While I loathe his politics, I respect Donald Trump’s presidential campaign so far for one simple reason – through a carefully calculated stream of incendiary, even bigoted, statements, he has managed to dominate the 2016 presidential election news for more than four months.
A primary reason the other Republican presidential aspirants have failed to gain traction is the media won’t let them – simply put, watching (and reporting on) The Donald Trump Show has effectively used up the vast majority of media airtime devoted to election politics, let alone the Republican contenders.
Similarly, this weekend I was impressed when Al Jazeera America – a two-year-old media outlet so fringe few Americans even know it exist – announced its presence in a major way with the release of its investigative video “The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers,” in which it alleges that star Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning took Human Growth Hormone, an illegal performance-enhancing drug, back in 2011.
The story dominated the U.S. sports media Sunday and Monday.
I don’t actually care whether a popular NFL star may or may not have used illegal drugs.
Rather, I’m far more fascinated by the video’s production and release as a masterstroke of branding by Al Jazeera America.
True or not, the video announces the news outlet as an editorial voice to be reckoned with to millions of Americans who prior to this weekend only knew of Al Jazeera as that Middle Eastern news network that presented a largely Arab perspective on the internecine conflicts there.
The lack of recognition for Al Jazeera America as an entity extends even to the universe of Washington, DC media relations professionals. Within the past six months I sat in a room of professional PR mavens, people (like me) whose job it is to form relationships with key reporters at top-tier news organizations so that we may better present our clients’ stories to the public. And even in that room, Al Jazeera America was virtually unknown compared to such traditional media behemoths as The Washington Post, Reuters or New York Times.
So to me, Al Jazeera America’s allegation about Manning is not only its news story of the year, but also the moment when it for the first time breaks through to middle America as a legitimate national news outlet.
In terms of a case study on brand management, here are three things Al Jazeera did right with this story:
1) Subject — Stir up controversy by attacking a popular U.S. sports figure. Manning’s a five-time NFL MVP who led the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl championship in 2007. Sports Illustrated magazine later named him the “NFL Player of the Decade” for the 2000s.
While critics of the report point out it could easily have been recast as a broader indictment of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports, the naming of Manning as an illegal drug user ensured the story would be picked up instantly nationwide (which it was).
2) Timing. Al Jazeera America released the report not just on a Sunday (on which NFL games are played) but on the last Sunday of the year – the week between Christmas and New Year’s, which is traditionally a slow news week, as many Americans are still on vacation with their families.
We in the media business understand that if corporations are facing negative news, it pays to announce it around December 24-26, days when few Americans are reading newspapers or watching CNN.
This story, however, is an outlier in that families still bond while watching football – Uncle Johnny may not read the paper on December 27, but he may indeed watch ESPN while relaxing with the rest of his relatives.
3) Legal Margin of Safety – Should Manning choose to sue Al Jazeera for libel or defamation, the burden of proof would be would be on him to show, via “clear and convincing evidence,” that Al Jazeera actually knew that its source Dr. Charlie Sly was lying, and published its story anyway.
Beyond an uphill legal battle, Manning will likely be unwilling to engage in a months-long court case that would simply remind the public and his fans that he has been accused of cheating via illegal drugs.
This is one of those cases where the better course of action is to attempt to minimize the story by ignoring rather than exasperating it – a quick unequivocal denial followed by something akin to a “refusal to dignify such outrageous allegations with a response.”
Despite his quick denials, however, Manning has curiously exercised somewhat of a nuclear option by hiring Ari Fleischer, former President G.W. Bush’s former press secretary, to handle his media relations in the wake of the story.
From a crisis communications perspective, this seems ill-conceived, as a better course of action would have been to retain a far lower profile media consultant.
Nothing screams guilt louder than hiring one of the biggest – and most famous – sports media representative in the country.
However this story turns out, of this I am certain: with its accusations against Peyton Manning, Al Jazeera America has announced its presence in the crowded U.S. media market in a major way.