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Mental Health’s Bum PR Rap by Rob Seitz

Recent headlines have called into question the mental stability of the individuals involved. This raises the question of why mental health tends to create public relations crises and why those involved haven't learned from the mistakes of others.

 
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PRLog - Apr. 5, 2012 - MAMARONECK, N.Y. -- Leave it to a New York City tabloid to come up with a front page headline that twisted a common greeting from airline pilots speaking (not “freaking”) to passengers, just to sell more papers. But it also stoked ridicule for the JetBlue pilot who suffered an aberration of his normal behavior that was understandably frightening to both passengers and fellow crew members.  Fortunately, his first officer was completely lucid and on top of his game, preventing another air tragedy from possibly happening.

Based on unsubstantiated but reliable “insider information,” I believe that the captain’s erratic behavior was an isolated incident possibly caused by biological factors. Sympathy, not ridicule, and hopefully not criminal charges should be the proper response. But any issue related to mental health, however temporary, always gets a “bad PR rap”.  Even after just one out-of-character incident, rarely is the big, historical picture of an individual or organization given a weighted average to balance out or even discount the negative implications of an extraordinary deviation from an otherwise stellar reputation.  

Also consider the current case of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of murdering 17 Afghan civilians during his fourth combat deployment.  According to a MSNBC news report the massacre “triggers mixed emotions” for both civilians and uniformed men and women alike.  Ex-soldiers answering hotline calls from other Veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome have “horror over the senseless rampage but also empathy for a soldier who, in their view, apparently was pushed beyond the breaking point. But their more immediate concern is the impact it may have on the troubled voices on the other end of the phone lines they answer each day.”

Four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan combined with marital and financial problems at home? Why is it hard for anyone – American or Afghani -- to understand that this man suffered a mental breakdown and is not “just” a cold-blooded murderer who should face the death penalty himself or life imprisonment?  Talk about a PR catastrophe for the U.S. Army, to say the very least! The Afghanis understandably want justice.  But who’s really at fault here? Should Defense Secretary Leon Panetta or Secretary of the Army John McHugh be tried instead for sending Bales and others soldiers into battle one or two too many times?

Anyone who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s will remember vice presidential hopeful Thomas Eagleton and his 15-minutes of infamy The Wikipedia entry on the brief McGovern-Eagleton 1972 ticket refers to Eagleton’s “medical scandal” as reason for his forced resignation as McGovern’s vice presidential running mate less than three weeks after the Democratic convention. The scandal that did in Eagleton was his not coming clean to McGovern that, years earlier, he had checked himself into the hospital three times for physical and nervous exhaustion, twice receiving electroconvulsive therapy, and for taking Thorazine, a powerful anti-psychotic which was prescribed in his wife’s name as part of his cover-up.                                

Besides  the fact that McGovern did not thoroughly vet Eagleton (who was one of the few politicians even willing to be his running mate), McGovern feared that dismissing Eagleton from the ticket for his history of depression would put his daughter into a mental health tailspin since she apparently suffered from similar symptoms. The hastily reconstructed McGovern-Shriver ticket was soundly defeated by the presumably more mentally stable Nixon-Agnew ticket!      

Whether it’s a black-eye for a fair-hair, blue-eyed airline, foreign policy gone terribly wrong or, some might say, presidential politics as usual, off-kilter mental health is the PR juggernaut that can crush icons overnight. What’s really “crazy” is anyone who wants to pursue fame and fortune, especially through elected office, who doesn’t think the truth will be Googled out of them. Try Googling the cell phone number of a new acquaintance who you want more information about without coming out and asking. Now try Googling your own cell phone number.  If you either of you has any kind of public presence at all you might be shocked at what turns up!                                     

From a PR point of view, the best strategy is to admit early on to not being perfect all of the time or even rarely.  Quickly acknowledge mistakes and take action to reduce the likelihood of them from happening again. And, finally, come clean about issues that matter. Don’t deny the truth three times before the cock crows!

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Rob Seitz Communications is a full-service public relations agency. We specialize in media and community relations, social media, event planning, and journalistic, freelance writing.

Photo:
http://www.prlog.org/11842753/1

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Tags:jetblue, u s army, Robert Bales, mental health, mental illness
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