Surprised by the hardball questions she received from Maria Shriver during an interview about her book, Dispensing the Truth (it deals with the fen-phen scandal), Alicia Mundy attended a panel on public relations tactics at the annual convention of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and reports her findings for the Columbia Journalism Review. Mundy seems astonished that Wyeth, the pharmaceutical company she attacks in Dispensing the Truth, would fight back, and is even more excited about what sound like pretty mundane PR tactics, such as dumping bad news on reporters on Friday afternoons to minimize their coverage. One panelist, Kent Jarrell of APCO Worldwide, clued reporters in on one strategy: going over their heads to editors and publishers, often with letters from lawyers. “I want to take control of your story away from you,” Jarrell explained, forcing management to ask, “Do we need this hassle? Is this story worth it?” Like many such stories, this one seems to be underpinned by the assumption that when companies are attacked, the honorable thing is to lie down and take it. Interestingly, however, the panel also offered advice for reporters on how to counter the counterattack: “Show the relevance of such high-power tactics to the story.” Says Sam Roe of the Chicago Tribune, “Make their PR campaign and legal maneuvers part of the story,” Roe says. “Use it. Expose it.”
“Of the many horrifically destructive technologies of the 20th century, arguably the most dangerous of all is public relations.” So says Kenny Ausubel, founder of Bioneers, “an educational network of visionaries for the environment,” in an article appearing at AlterNet. Apparently oblivious to the way PR has been successfully employed by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other allies of his group (and by Bioneers itself, which has a nice website presumably designed to relate to the public), Ausubel takes his lead from a memo by Frank Lutz, a longtime Republican communications strategist who provides talking points designed to undercut criticisms that GOP policies harm the environment. The memo itself is an absurd document: “Indeed it can be helpful to think of environmental and other issues in terms of ‘story,’” says Lutz. “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth... The facts are beside the point. It’s all in how you frame your argument.” It’s not PR that’s “horribly destructive,” it’s this kind of inept, incongruent PR, and mostly its destructive to the people stupid enough to use it.
Halliburton CEO David Lesar has asked his employees to counter negative publicity about the company’s work in with a letter-writing campaign, according to an internal company e-mail provided to The Daily MisLead, “a daily chronicle of Bush administration distortion.” Halliburton, Vice President Cheney’s old company, has been under fire after being awarded no-bid contracts in Iraq, and its Kellogg Brown & Root subsidiary has been cited “at least twice in the past six years” by the General Accounting Office for inflating costs. One of the talking points suggested in Lesar’s memo was that “Halliburton makes our troops more comfortable in a difficult environment by bringing shelter, supplies, clean uniforms and mail from home.” According to published reports, however, as few as 20 percent of American soldiers in Iraq have access to purified water and entire units are suffering from dysentery.
The United States of America comes in an impressive 31st out of the 166 countries in this year’s “world press freedom rankings,” published by Reporters Without Borders. The U.S. trailed Trinidad & Tobago, Latvia, Slovenia, Costa Rica, and Benin, but at least it was able to edge out Albania (34th on the list). Topping the list were Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway. The bottom three countries were Burma, Cuba and North Korea.
To draw attention to what it calls corporate “pinkwashing,” Breast Cancer Action, a national grassroots breast cancer advocacy organization, is running an ad in the national edition of the New York Times questioning some high-profile corporate marketing campaigns launched in connection with Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Many corporate marketers have launched breast cancer awareness and fundraising efforts, but Breast Cancer Action questions whether the public should support campaigns form cosmetics companies such as Avon, Revlon, Estee Lauder, and Mary Kay that manufacture products containing phthalates and/or parabens—hormone-disrupting chemicals that may affect the development of cancer.
How much Fox News would you have to watch before you knew nothing at all? In a Washington Post op-ed, Harold Meyerson dissects research from the Program on International Policy Attitudes showing that the more Fox you watch, the less you know. "One question inevitably raised by these findings is whether Fox News is failing or succeeding."
Unfortunately, the remainder of the media stubbornly persists in reporting the facts rather than the administration’s spin, a failing that has prompted the Bush team to adopt a new strategy of circumventing major media and going directly to local papers. The Washington Post reports that “Bush granted exclusive interviews to five regional broadcasting companies—an unprecedented effort to reach news organizations that do not regularly cover the White House.” The president told interviewers, “I’m mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and somehow you just got to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people.” Circumventing a hostile media is sound strategy: it gets your message out and it may chasten a media that is still cowed by any criticism from the right, leading to lamentations such as this one from CNN’s Bill Hemmer: “These reporters, many of them tell us they want to go cover the new school opening, but they can’t because there’s another bombing or shooting and that prevents them from sending that story?” In other words, they’d love to cover all the press releases, but real news keeps getting in the way.
