decades, done in-depth journalism like this - often, though not always, using the cover photo to illustrate that story. I didn't see the photo as "glamourizing" him - I saw it as the photo that we've all come to associate with him through umpteen zillion news reports. That was the big story they had in the issue, so it was the cover. And "monster" was not in particularly small print, either. 

Just my 2 cents.

Eleanor Pierce
Eleanor Pierce

I've seen people I know defending Rolling Stone under the guise of the first amendment. And as a staunch first amendment supporter, I agree: They absolutely had the right to do it. But we absolutely have the right to tell them off for doing so. Especially because, while Rolling Stone has done it share of legit journalism over the years, the cover is generally reserved for pop culture icons. And giving bombers the pop culture icon treatment is a really great way to create more bombers. 

So while I don't know if this will damage the publication in the long run (I doubt it - as a print product, they'll have other problems to face), I'm quite OK if it does. 

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@patricksplace Morning, Patrick. Thanks for your insightful comment, and you make great points. I do not disagree.

As a blogger in public relations who works and absorbs the media the way I do, it is my role to push the envelope of observation and discussion. The cover of Rolling Stone, a venerable/respected magazine for what you have noted as in-depth and decent reporting, was all I needed to adopt a position about this topic, something each of us has. 

There was a lot that went in to running the guy's picture on the cover in this way. I respect the journos who wrote the article and went to great strides to present the story factually and will all facets covered. The emotion of the event was heightened by the cover image. You more than likely saw the reaction in Boston when the photos ran on Boston magazine in response (and the guy who permitted the photos to be published suffered a consequence). 

There is reporting, there is sensational journalism and there is selling magazines. I'm not suggesting this was sensational journalism; I'm asking whether this cover image was the best to use in light of all the factors. To the magazine editors it certainly was; to those suffering in Boston it absolutely was not. To the middle guy unaffected personally by the crisis and horror except to exclaim...what's the big deal?

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@1ad_dad I very much appreciate that you came by after invitation. I wanted to know what you thought and I'm pleased you had time to share, David. Thank you.

3. Advertisers warning. I have already heard of some advertisers pulling back. Makes me think they got advance notice to do so that quickly. They'll gauge their reach without RS and perhaps even put some spend to Boston Marathon causes. Eventually, they will come back after the "test." 

2. Well-thought? OMGosh. Indeed. What a great case study for all the disciplines.

1. The viral thing about this? Yes, indeed. A PR stunt working perfectly. And, we're speaking about the cover and not about what @AmyVernon says will be and probably is in-depth journalism and customarily well done. 

4. Yes, it will be the consumer who decides. We have choices whether to engage with a brand. Like what @amymctobin and @dannybrown and @hessiejones   were saying yesterday about brands developing relationships, RS has elected not to develop relationships with anyone not in its demographic.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@AmyVernon Do you know if Rolling Stone put Osama bin Laden on its cover 3 months after 9-11? Or the shoe bomber or the other al-Qaeda sheikhs and ruffians? 

If not, is there a reason they made the decision to start now? Because the kid is its demographic?

As @EleanorPie said below, "the cover is generally reserved for pop culture icons."

Write a story; do it justice and add photos for sure. Electing to use the cover of what looked to be air-brushed (in my view) raised the ugly head of terrorism by a publication that is not a weekly hard news outlet.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@EleanorPie Ellie, so great to see you here as you validate my half-rant and attempt to be half neutral up there. As a millennial, your opinion and comments are very welcome here. 

We live in times where brands seem to be desperate to go viral; in this case word-of-mouth is not a positive marketing tool for them. 

It's another in a long line of case studies that academics will teach and ask for student debate. The pro argument will be the Bill of Rights, absolute.

What I'd rather see taught is what went on in the board room when the publisher sat down with the editor, the legal team, the PR  team, and the advertising team to determine if this selection was the right one? That's the training I want everyone to understand in our profession. 

This stupid stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum; this one was highly strategic and in poor taste. Thank you for your support.


Also, I disagree that this is a generational thing. Please don't put me in that box?

