Like others caught up in public relations crises before him, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his associates had to decide this week how to handle allegations that Schuller roughed up a United Airlines attendant on a flight to New York.
Would they remain silent, wait for the issue to surface and then respond? Or would they come out swinging first by addressing the matter head-on?
The approach they chose was clearly proactive. At the Crystal Cathedral, in front of dozens of supportive staff members, Schuller smiled and held up the robe that apparently sparked the controversy with the attendant. The voice of his lawyer filtered into the sanctuary from a Chicago pay phone. The TV cameras rolled.
Faced with the fact that the story of the midair squabble and ensuing FBI investigation had been leaked to the media, Schuller's people took the reins, kicking a well-oiled public relations machine into gear.
The result: The airline altercation made the news, but with a solid Schuller spin.
"Masterful," Larry Tenney, managing partner of Nelson Communications Group in Irvine, said of the approach. "Any time a client thinks there may be a crisis coming, we counsel them to be forthcoming.
"What I find to be very interesting is they pulled all their employees together and said, 'Look, we want to tell you people first. We want to tell you what happened to Dr. Schuller.' I think it's textbook. The Exxon people could have learned from it."
Schuller, the founder of the Crystal Cathedral, preaches to a worldwide television audience of 20 million a week. Televised communication is his medium, and he put it to use in his favor Tuesday, Tenney said, reaching out to his own base of support and getting his message into the mainstream media simultaneously.
"This guy has tremendous credibility and respect, which makes it even easier to stand up and say these things," said Tenney, noting that Schuller is a confidant of President Clinton and was on his way to speak at the funeral of Betty Shabazz, widow of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X, when the incident occurred June 28.
However, Jim Delulio, executive vice president of Paine & Associates, another public relations firm, said the theatrical approach may have been a bit over the top.
"I would say in situations like that, sometimes if you doth protest too much, then maybe there is something to [the allegations], if you're well-armed with your lawyer on the line and all your ducks lined up," Delulio said. "You have to be careful that you don't have slickness over substance. You can't fool people with technology."
According to Schuller, the incident began when Schuller asked to hang up the robe he planned to wear at the Shabazz service, and the flight attendant was adamant that he could not.
Schuller said he worked it out with the man's supervisor, but tension with the attendant resurfaced when the man brought Schuller the same cheese and fruit dessert plate that everyone else was getting. Schuller said he asked for a new plate, with only fruit, and the man refused. Schuller said he then got up to make the same request of another flight attendant and noticed that the man seemed angry.
Schuller, described by his attorney as "touchy-feely," sought to calm the man, his lawyer said, and some physical contact ensued.
Schuller's plane was met by FBI agents, who questioned him for about five hours.
Federal Aviation Administration officials are assisting the FBI in its investigation, said John Clabes, FAA spokesman in Oklahoma City.
"If there is evidence that they violated federal air regulation, then we assess them a civil penalty," Clabes said. "We do it frequently to passengers who interfere with air regulations."
The federal response to the incident, which Schuller said has been blown out of proportion by the flight attendant, reflects a broad federal crackdown on unruly airline passengers, Clabes said. Anyone found to be in violation of federal air regulations that prohibit interfering with the crew can face up to a $10,000 penalty.