“Focus groups have become a requirement of everything from product launches to political campaigns,” writes Daniel Gross in Slate. “But even though few in the industry question their value, a huge gap yawns between customer intentions expressed in focus groups and behavior in the marketplace.” One reason: “One would be hard-pressed to come up with a worse environment for eliciting heartfelt and brutally honest opinions. Getting paid to get together with a bunch of strangers, and being led in a discussion by another stranger, is unnatural.” Another: “Focus groups frequently ask people to make snap judgments about products they haven't seen or used.”
Wealthy consumers have always understood that they may have to wait for some luxury purchases—high-end automobiles, designer fashions, Green Bay Packers season tickets—but the trend is spreading to mass market retailers, according to The Wall Street Journal, which reports on long waiting lists for T-shirts and other mundane items at stores like Banana Republic. “Banana Republic says it orchestrated its own campaign for [a] $198 jacket. Hoping to make the item ‘a fashion moment,’ the company featured it heavily in its fall-advertising campaign and promoted it with fashion glossies. Then it limited its shipments—to just 5,000 jackets, no more than half the normal run for such a product. The result: a flurry of wait lists, which didn’t move the company to reorder.” Says a spokeswoman: “When we sell out, we sell out. It adds to the allure.”
Chiquita Brands, once boycotted by consumer activists and accused of exploiting the developing countries where it gets its bananas, has been honored with Social Accountability International's Corporate Conscience Award for Innovative Partnership. Nice turnaround.
"The Bush administration showed a "paternal pride” when the governing council of Iraq was accepted into OPEC. Michael Kinsley, writing for Slate, wonders why. “OPEC is a conspiracy to fix prices,” he reminds us. “As sovereign nations meeting in far-away luxury hotels, rather than American business executives exchanging furtive messages across state lines, OPEC’s members probably can’t be prosecuted. But we shouldn’t forget the true nature of the organization. And we certainly shouldn’t be legitimizing and strengthening it by nominating members. This is not just a matter of respecting the principles behind our laws even when the laws can’t be enforced. There’s a reason we’ve made it illegal for competitors to conspire: It costs the rest of us money.” In fact, he says, it’s going to cost Americans at least $10 billion. Still, it's good news for U.S. oil companies.
It’s an article of faith on the right that environmental regulations cost money and jobs. (In some circles, it’s an article of faith that they cost lives too, because of the lost prosperity associated with them.) But the Washington Post reports that after serious research the Office of Management and Budget now believes “environmental regulations are well worth the costs they impose on industry and consumers, resulting in significant public health improvements and other benefits to society.” According to the OMB, the value of reductions in hospitalization and emergency room visits, premature deaths and lost workdays resulting from improved air quality was estimated between $120 billion and $193 billion from October 1992 to September 2002. “I’m sure the true believers in the Bush administration will brand this report as true heresy because it defies the stereotype of burdensome, worthless regulations,” says Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “They clearly don’t understand that the government regulations are there to protect you—and they work.”
Do Americans still trust the markets? “At a rational, quantitative level everything appears to be all right among investors,” says Yale professor Robert Shiller in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. An overwhelming majority—89% of individual investors and 87% of institutional investors—expect the stock market to go up in the succeeding year. “And yet, their quantitative expectations for the market are not necessarily going to translate into a long-term increase in demand that will promote market values. There is also a sour attitude among investors, fed by market declines and the sequence of scandals.” In 1996, Shiller asked how much high-income individuals agreed with the statement: ""The stock market is the best investment for long-term holders, who can buy and hold through the ups and downs of the market."" In 1999, right before the crash, 79 percent agreed. “After the market debacle, and after the scandals, the percentage who agreed strongly then fell to 39 percent in 2003.
Are we a nation of Homer Simpsons? It seems so, since we certainly have Red Lobster rethinking that whole “all-you-can-eat” concept. In fact, the restaurant’s CEO is gone. Parent company executives said Red Lobster management had “badly miscalculated how many times customers would refill their plates after paying $20 for an ‘endless’ crab entree. Says company chairman Joe R. Lee, “It wasn’t the second helping on all-you-can-eat but the third.”
Slate has a satirical take on the telemarketing industry’s First Amendment pitch. “At Home of Liberty Inc., we believe it’s your inalienable right to express yourself. And just as the U.S. Constitution provides the framework to our free society, so does a weather-tight exterior provide the protection to a free household.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger has proclaimed his desire for greater openness in politics. “We need to throw open the doors and windows of government,” he said. But in a New York Times op-ed, celebrity biographer Richard Blow points out that Schwarzenegger has forced his campaign staff to sign strict confidentiality agreements. Under threat of termination, staff members must agree not to disclose information about the actor and his family, friends, associates and employees. “Confidentiality agreements allow Mr. Schwarzenegger to enter the public arena with very little of the risk that every other noncelebrity politician must live with: that the public will learn unfortunate truths about him. If a candidate isn’t willing to take that chance, perhaps he shouldn’t be running in the first place."
