‘El Chapo’: A Master Of Social Media

el chapo public relations 01.11.16

Sean Penn’s interview with Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is a stark, albeit bizarre reminder about the power of “citizen journalism”—and getting your message out through unconventional means.

PR Pros Can Learn From A Mexican Drug Lord About Getting Their  Message Out

Penn, the Oscar-winning actor and part-time activist, pulled off what can best be described as a media coup when he interviewed the drug lord in October in the Mexican jungle after Guzman’s jail break.

The interview, which ran in Rolling Stone, seems to have precipitated the recapture of Guzman in the city of Los Mochis, near where the interview was conducted. Guzman is now facing possible extradition to the United States, where he has been indicted by at least seven U.S. federal courts.

Penn has been widely condemned for the doing the interview, which was reportedly arranged by the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough declined to answer a question about whether the U.S. would hand Penn over to Mexico for questioning, while GOP candidate Marco Rubio said the Q&A was “grotesque,” according to the BBC.

Political and legal ramifications aside, the episode raises a few key questions for PR pros to consider.  We’re not going to try and figure out Guzman’s motivation for the secret meeting—which may doom him to a life in prison—but he was able to demonstrate that if you have a message you want to distribute to the world you don’t necessarily need the New York Times, ABC News or Reuters as a media conduit.

What is more, with an increasingly fragmented media environment—in which digital communications win the day—a “citizen journalist” like Sean Penn can wield just as much clout in telling a story as bona fide reporters and broadcasters for major media outlets.  Call it another wake-up call to pay close attention to “influencers,” who can have a huge impact on your brand or organization for good or ill and are not to be underestimated.

Another PR thread in the story is Rolling Stone’s motivation. It wasn’t that long ago that Rolling Stone was getting dragged through the media muck because of its article—later retracted—about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.  A report published by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and commissioned by Rolling Stone said the magazine failed to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic” practice to verify the details of the ordeal described by the article’s author.

Rolling Stone is understandably trying to change the narrative about its brand. It may not be what it bargained for, but the publication certainly has changed the conversation.

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