When an uber-revered journalist such as Helen Thomas offends an entire nation or more, that's news. Strangely and in spite of our cherished first amendment right to free speech, it's also a public relations problem. After her shocking and repugnant comments, last weekend, Ms. Thomas wasn't knocked off the pedastal on which she's stood for so long. She just plain jumped off. This is someone who knows the power of words...what they mean, their impact and how fast they travel.
Helen Thomas built her career by moving up, not down. She tapped, cracked, shattered and walked barefoot over shards left from the glass ceilings that hovered so heavily over her female colleagues. Ms. Thomas' professional successes have empowered many -- women, journalists, members of her Lebanese culture and heritage, senior citizens and even short people.
What would have made more sense is Helen Thomas chasing the politico who was foolish enough to recommend that the Jews go home to Poland or Germany -- where six million other Jews were exterminated.
As a "recovering" print journalist, it's hard to watch this episode in the very later years of a true icon's life. She has always been a role model for me and I've actually spent time with her. But as a Jew, I am sickened that someone of Ms. Thomas' sophistication and experience -- could think it okay to say it out loud...to someone else (a rabbi),with a videocamera. We are all fortunate to have the right to think and say what we want. But there can be consequences and she of all people, understands that.
So what has this got to do with Public Relations? Ms. Thomas' comments not only hurt herself, but her terrible behavior also put her White House Press Corp colleagues and her employer (Hearst) in an embarrassing situation. Oddly, members of the nation's most elite group of journalists found themselves with a public relations problem on their hands.
And to their credit, they immediately demonstrated their own distaste at the remarks made by the nation's longest-serving White House correspondent. The Board of the White House Correspondents Association characterized Ms. Thomas' comments as "indefensible" and condemned their colleague's behavior. Her name is to be removed from the chair in which she has lived in for so many years, and soon someone else will take her place.
This couldn't have been easy for the organization of journalists. One could argue that Ms. Thomas just exercised her first amendment rights. While probably struggling with their core values associated with free speech, the White House correspondents demonstrated good judgment and preserved their credibility by swiftly and decidedly taking a position against one of their own.
Public relations tactics can be hard, but necessary and ultimately effective. Professional responsbility usually has to trump friendship and adoration. Ms. Thomas posted an apology on her website. Meanwhile, her employer killed their messenger and allowed her to retire -- effective immediately.
Sadly, and after all these years, Helen Thomas now knows what it feels like to be on the other side of Helen.