One of the things I like about Slate is its contrarian nature. Here, for example, Timothy Noah offers a spirited defense of Jet Blue, which allowed the Pentagon to cajole it into sharing customer data with another company in a flagrant flouting of its own privacy rules. Says Noah, “This minor act of corporate malfeasance would have made a nice little story for Airways magazine. But [I] can’t see what makes it a major national story.” You decide.
“For at least 15 years,” Reuters reports, “the Census Bureau has released its annual reports on the nation’s income and poverty statistics on a Tuesday or a Thursday. This year, when indicators suggest that the reports will document downward trends, they will be released Friday.” Census spokesman Lawrence Neal says the agency “picked a date out of the air.” But the Bush administration has a pattern of announcing controversial or unfavorable news as the weekend begins, which makes some reporters skeptical. Is burying bad news this way unethical, or just smart public relations? Opinions welcome ([email protected]).
With Samuel Waksal in jail, Martha Stewart under indictment, and Bernie Ebbers facing charges in Oklahoma, white-collar crime is a hot topic. But Daniel Gross at Slate is making the case that criminal charges may not be the most effective deterrent, citing a study by a troika of Ivy League economists—Dartmouth’s Rafael La Porta, Yale’s Florencio Lopez De Silanes, and Harvard’s Andrei Shleifer. The study suggests markets develop better when civil—not criminal—law is strong. Says Gross: “Sellers rip off buyers: This is a fundamental downside of capitalism. Governments have three ways to deal with it. They can do nothing and trust (or hope) that financial and reputation concerns will keep securities-selling executives on the straight and narrow. Second, they can establish a regime of private enforcement. Governments establish securities laws that impose disclosure obligations on those who sell stocks to the public and then provide avenues through which wronged investors can try to recoup losses. The third approach is more explicitly statist: public enforcement. Instead of just promulgating rules and letting the private sector fight it out, governments create agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission—independent regulators with the power to investigate, prosecute, and fine.”
Jonathan Rauch, writing for The Atlantic, makes an unlikely argument: that “genetic engineering may be the most environmentally beneficial technology to have emerged in decades, or possibly centuries.” Given the opposition among environmental groups to genetically modified crops, Rauch has a tough time making his case, but the article is compelling. “The great challenge of the next four or five decades is not to feed an additional three billion people (and their pets),” he says, “but to do so without converting much of the world's prime habitat into second- or third-rate farmland…. Even if production could be increased using conventional technology, which is doubtful, the required amounts of pesticide and fertilizer and other polluting chemicals would be immense. If properly developed, disseminated, and used, genetically modified crops might well be the best hope the planet has got.”
In addition to being environmentally unhealthy, SUVs are notoriously bad for their occupants, which explains the need for a website devoted entirely to SUV rollovers. There are fact sheets, statistics, breaking news (Ford SUVs Recalled), and—surprise—information on how to contact an attorney if your SUV rolled over recently.
More entertaining satire from The Onion, which imagines a one-way conversation between a Wal-Mart store and a small neighborhood specialty store. “Biggest isn't always best, they say. People probably love the character of this neighborhood store, how cozy it is. I just wonder if people will still want to scurry around this little shack after they’ve pushed a cart through our 48 spacious, well-lit, air-conditioned, perfectly organized, fully labeled aisles.”
Sorry seems to be the hardest word, at least for President Bush, who managed to get through his September 7 speech on the morass in Iraq without uttering the word once. Michael Kinzley, writing for Slate, makes a compelling case that Bush needed to acknowledge errors in judgment: “After all, Bush either knew we’d be spending this kind of money for two or more years after declaring victory—and didn’t tell us—or he didn’t realize it himself. Those are the only two options. He deceived us, or he wasn’t clairvoyant in the fog of war. Apparently, Bush would rather be thought omniscient than honest, which is a pity, since appearing honest is a more realistic ambition.” Kinzley finds the reluctance to admit mistakes odd, given that a simple acknowledgment of an error could have defused a potentially damaging campaign issue. “Denying the obvious isn’t even good unscrupulous politics. For that reason, it is beyond spin. If spinning involves an indifference to truth, what’s going on here looks more like an actual preference for falsehood. The truth would be better politics, and the administration is fanning out to the talk shows to lie anyway.”
Even the hardest hearted among us can surely spare some sympathy for the American Teleservices Association, a group that represents telemarketers. After columnist Dave Barry published the group’s 800 number in his syndicated column, the poor folks have been inundated with unwanted telephone calls. “It’s in the few thousand,” says a spokesperson for the group. “It’s difficult not to see some malice in Mr. Barry’s intent.” Gee, I hope none of those calls came just as they were sitting down to dinner.
