Cross-Burning, Cross-Border Oil & Celebrating Cruelty: A Bad Week for PR

Blitz Magazine, May 2001

In the last week, not once but three times, I’ve been gob-smacked. Dumbstruck. By PR disasters that leave me wondering what, if anything, public relations professionals are being taught. And, if they have any brains at all, why they’re not using them.

The first time was when I heard/watched BC Member of Parliament Hedy Fry tell fellow MPs, and the nation, that the practice of cross-burning was prevalent in Prince George, BC. (We now know that Fry invented the story and has trashed her career. Only her psychiatrist knows why.)

bush2The baffled Prince George mayor speculated that Fry might be thinking of another city (there’s a Prince George in Virginia). The region’s bemused RCMP boss suggested that, if someone was burning crosses, he would probably have heard about it.

The next instance of gob-smacking was care of George Bush. We know the guy’s an idiot, but I think everyone was kind of hoping that he could maybe tiptoe through the next four years with minimal damage and embarrassment. Alas…

Just after the Fry outburst, Dubya declared that a) he’s not interested in environmental protection and b) to solve the problem arising from the fact that America’s population has overwhelmed its resources, he’ll tap into the Northwest Territories’ oil and gas reserves. Oh?

It would be career suicide for any Canadian politician to agree to such a thing. So the issue will drag out for many years. By then, cars will run on electricity or compressed air (if there’s any air left) and Dubya will be a  bad memory. Still, the oil companies could send him up to negotiate with environmental groups and Canada’s aboriginal peoples. That would keep him busy, in a nice cool climate, for, oh, ten years or so.

bush1Not one day after Dubya left me speechless, I was gob-smacked again, when a local announcement had me, once again, saying ‘What the…?’ to my television.

The Vancouver Aquarium is no longer allowed to take whales from the wild. It can, however, capture dolphins. While this issue is being debated, the facility evidently though it needed some light-hearted PR. It launched a campaign celebrating its ‘Golden Girls’. In particular, one whale that has been in captivity for 30 years. Yippee.

Picture a baby girl. Your daughter, niece, sister. Snatched from her cradle and family. Caged. Taught to perform ridiculous tricks to amuse paying tourists. She matures in public, mates in public. When she produces a child, the birth is televised, people cheer, ‘Baby dies, but never mind. On her 30th birthday, her captors call her a Golden Girl and urge everyone to celebrate—and people teach their children that all of this is a good thing.

 

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(And no, the practice of keeping wild animals in captivity is not important for education—it’s a cruel hold-over from the Victorian Era. National Geographic videos, which can be bought, rented or borrowed, are way more educational.)

Massive PR gaffs, yes. But it must be remembered that, behind these gaffs, are people who are paid rather a lot of money to make sure that PR gaffs don’t happen. Public relations professionals are supposed to ‘control the message’, guide their clients, tell them what to say and, especially, what not to say. If they can’t control their clients, they’re at least supposed to make an effort. They don’t appear to be making much of an effort, not lately anyway.

bush4Whoever handles Hedy Fry should change careers. Whoever handles Bush should tighten his grip. And the aquarium’s PR people should focus on repositioning it as a strictly heal-and-release facility.

PR and publicity advisors should stop assuming that audiences are stupid. Some people may be too stunned to response immediately. Words and actions, little blurbs read, may not be reacted to, but they are stored away, perhaps sub-consciously. Eventually—often at election time, those memories will surface.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In Memoriam: The Art of Insult

Wherefore stinging wit? The spontaneous, searing slam?

After observing these last elections (American and Canadian), I fear that the art of insult may have died with the masters.

Have all talking heads lost their nerve? Is everyone reading from a script? Are all public figures slaves to their PR people? In this inarticulate age, and compared to past politicians, today’s guys are egregiously limp.

If you recall, the best insult summoned by Al Gore was “snippy”. Dubya responded with “sore loser”.

Uh, ouch?

In Canada, Joe Clark likened Stockwell Day to a game show host, and Jean Chretien said that Day’s party represents the dark side of human nature.

Oooh. The blisters.

What about the crushing quip? Such as this, from Pierre Elliot Trudeau: “The Honourable Member disagrees; I can hear him shaking his head.”

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Or, from Winston Churchill, “You are a modest man, with much to be modest about.”

Benjamin Disraeli was a talent. He once turned to an MP and noted: “Your smile is like the fittings on a coffin.” When asked to explain the difference between calamity and misfortune, he replied: “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. If someone pulled him out, it would be a calamity.”

My favourite nasty political exchange was between the Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes.

Sandwich: “I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox.”

Wilkes: “That depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”

Schwing!

Mark Twain was good at skewering politicians: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

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Oliver Wendell Holmes: “He may have genius. The contrary is, of course, probable.”

Harold Ickes noted: “Dewey has thrown his diaper into the ring.”

From John Sparrow: “If he’d wash his neck, I’d wring it.”

Bernard Shaw once sent a note to Churchill, inviting him to the opening of his play. At the bottom, he wrote: “Bring a friend. If you have one.”

Churchill wrote in reply, saying that he couldn’t make the opening, and then added: “But we’d like to attend the second performance. If there is one.”

This brings me to Dubya. Who has the same presidential qualifications as my poodle. Neither one can read and both like to run outside. The difference is that my poodle is capable of producing original thought. While Dubya bends over for all oilmen, chemical companies, religious nuts, ‘lectric-char-luvin rednecks and Republican rustlers, my poodle does not always do as he’s told. And my poodle has better manners.

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As I write this, we still don’t know who will be the next US president, but the smell of a Bush placement grows stronger. In a way, it’s a good thing. A Dubya administration, disastrous as it will undoubtedly be, will provide more grist for the comedy mill than five Quayle terms could ever have.

The fact that Dubya is where he is in the first place brings me to this remark, belatedly directed at another George by the novelist Edmund Clerihew Bentley:

“George the Third

Ought never to have occurred

One can only wonder

At so grotesque a blunder.”

Blitz Magazine, January 2001