Rolling Stone cover controversial, but a crisis? Value is knowing difference


Rolling Stone magazine, no stranger to provocative stories and controversy over the years, seems to have angered most of Boston’s residents and a lot of other Americans with its current cover.

Looking very Jim Morrison-like, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is pictured as subject of an in-depth cover story. Surely most of the magazine’s critics have not read the story, but it is controversial.

Perhaps the subject and treatment of Tsarnaev in this context is too close to the bombing itself. But is Rolling Stone really in crisis here? Fox and CNN hammered the story yesterday. Social media lit up — and Rolling Stone even fomented some of that attention by releasing the cover on its Facebook page.

Thus it wouldn’t seem so. Talked about and criticized, especially on social media, but not in a way that will hurt the magazine or its brand. This is not a crisis for Rolling Stone. Why not? Because this is what Rolling Stone does. Wikileaks publicizes private records; Lance Armstrong does drugs; Eliot Spitzer runs for office.

As Rem Rieder writes in USA Today: Just three years ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal lost his job as commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan because of an article in Rolling Stone that featured caustic comments about President Obama by the general and his aides. Back in the 1970s, it featured the groundbreaking political coverage of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  And, speaking of mass murderers, Charles Manson was once on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The editors of Rolling Stone certainly realized the risk they decided to take, because the headline and subhed seek to balance the picture: THE BOMBER — How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.

Among those criticizing the cover yesterday was my highly attentive public relations colleague Danielle Gerhart, who said it rubbed her the wrong way to see an alleged terrorist in the place where rock stars often reside. That’s a valid reaction for many people. Some clever folks offered the alternative you see here.

But magazine covers are made to garner attention. Rieder again: “Often it’s because they make some people uncomfortable: the breast-feeding mom on the cover of Time; a very pregnant and very naked Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair; Bert and Ernie snuggling on a couch as they watch the Supreme Court justices on TV (right after the Defense of Marriage Act decision) on the cover of The New Yorker.”

The difference between a crisis and a controversy can be a valuable lesson. There are reactions and plans to activate for the former that are unnecessary for the latter. A crisis halts business as usual until the crisis ebbs. You can’t breathe or think about routine matters. It’s all consuming. A controversy is a blip.

Rolling Stone is ranked 53rd among American magazines with a circulation of 1.4 million. Its circulation peaked in 2006 at 1.5 million. A print magazine is struggling to survive in difficult times,  sell more copies at the newsstand, but it’s not in crisis. Robin Abcarian offers a spirited defense in The Los Angeles Times.

In the end, the cover will likely meet its mission, to drive greater readership and maybe sell more subscriptions.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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