It may not be the first rule of crisis management, but it’s certainly among the 10 commandments: if you have bad news to tell, tell it all and tell it fast. As Business Week editor Stephen Shepherd says in this Wall Street Journal article, the New York Stock Exchange appears to be “following that advice in reverse” as information relating to chairman Richard Grasso’s compensation has been “dribbling out” so that “the controversy lingers and lingers and lingers.” The NYSE first said it would “restrict distribution of 1,200 pages of documents relating to its chairman’s contentious retirement package ‘in the interests of saving the world’s forests,’” the Journal reports, then decided to allow news organizations limited access to those documents. Robert Zito, the NYSE’s executive vice president for communications, said it was his fault that reporters early in the day weren’t given copies of specific documents, because he wasn’t in the office to give that instruction. Zito also said the NYSE was under no obligation to make the documents public in the first place, stressing: “There is nothing to hide.” That’s not the impression the exchange is creating, however.
Here’s some more “fair and balanced” reporting from Fox News. Commentator Brit Hume, attempting to create some neocon-favorable context for the death of so many soldiers in Iraq, offered up the following (hurry to the link, because if they're smart it'll have vanished in a few hours):
"Two hundred seventy-seven U.S. soldiers have now died in Iraq, which means that statistically speaking U.S. soldiers have less of a chance of dying from all causes in Iraq than citizens have of being murdered in California, which is roughly the same geographical size. The most recent statistics indicate California has more than 2300 homicides each year, which means about 6.6 murders each day. Meanwhile, U.S. troops have been in Iraq for 160 days, which means they're incurring about 1.7 deaths, including illness and accidents each day."
Hopefully, I don’t have to point out that Hume is comparing death rate of 150,000 troops in Iraq to the death rate of 34.5 million people in California (the death rate is based on the number of people, not the fact that Iraq and California are “roughly the same geographic size.”) For the record, I’m no mathematician, but using these numbers even I can calculate that a Californian has a 1 in 5.2 million chance of being murdered every day, while a soldier in Iraq has a 1 in 113,000 chance of dying every day. That means the chance of a soldier in Iraq dying is actually 46 times greater than the chance of a Californian being murdered. Is Hume really that stupid, or is he just hoping his viewers are? And why was Jayson Blair fired and Howell Raines forced to resign, while Hume will no doubt keep his job and Roger Ailes will shrug off his employee’s mendacity? And isn't this an awfully cavalier attitude toward the death of American servicemen?
California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to have gotten this whole spin thing down in pretty short order. Explaining why taking corporate donations doesn’t undermine his pledge to put an end to special interest politics, he told a radio show host that “Any of those kinds of real big, powerful special interests,” like labor unions or Indian gaming tribes, “if you take money from them, you owe them something.” Unlike corporate donors, who of course would never dream of using their resources to influence public policy. Besides, he says, any corporate money he takes is irrelevant because he would not be influenced by it. “What he’s doing is defining a special interest as ‘somebody who supports my opponent,’” says Larry Noble, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, demonstrating a firm grasp of the obvious.
Chief executives of companies that had the largest layoffs and most underfunded pensions, as well as those whose companies moved operations offshore to avoid U.S. taxes were rewarded with the biggest pay hikes in 2002, according to a story in the L.A. Times. Many CEO pay plans “are fairly short-term in nature and all of these things—layoffs, underfunded pensions and going offshore to avoid taxes—can pump up short-term results,” says Carol Bowie, director of governance research at the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington. Some experts noted that CEO pay would be expected to reflect the leader’s ability to make a company more efficient and boost shareholder value, even if that required layoffs.
Richard Grenell, the spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, gets his own profile in The Village Voice, and flattering it is not. “Press handlers are expected to be control freaks,” says the Voice. “But several sources in the UN press corps who spoke on condition of anonymity describe the U.S. spokesperson as ‘rude,’ ‘arrogant,’ and a ‘bully,’ neither popular nor a particularly good source. ‘He’s unbearable,’ says one journalist. ‘Very pushy and very demanding,’ says another. Grenell is said to complain incessantly, hectoring correspondents and their bosses and trying to ‘mold’ wire stories to fit his message. He yells at anyone whose slant doesn’t follow his, says one source. ‘He yells at people whenever he is uncomfortable, particularly foreigners,’ says another. Sounds like he’s auditioning for Ari Fleischer’s old job.
Brace yourself for a new round of insanity once the religious right gets ahold of this story, which has the creator of Spongbob Squarepants denying the cartoon character is gay. Advertisers should get ready for the inevitable boycott.
