Lessons from battle of basic cable

Beyond the schadenfreude generated by their recent encounter, valuable lessons in public relations can be extracted from the battle between Jon Stewart (whom I watch religiously) and Jim Cramer (whom I have criticized here before): Sometimes, responding to attacks does more to inflame a story than to put it to rest. There is a deeper lesson, too: While campaigns are wonderful laboratories for learning about communications, a choice between two people on a ballot is not the context for all strategic communications, and that context can make a real difference.

Stewart’s war on CNBC began when correspondent Rick Santelli crossed a journalistic line attacking the president’s efforts to help homeowners the reporter derided as “losers” trying to avoid foreclosure. Stewart called out Santelli and arranged for him to appear on the show.

Had Santelli followed through on his commitment to appear, he would have gone home slightly bloodied, but without the major damage his network would soon endure. After all, “The Daily Show” has been averaging just under one and a half million viewers per night this year.

Instead, ignoring the lesson John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump's America fights back Mellman: Trump can fix it GOP strategist Steve Schmidt denounces party, will vote for Democrats MORE learned when he canceled on David Letterman, Santelli “bailed out,” giving Stewart the opportunity for an eight-minute epic takedown of CNBC’s entire operation. It was a delight to watch — and you still can, as over 1.3 million viewers did within days on Comedy Central’s website. The advance publicity increased Stewart’s audience to 2.1 million that night, roping in a third more eyeballs to watch the caning and, with the Web, more than doubling the audience.

Not content to stop with one mistake, CNBC escalated, adopting a tried-and-true political tactic — don’t defend, attack — and fired all the guns in NBC’s arsenal. Donning the mantle of serious journalist, “Mad” Jim Cramer appeared on NBC’s “Today” to dismiss Stewart as a “comedian” who “runs a variety show.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough refused even to acknowledge that Stewart was a comedian, branding him an “ideologue” who takes “cheap shots” and makes “funny faces.”

Inevitably, this led to another well-watched and hysterically funny verbal and video lashing of Cramer and CNBC by Stewart.

By this time, word of the feud was not confined to the couple million people now eagerly awaiting Stewart’s broadsides. It was news across the country, stoking the ratings for Stewart’s ultimate confrontation with Cramer to 2.3 million — more than 50 percent higher than his average for the year.

Press coverage of that verbal wrestling match spread the story to every big city, small town and tiny hamlet in America. The Washington Post treated the smackdown as front-page news, while the Los Angeles Times offered multiple stories in its day-after edition. Articles, columns and blog posts across the country called Stewart the winner and labeled Cramer/CNBC the unambiguous loser.

In the end, CNBC’s series of missteps increased “The Daily Show’s” ratings significantly, substantially diminished CNBC’s credibility with a wide swath of the American public and appears to have actually reduced CNBC’s own ratings.

CNBC employed typical campaign tactics — keep the “candidate” out of range of hardcore media antagonists, always respond to allegations and attack instead of defending — but the result was not pretty from CNBC’s perspective.

However, CNBC was not a candidate in a two-person, zero-sum race, where voters are forced to choose one or the other and victory in combat is a requirement. CNBC could have afforded to let Stewart poison the minds of his 1.4 million viewers without the business channel suffering any ill effects. Instead, misunderstanding its situation, CNBC pursued a flawed strategy, prosecuting an unnecessary war that created an ongoing PR nightmare that downsized its own audience.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.