The PBS Fireworks Fiasco: 4 Takeaways

Written by Steve Piacente, Executive Communications Coach

July 6, 2016

If you remember nothing else about the fireworks scandal of 2016, remember this: the days of getting away with it are over.

Those we know well, and even not so well – be they individuals, corporations or even revered public broadcast networks – better remember that social media has placed a powerful megaphone in the hands of anyone with a smart phone and internet access.

PBS was reminded of all this the other day after someone decided it would be best for viewers and patriotism to mix old and new Washington, D.C. fireworks footage in a supposedly live broadcast on Independence Day.

Viewers – thousands of them – quickly figured out what was going on. Their fuse was short and the bang was loud. “Only in DC could a PBS fireworks show become a scandal,” tweeted “thedcfloridian.”

PBS apologized, at first saying it was “the patriotic thing to do,” then adding it was trying to provide the best viewing experience possible on a wet, dreary night.

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, as reported by and others, said the critics were right. “Why the producers and the on-camera hosts … could not take 10 seconds to say (or post on the screen) something like: ‘To you folks out there around the country watching on television, the weather is not so good here on the nation’s front lawn tonight and you can’t see the fireworks very well, so we are going to show you clips from earlier displays …’ is, to me, sort of mind-boggling.”

And yet these lapses occur with astonishing frequency – at restaurants, during traffic stops, on airplanes, and in classrooms. Pick your venue. Odds are someone has done something dumb, offensive or clumsy, and someone else has recorded and posted it.

Interestingly, the Washington Post says fireworks are “supposed to be beautiful” and PBS actually did the right thing.

Not the point. The point is that fakery is upsetting, especially when it comes from a trusted source. So:

1. Be credible. Losing or damaging your credibility will not only be embarrassing, it could also hurt the annual fundraising drive.

2. Be authentic. If you’re in the public eye, don’t assume you know what’s best for people. Explain your thinking before making unilateral decisions.

3. Be mindful. Remember that Twitter, Yelp, Instagram and a dozen others are only a few clicks away. And that reporters monitor and mine them for leads as much as they once chatted up the clerks at the county courthouse.

4. Be candid. Own your mistakes. Apologize (as PBS did), and quickly lay out the plan to avoid a similar mistake in the future.

As the smoke clears from the great fireworks snafu, it seems PBS has learned its lesson and will not suffer last damage. Or do you disagree?