The Online Journalism Review explores the whole issue of reporters holding stock in the companies they cover, after CNBC glamour anchor Maria Bartiromo drew criticism for an on-air disclosure that she owned stock in Citigroup—just before interviewing Sanford Weill, the company’s CEO. (You might think she’d draw praise, but apparently transparency is not enough for some people.) The article examines various policies, but ignores a key issue. Says one respondent: “This piece on ethics missed the most important element of financial conflicts at newspapers. That is the financial interests of the top executives and editors on down the management chain. They are the ones who can really shape news coverage.”
How many different ways did Fox lose in its lawsuit against Al Franken over his use of the words “fair and balanced” in his new book? The case was laughed—literally—out of court, with the judge ruling that a person would have to be “completely dense” not to realize the cover was a joke. Not only that, but the company appears to have weakened its trademark, since the judge also offered the opinion that the phrase “fair and balanced” is in such common usage as to be untrademarkable. Oh yes, and the right-wing news network boosted sales of the book it was targeting, prompting the publisher to print an extra 50,000 copies as it shot to the number one spot on Amazon. At least the company might have gotten a new tagline out of the case, drawn from the judge’s ruling. Fox News: Wholly Without Merit.
It came as a surprise to many when Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates launched a broadside against spam last month, but that news rates barely a raised eyebrow compared to the announcement by the Direct Marketing Association that it too is joining the fight against the scourge of e-mail users everywhere. According to the DMA, some of the state laws that have been passed to combat spam are “totally ineffective” and “detrimental to good marketers.” Ill-conceived legislation, he said, “really will only hurt the good guy.” So the group is launching an effort “to identify significant spam operators who are violating existing laws, develop the cases and refer them to the appropriate state, federal or international prosecuting authorities.”
Michael Deaver, the former Reagan aide who plies his trade at Edelman these days, is apparently a fan of the new HBO drama series K Street, which portrays the thrill-a-minute world of corporate lobbyists. He says the show, produced by Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney, doesn’t have “an agenda” and shows “how it works.” Slate’s Timothy Noah is less impressed: “Showing ‘how it works’ when lobbyists trade on their own government connections or their clients’ campaign contributions may be the best way to paint a devastating portrait of the whole endeavor…. Even so, K Street will likely serve to glamorize even further a profession that’s already grown far too glamorous…. The Sopranos, for instance, can hardly be accused of sugarcoating the reality of life in the New Jersey mob. Yet it certainly makes that life appear very compelling.”
GlaxoSmithKline is taking some heat in the U.K. for using a children’s book to promote its allergy medications. The company partnered with nonprofit group Allergy UK to produce a new title in the Mr. Men series—popular in the U.K.—dealing with allergies. The book includes four pages of information on allergies from Allergy UK and two pages promoting the use of GSK products Piriteze and Piriton. Says a company spokeswoman, “We are 100% confident that the book abides by all of the regulations.”
“How many piano tuners are there in the world? If the Star Trek transporter was for real, how would that affect the transportation industry? Why does a mirror reverse right and left instead of up and down? If you could remove any of the 50 U.S. states, which would it be? Why are beer cans tapered on the ends? How long would it take to move Mount Fuji?” Those are all, apparently, questions you might be asked if you want to get a high-tech job, not only in Silicon Valley but in places as far afield as Russia and India, according to William Poundstone, whose new book is reviewed by the San Jose Mercury News. Says Poundstone, “Interviewers ask these questions in the earnest belief that they help gauge the intelligence, resourcefulness or ‘outside-the-box thinking' needed to survive in today's hypercompetitive business world. Job applicants answer these questions in the also-earnest belief that this is what it takes to get hired at the top companies these days. A lot of earnest believing is going on.” Sounds like he’s not buying it.
“In the weeks since Congress slashed the tax on dividends to 15 percent, stocks that pay dividends have fared worse than their brethren who stubbornly refuse to share their earnings with shareholders,” reports Daniel Gross at Slate. Gross mocks those who promoted the tax cut as a boost to the economy: “Over the past year, as the dividend tax cut gained momentum, supporters of the measure, from President Bush on down—‘See, by ending double-taxation of dividends, we will increase the return on investing,’ as he put it’—relentlessly argued that it would boost asset prices, create jobs, and do everything short of curing polio.” But he reserves particular contempt for one of the tax cuts most visible proponents, Lawrence Kudlow, whose “assurance is matched only by his capacity for issuing loonily high forecasts”
If you thought the controversy over bioengineered food products was bad, wait for the row over “biopharmed” plants, genetically modified crops designed to produce drugs rather than food. The issue is highlighted at Salon, which discusses protests organized by organic and other farmers in Colorado. Author Michelle Nijhuis explains why this is such a potentially big deal: “Pharmaceutical plants might take the familiar forms of corn or lettuce or tomatoes, but they’re not meant to be eaten; they’re designed to be efficient living factories for pharmaceuticals and other therapeutic products. It’s not known how stray proteins from these crops could affect human health, but anyone can predict their impact on human consumer habits. Even if there’s only a small chance of contraceptives in your cornflakes, you’re not likely to be buying.”