For me, I've never been afraid to stare down something difficult. This has nothing to do with my age.

The media is critical to a healthy democracy. They're the watch dogs, they keep us honest and they keep each other honest. Sometimes the news is not happy news.


@jennwhinnem @AmyVernon agree with both @jenn and @amyVernon. People don't seem happy unless they're being "outraged" about something.  It's 
like the new in-thing.


@Soulati | Hybrid PR @EleanorPie I respect your opinion, just don't agree. I don't believe the photo was airbrushed; it looks like it had some stylized filter on it or something, perhaps, but the original photo also probably wasn't super high-res.

I'm not sure if Rolling Stone had those covers; I'd have to go back and look. I think they were able to get an unusually in-depth look at the life and background and trajectory of someone behind the largest news event of the year. I don't know that anyone had done or had been able to do the same sort of in-depth reporting on the others in that time frame. Would be interesting to look up.

And, yes, the cover is usually pop culture icons, but not always. Here's a selection of "bad guys" on the cover (there are many, many other examples of non-music/movie people on the cover, as well as events, but I just wanted to quickly focus on criminals for the sake of argument.

From the archives (sorry I didn't keep going, they've been around a long time, so I just grabbed a sample from the beginning):
Charles Manson -
Abbie Hoffman -
Roman Polanski -

Also, this photo ran on the front page of the New York Times and no one freaked out then. The NYTimes has a much larger circulation than Rolling Stone

Eleanor Pierce
Eleanor Pierce

@Soulati | Hybrid PR  Ha! I'm actually on the GenX side of the divide ... by about 8 months. And also by choice :)

I don't know how magazine people do it, especially magazines as large as Rolling Stone, but I know at the newspaper I worked at, the editorial team alone decides what goes on the cover. Advertising is never to play a part in the decision. Of course, the standards in magazines are different, and I'm not as clued-in to how they operate. 

And, to @AmyVernon's point, I also think the cover of a pop culture magazine vs. a newspaper are just fundamentally different - they carry different connotations. You expect to see the bombers on the front of the NYT, but not Rolling Stone. I think the reaction would be different if it was Time or Newsweek. And, I don't mean this to pick on you Amy (I, too, respect your opinion!) the examples or Roman Polanski and Charles Manson don't exactly help your case. Those are two incredibly romanticized "bad guys"! 


@Soulati | Hybrid PR @EleanorPie I am (early) GenX. I am interested in the demographic breakdown. But I also had a whole conversation on my Facebook wall about this earlier today with several people, mostly around my age, and there were varied opinions. 

I think for me there are a couple things at work: 
1) I spent 20 years in journalism. My standards and opinions are likely a bit ... different in certain respects.
2) I also feel as if many of the people who are extremely vocal about this are outraged because that's what they do now - find something to be outraged about. I am not, I might add, including you in this category, but I have definitely seen a lot of "righteous" anger.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@AmyVernon @Soulati | Hybrid PR @EleanorPie Well said and spoken. Thanks for the legwork on this. So, maybe I'm going to do a generational divide thing -- you're both GenX/Millennial and close to it. 

Me? Not. What's the survey result of people my age vs. people yours? I'm gonna guess people around my age and older have less tolerance for this. I'm sad they elected to choose this way; were any of their families immediately affected in Boston? I also know they can do what they will at the risk of sentiment only.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR moderator

@EleanorPie @Soulati | Hybrid PR @AmyVernon I suspect this decision took all departments. Rolling Stone would have to have been utterly stupid not to think it would lose ad dollars as a result of this cover. 

I would hope they involved ad reps to notify big customers in advance so they weren't blindsided and to also determine which ones would balk.

Agree that covers of magazines are different than that of NYT and others. We expect crime and criminals to be in the news. 


@EleanorPie @Soulati | Hybrid PR Yay GenX! :)

Those articles, though, came out long before they were, necessarily, romanticized, but a fair point. :)

But my greater point was that although this is perhaps not the regular order of things, it's also not without precedent. After musicians & actors, criminals & crime have probably been RS covers more than anything else (except *maybe* politics, but it would be close).