Media misery will last longer than 60 minutes

publication date: May 5, 2011

Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute (a US registered charity) and author of Three Cups of Tea, has just given all charities a lesson in mishandled media relations, says blogger Joanne Fritz on Whether or not you find the recent allegations on 60 Minutes credible or completely unfair, you can learn from Mortensen's response to them.

The 60 Minutes team interviewed people whom Mortensen claimed shared some of his adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They said the book contained factual errors ranging from incorrect chronology to outright misrepresentation. Others told interviewers that some of the schools he claims to have built either don't exist, were built by others, or aren't being used as schools.

Other allegations, says Fritz, include "suspicious financial arrangements at the charity, and testimony from some credible third parties that something is not right at the charity."

Fritz lists four lessons Mortenson inadvertently teaches observers about how to handle media pressures properly.

Get ahead of potentially damaging media coverage

Though Mortensen and his charity knew 60 Minutes had mounted an investigation, they seem not to have responded to the network's earlier requests for contact.

Never avoid an unexpected media visit

When other means of contact failed, a 60 Minutes reporter approached Mortenson at a book signing. Mortensen did everything he could to avoid questioning. Associates called in security to try to evict the TV crew. They promised a meeting later in the lobby, but didn't keep that commitment. Mortensen cancelled the event and vanished out the back door.

Never hang your reputation on one person

"A charity should be about teamwork, not one person," Fritz observes. Anyone can have an accident, move on to other ventures, or, as in this case, suffer public embarrassment. Your mission can't depend on that person's contacts or media appeal.

Never lie

"Don't even fudge the facts," Fritz warns. "Someone will find out. It's inevitable and fatal."

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