Dueling editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal disagree, not surprisingly, about who’s to blame for the blackout that trapped me in my 53rd floor apartment late last week (not that I’m taking it personally or anything). In the Times, columnist Paul Krugman argues that “faith-based deregulation” is the culprit. “Under the old regulatory system, power companies had strong incentives to ensure the integrity of power transmission—they would catch the flak if something went wrong… Because of deregulation, responsibility was diffused: nobody had a strong stake in keeping the system reliable. The result was a failure not just to add capacity, but to maintain and upgrade capacity that already existed.” Krugman also debunks the idea that environmental concerns caused the California power crisis of two years ago, blaming manipulation of the energy markets by Enron and other power companies. That doesn’t stop George Melloan in the Journal pointing an accusing finger at environmentalists, however: “Millions of Naderites are trying to peddle windmill farms…. Nuclear power, a clean, safe and potentially cost-effective way of making steam, was stalled by the protestors and lawsuit filers in the U.S. years ago.” Millions of Naderites? Who knew there were that many, or that they held such sway. Ralph will no doubt be flattered.
The U.K.’s Guardian reports on what happens when Wal-Mart comes to town—in this case, Pell City, Alabama. The report isn’t the hatchet job you might expect. In fact, the paper acknowledges, “if there is angst in town about the threat to local businesses and the prospect of making Pell City look just like everywhere else in America it is not obvious.” The article does discuss the company’s anti-labor ethos, and its decision to exclude magazines it deems inappropriate from its shelves, but on the whole it’s a balanced outsider’s look at a very American institution.
For a magazine that prides itself on being ahead of the curve, Fast Company seems to be coming awfully late to the “buzz marketing” trend. An article in the August issue finds some fresh examples, but doesn’t have anything very new to say. “It’s a subtle and imperfect art,” the mag observes, “dictated by changing tastes and the vagaries of human networks. If done right, though, marketing by buzz doesn’t just work well, it works well for less money. Compared with most traditional marketing channels, spreading the word by word of mouth can bring enormous exposure for just a modest investment. In this game, the company with the best buzz—not the biggest bucks—wins.”
Not sure why a South African newspaper is the source for this, but apparently the honchos in Hollywood believe they found out why Gigli sunk without a trace so quickly, and it’s not the severely limited talents of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. According to the Cape Times, the problem is “teenagers instant-messaging their friends with their verdict on new films - sometimes while they are still in the cinema watching - and so scuppering carefully crafted marketing campaigns designed to lure audiences out to a big movie on its opening weekend.”
Fox News just lost any right to complain about frivolous lawsuits. The right-wing news organization, which surely supports the Republican position on tort reform,is reportedly suing author Al Franken for his use of the words “fair and balanced” in the title of his new book, Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Fox is claiming trademark infringement, since “Fair and Balanced” is its tagline. Leaving aside the fact that Fox owning the phrase “fair and balanced” is like Larry Flynt owning the phrase “tasteful and modest,” this is one of the dumbest lawsuits in recent memory, if only because Franken’s book is pretty obviously satire, and thus protected speech. Says the Fox complaint, “Franken is neither a journalist nor a television news personality. He is not a well-respected voice in American politics; rather, he appears to be shrill and unstable. His views lack any serious depth or insight.” The last two sentences describe Fox almost perfectly, so one can understand why the company would be concerned about possible confusion between the two. But it’s hard to imagine the suit is motivated by anything other than fury over the book’s content, since it exposes Fox for the crude propaganda machine that it is. The fact that Franken recently embarrassed Fox’s pet Nazi Bill O’Reilly by uncovering the lies and exaggerations in his resume might also be a factor.
One of the wonderful things about marketing is its ability to take the most vibrant, spontaneous forms of expression and turn them into crass commercialism. Slate’s Rob Walker reports that last month, in cities around the country, someone slathered graffiti all over a series of street posters advertising the Nissan Altima. The car image was partially obscured by newer-looking images of a turntable, or a microphone, and a Web address: ElectricMoyo.com. The guilty party was Nissan itself; the website a guerrilla marketing effort by the company. A spokesman for the company justifies the deceptive campaign by pointing out that consumers—especially younger consumers—are skeptical of traditional marketing techniques. “Trust,” says the spokesman, “has been diminished on so many levels.” But Walker that comments on the Internet have tended to be unsupportive. “I hate these ads,” one person wrote. Nissan is “sneaking into a club they have no fucking right to join, and taking up more space with more blah blah buy buy blah blah. It’s sneaky and rude.”
