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PR Experts: Craigslist CEO Talking Out of Both Sides of His Mouth

From Damage control. Few jobs are tougher for a chief executive than dealing with a death related to his company’s product. On Wednesday, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster [pictured] appeared on CNN to explain the company was “horrified that use of Craigslist could in any way be connected to a violent crime,” referring to the murder and two attacks that medical student Philip Markoff has been accused of. On her blog, Lois Paul, of the Woburn public relations firm Lois Paul & Partners, evaluated Buckmaster’s interview, noting that he “has certainly had better weeks.”

Anchor Points: Based on my viewing of the video, I think his “anchor points” were the following: We feel awful about this, people should use our personal safety tips, but we’re not going to stop running these personal ads. His actual quote was not as crisp as I’m sure he would have liked it and it’s ambiguous whether his primary regret was for the tragedy of the loss of life, or the association of his corporate baby with this murder:

We feel terribly (sic) and it is quite sad that anyone would lose their life and it is horrible that Craigslist in any way be connected with a violent crime of this nature and it just causes us to redouble our efforts to try to get across to users to take a few common sense precautions that eliminate most of the risk.

Grade: B+ A crisper response would have raised this to an “A,” but he stuck to his messages throughout and was consistent.

Sound bites: He didn’t do as well here. “We feel terribly” was under his photo when I first viewed the video, and someone corrected it later to “We feel terrible.” The sound bite that stayed with me and I don’t think is what Buckmaster intended (I hope not, anyway), came later in the four-minute segment when he was asked how he feels about the fact that Craigslist is being used as a conduit through which predators can find prey online:

We think quite the reverse is true. Fifty million Americans are using Craigslist each month – most several times during the month – and anytime you have that amount of human activity there is always the possibility of something going wrong despite everyone’s best efforts to protect people. That being said, no incidents of violent crime are OK. We are looking to see if there is anything to do to make it safer.

OK, let’s take this attempt at a sound bite apart. What I got from it when I first heard it was – hey, most of the 50 million users each month are still alive and the occasional murder is to be expected, but what the heck, we’ll keep trying to make it a safe place for everyone to use. Do you think I phrased it right? I don’t think he really meant to say it like that.

Answer and stop: I think the run-on sound bite I noted (and disliked) above could have been avoided if he had adopted this technique of answer just the question asked, concisely, and then stop and listen for the reaction of the interviewer and prepare to answer the next question. . . . Given how charged and slippery this situation is for this company, combined with the fact that Craigslist seems to have no plans to rethink running the erotic services ads fingered in these incidents, I would have recommended a statement strategy, staying with the blog post, which was handled well, and saying “no thank you” to the live broadcast opportunity. . . .


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