Disclaimer: I have spoken to no one at the Orpheum and have no insights other than what’s been reported in the media. There are almost certainly details I don’t know. In addition, this post is in no way intended as a political statement. My intention is to approach it from the perspective of PR and content marketing, and my thoughts are based only on what I would have done considering the information I have.
Thank God for St. Jude (indisputably the best pediatric cancer research hospital on the planet, and patients’ families don’t have to pay a thing), because, a lot of the time, when Memphis makes the news, it’s not a happy occasion. Case in point: This week, Memphis made national news because the Orpheum theatre — a local landmark complete with its own ghost — dropped Gone with the Wind from its summer movie series for 2018.
The Orpheum issued a statement saying that the decision was based on complaints the theater received after showing the movie this summer.
And then everything blew up. Because no matter how many people complained about the movie, it can’t possibly equal the number of people who got upset by its cancellation. It started as a local discussion on Facebook and quickly escalated to national news.
I’m not sure why the firestorm took the Orpheum staff by surprise, because this is Memphis. But surprised they were, and they fumbled.
So let’s take a look at some things they could have done to defuse — if not avoid entirely — this PR crisis:
Know when to shut up
The Orpheum didn’t have to make a statement about dropping the movie. They could have easily just published the 2018 schedule without comment. If they had done that, it likely would have been a non-issue. Some people who enjoy the tradition of watching GWTW in the Orpheum’s historic opulence would have been disappointed, but it wouldn’t have made national news. Sometimes, when you make a controversial decision, it’s better to do it quietly rather than soaking it in gasoline and lighting the match yourself.
Get your story straight
I don’t know what the real story is, but I do know it’s hard to imagine that both versions offered to the public can be true. We’ll start with the explanation the Orpheum gave last Friday:
‘As an organization whose stated mission is to ‘entertain, educate and enlighten the communities it serves,’ the Orpheum cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population,’ said Brett Batterson, president of the Orpheum Theatre Group.
On August 30, however, Batterson stated that he had seen it as merely a programming decision.
“As some of you may be aware, the Orpheum Theatre Group in Memphis, Tennessee has unintentionally made international news as a result of our decision not to include “Gone With the Wind” in our 2018 Summer Movie Series. While the traditional media, social media and internet users all over the globe have made this out to be a statement on the film “Gone With the Wind,” I have always simply considered it to be a programming decision:
I make programming decisions every day. If I decide not to present a particular Broadway show at the Orpheum, it is not a judgment of the show itself, nor any audience members who might wish to see it. The same is true when I decide what movies to include in our summer series.
Maybe he did see it as merely a programming decision. But, in that case, why issue the first statement that focused on insensitivity?
In fairness to Batterson, I don’t think he had any idea he’d be starting a firestorm. And his second statement was probably a knee-jerk reaction to having to face that reality. But changing your story only makes things worse (just ask my kids). Or, if you do change your story, explain why. It’s a simple matter of defusing objections. If Batterson had addressed the contradiction proactively, it would have taken the wind out of his critics’ sails.
Remember that it ain’t about you
Batterson also broke one of my cardinal rules when it comes to navigating tricky PR situations: His second statement focused largely on the effect the decision had on him and his family.
These past five days have been the longest of my life.
I hurt as a result of this experience. Our Orpheum team has personally been attacked and threatened to the point that there are guards stationed to watch my home and the Orpheum facilities. This is irrational. It is four hours of programming at the Orpheum, out of the 8,760 hours in a year.
While he has a point — and while physical threats are never, ever OK — he made it about him. That does nothing to address the issue people are upset about. A better approach would have been to explain that he chose to do what he saw as the right thing despite knowing that some people would disagree. If you’re going to make a stand, great — but you’ve got to stick with it.
I want to emphasize that I know neither Mr. Batterson nor anyone else on the Orpheum staff. This post is not intended to impugn their character in any way. I believe their hearts were in the right place. My message is simply that their reaction to the crisis made things worse instead of better. Regardless of your opinion on the issue at the center of the debate, it’s a good example of what not to do in a PR crisis.