America Online has dragged down the performance of its parent company AOL Time Warner so far that it no longer wants the company to carry its name. AOL Time Warner’s name has been tarnished as the Securities & Exchange Commission investigates numerous accounting issues at the company, mainly at the AOL division. The negative publicity surrounding the parent company is especially damaging because the company’s name is often abbreviated to AOL.
Pity the poor American celebrity, who despite his fame and fortune still has to pay for ordinary, every day items like cigarettes. Surely his hard work and dedication to keeping America entertained has earned him the right to free household products. One tobacco company certainly thinks so. Freedom Tobacco International says it is seeking to “seed” its cigarettes with adult celebrities. “To be honest, celebrities make or break your brands. If you look at who drinks what or that sort of thing, celebrity endorsements have always meant a lot,” says Patrick Carroll, founder and chief executive of the New York-based company. The strategy quickly drew fire from anti-smoking activists like Gwendolyn Young, a board member of the American Lung Association of California (“Blatant tobacco industry marketing tactics like this one are very disturbing, yet they aren’t very surprising to us” and actors like NYPD Blue’s Esai Morales (“The fact that they are willing to supply someone for life is kind of scary. It’s addictive. It may be legal, but it’s immoral”). Freedom also paid covert actresses to smoke the cigarettes in Manhattan bars and nightclubs for several weeks this spring in a New York effort to promote the fledgling brand, company spokeswoman Nancy Tamosaitis told an AP reporter. If anyone deserves free cigarettes, it’s not actors and actresses, but rather the smokers of New York, who have seen draconian tax increases and smoking bans since Mayor Bloomberg took office.
Having inadvertently appointed an Environmental Protection Agency commissioner who wanted to protect the environment (Christine Whitman turned out to have a mind of her own, much to the disgust of Vice President Cheney’s corporate cronies) the administration is apparently determined not to repeat the mistake. So now the White House is seriously considering appointing Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne to head the agency—an interesting choice given that when Kempthorne was in the Senate he scored a series of perfect zeroes from the League of Conservation Voters, and in Idaho he has managed to increase emissions at a time when they are decreasing in virtually every other state. Slate’s Timothy Noah asks the obvious question: “How did the Democrats get so lucky? Kempthorne would be a disaster as EPA administrator, but he would be a godsend to Democratic candidates in 2004 who want to run against Bush's environmental record.”
A column in the Palm Beach Post takes a look at what it calls a “growth industry—protecting or rehabilitating the images of star athlete in trouble.” It doesn’t offer much of a critique of Kobe Bryant’s public relations activities to date (a disaster, in this observer’s opinion) but it does look at the work of lawyers and PR people advising athletes from Latrell Sprewell to Gary Sheffield to Michael Irvin. It quotes experts like Dick Hyde, crisis maven at Hill & Knowlton, who explains: “Whether it’s the chief executive of a company, the pilot of the plane or a celebrity, nothing can replace a genuine expression of feeling…. It’s important to show a human being is there.” The author’s conclusion: “Kobe Bryant may be the most famous athlete to be charged with a crime during his playing days, but in some ways he is not so different from an airline whose plane has crashed, or a soft-drink maker whose products have been contaminated.”
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the media watchdog group, is looking for a communications director
Political communicators in the U.K. make Ari Fleischer look like an honest, sensitive kind of guy. The Prime Minister’s communications chief, Alastair Campbell, is widely credited with helping hound Ministry of Defense whistleblower David Kelly to his grave, but it was Tom Kelly, Mr. Blair’s official spokesman, who rubbed salt in the wounds by branding Kelly a “Walter Mitty”-type character, just days after his death. It didn’t take long for Kelly to issue what The Guardian described as a “groveling apology,” describing his comments as “a mistake, given the current climate. I, therefore, unreservedly apologize to Dr Kelly’s widow and her family for having intruded on their grief.” Said actress turned Labour MP Glenda Jackson, Downing Street’s communications operation is out of control and it knows no “bounds of disgust.”
There’s nothing original about the observation that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics,” and there’s no likelihood that we’ll ever run out of examples. One recent instance involves a faith-based initiative designed to help prisoners turn around their lives, hailed by the White House, The Wall Street Journal, and Christian conservatives after a study showed it a success. The InnerChange Freedom Initiative says its graduates have been rearrested and reimprisoned at dramatically lower rates than a matched control group. The Journal smugly accused critics of faith-based programs for “turning a blind eye to science” by opposing InnerChange, after reports showed its graduates were much less likely to reoffend than members of the control group. But a closer look at the numbers shows participants did somewhat worse than the controls: They were slightly more likely to be rearrested and noticeably more likely (24 percent versus 20 percent) to be reimprisoned. Supporters of the program turned the numbers on their head by counting only graduates. As Slate’s Mark Kleiman reports, “InnerChange started with 177 volunteer prisoners but only 75 of them “graduated.” Graduation involved sticking with the program, not only in prison but after release. No one counted as a graduate, for example, unless he got a job. Naturally, the graduates did better than the control group. Anything that selects out from a group of ex-inmates those who hold jobs is going to look like a miracle cure, because getting a job is among the very best predictors of staying out of trouble.”
