Dzhokhar Tsarnaev featured on Rolling Stone Cover – How to Recover a PR Nightmare

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Rolling Stone Cover
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Rolling Stone Cover

UPDATE: Since writing this post it’s been reported that Rolling Stone Magazine has seen a 20% increase in sales in their August release featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Although I’m not suprised at the uptick, I’m surprised it has been so drastic especially with major retailers such as Tedeschi Food Stores, Roche Bros. groceries, Stop & Shop, CVS drugstores, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Kmart have decided to not carry the edition.

News broke this morning that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving terrorist from the Boston Marathon Bombings, will be featured on an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. This is getting a lot of negative press because the way they are releasing the magazine is coming across as very insensitive.  Dzhokhar is featured on the cover in a casual, somewhat snarky demeanor similar to a casual shot of John Lennon looking like you’re average apathetic celebrity.  The title and subtitle on the cover read…

The Bomber, How a popular, promising student was failed by his family and fell into radical Islam and became a monster.

This is causing a large backlash on the 46 year old magazine, prompting people to cancel and boycott their subscriptions.  The true question is, how will this play out for Rolling Stone Magazine?

Something we all have to realize is this will push copies off of shelves.  Right off the bat the title leads you to believe they have had direct interviews with Dzhokhar and his family.  Regardless of what is in the story, people are curious animals and they are going to want to know if there can be any answers in there.  The truth is, there isn’t.  You can’t change the past and some people are just that crazy.  No rhyme, no reason and we have to accept that. So, lets look at the options that matter below.

  • Magazine Sales:  Subscriptions may drop, but individual magazine sales will most likely rise as people will only be interested in this story and may feel guilty subscribing to a magazine that would be so insensitive.  Either way, both have a direct impact on the one thing that matters in the magazine…Advertising Revenue.  If people really boycott and this turns into a large problem, then Advertisers will pull their ads if the trend lasts.  They will allocate their ad funding in other publications or campaigns.
  • Advertiser Image: Similar to how sponsors had dropped Tiger Woods in fear of being associated to a tarnished athlete a few years ago, advertising companies may just pull their ads for “ethical” reasons.  Ethical is in quotes, because it’s not about actually being ethical, its about “appearing” to be ethical to keep their audience.
  • Celebrity Rejection: Celebrities may decide to stop working with the magazine for their ethical reasons as well, but lets face it.  Where one person drops off, there will always be an emerging artist who will take their place.

So the next question is what to do.  Lets take a look at the options Rolling Stone Magazine has…

  1. Do Nothing: Usually the worst option, but may not be a bad idea for the magazine.  They are rolling the dice to see what the outcome can be and it really could go either way.  We’re very sensitive to the issue because we’re in Boston.  Because it’s so close to home we are hypersensitive to the issue and may have a different reaction to most of the country.
  2. Make a Statement: Make a public apology to Boston and stress the fact they were not trying to show insensitivity and forgiveness to Dzhokhar.  Show they are just as passionate to try to find an answer to the madness to help shed some light, even though it’s to make sales.
  3. Pledge a Donation: Either come to a large cash number (over 1 Million) or a direct percentage or profit from the sale of the magazine to donate to the One Fund to help any family in need. Plus it would be a great tax deduction
  4. Feature the Victims and Heroes: In a world where all we remember is the one who creates the violence, we need to remember the heroes and victims.  Stop glorifying the person, we’re giving them what they wanted to begin with.
  5. Fire Somebody: In this extreme, if the backlash is bad enough, you may need to put someone up for responsibility to save the company image.  I’m sure there are plenty of people responsible for reviewing the magazine content, especially the cover.  A program director may be looking for work very shortly.

The options above will need to be executed depending on the severity of the backlash.  To be honest I feel the company should proactively execute on Options 2, 3, and 4.  This is the best route to keep the magazine negative PR to a minimum.  The only other option is to not print the issue, but thats just not going to happen.

Personally, this does feel like a bad judgement call on behalf of the magazine.  Understandably you are trying to create buzz and sell more copies, but this feels like a bit of a stretch.  Although I didn’t know her well, I went to high school with Krystle Campbell.  I know a lot of people who were friends with her, including my wife, and to see something seem so insensitive being published by such a large magazine, it just seems like a slap in the face.

I won’t be buying this edition, nor will I be subscribing to them.  Will you?  Will you subscribe or unsubscribe or will you go out and buy this issue when it is released?  Don’t worry, I won’t judge you!



  1. I’m not sure why/how this is controversial? Tsarnaev is a legitimate news figure, and Rolling Stone is a legitimate news publication. This is exactly the kind of story they tend to do a good job with.

    • christocarroll

      You do have a point but what people seem to be upset with is the casual “rockstar” like photo they had decided to use of him. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just looking at the options Rolling Stone Magazine has if this proves to bite them back.

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