In a similar vein, Salon looks at the “faith-based” science guiding the White House environmental policy. Apparently the only two "scientists" in the world who still question whether global warming is real are driving the agenda. Presumably, biological and medical decisions will soon be made by people who believe in creationism and historical analysis will be conducted by Holocaust deniers.
But the junk science perpetrated by the White House is apparently not junky enough for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry group that claims global warming poses no significant risks. In a suit challenging the administration’s National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, a region-by-region analysis of likely impacts of rising temperatures, the group claims it violates the Federal Data Quality Act, a law enacted that year that requires information disseminated by the government to pass standards for objectivity, quality, and utility.
Celebrating the President’s recent publicity stunt in Iraq, landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier to celebrate the “end” of the war in Iraq, KBToys has launched an action figure of the President called “Elite Force Aviator.” No word on whether the doll will mysteriously disappear when called up to serve in the National Guard or challenge enemies to “bring it on” while safely ensconced behind a desk.
Is this guerrilla marketing, or mere opportunism? One thing’s for sure, Slate’s Rob Walker doesn’t believe shoemaker Puma’s claims to be an outraged victim of an Internet spoof. Walker describes the ad as follows: “A photograph of a young woman in a short skirt, on her knees in front of a standing man; the picture is cropped at the woman’s shoulders, so you can’t see exactly what’s going on, but you can see enough to make a good guess. Also, some creamy liquid seems to have dripped onto the woman’s thigh. Both she and the man are wearing Puma sneakers. There’s also a Puma bag in the foreground, and a Puma logo in the corner. The image looks like a Puma ad.” Given that sex sells, many viewers assumed the ad was real, but Puma says not, and has sent out cease and desist letters to sites that show the ad. “Did Puma make a mistake by resorting to heavy-handed squelch tactics? If it really wanted these images to fade quickly, then yes.” But Walker thinks the folks at Puma might be crazy like the proverbial fox, speculating that “the whole episode was actually engineered by Puma—a form of super-devious “subviral marketing”—and its denials and threats are all part of a scheme to keep the buzz going.
Wasn’t it William Bennett who asked, about President Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes, “Where’s the outrage?” Now liberal commentators are asking the same about a remark by right-wing demagogue Bill O’Reilly, who had been asked to emcee an even honoring the “Best Men,” the sixth-to-eighth-grade boys in a program for Washington’s inner-city schoolchildren. When the Best Men were late coming to the stage, Bennett quipped: “"Does anyone know where the Best Men are? I hope they're not in the parking lot stealing our hubcaps.” The Washington Post quotes an attendee: “To say that this conservative audience— dominated undoubtedly by many of Mr. O'Reilly's biggest fans—was aghast, is an understatement.” One of the first to spring to O’Reilly’s defense was Bennett’s wife, Elayne. Consensual sex is outrageous, spewing racist nonsense is just fine.
American companies operating overseas face some interesting challenges right now. Anti-American sentiment has never been higher. But writing in The Wall Street Journal Charles Stith, director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center, and former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, has some good advice: “To keep from getting caught in the crossfire, companies are going to need to practice what I call ‘preemptive positioning.’ Tactically, a company must cultivate the sort of bilateral and multilateral relations that enables it to effectively communicate its intentions and interests as a corporate citizen. Image is always an important factor in profitability and even more so now. Companies must become more adept at not only managing their risks globally but also interpreting their interests globally.” Corporate philanthropy is an important component of preemptive positioning, Stith says. “Companies can no longer afford the traditional conservative approach to corporate citizenship that has worked in the domestic marketplace. Companies must look for institutions and initiatives which position them to express a commitment to those values—freedom and opportunity—that accentuate the positive influence they represent in the global community.”
Michael Wolff, a writer for the New Yorker, gained notoriety when he dared to ask the U.S. General responsible for briefing reporters in Qatar a question that suggested the whole process was being stage-managed. In an article for the U.K.’s Guardian, he describes the congratulations he got from his fellow reporters—most of whom were too worried about jeopardizing their cozy relationship with the Pentagon’s PR people to say anything themselves—about the torrent of hate mail he received, and about the reaction of Bush administration officials: “The next person to buttonhole me was the Centcom uber-civilian, a thirty-ish Republican operative. He was more full-metal-jacket in his approach (although he was a civilian he was, inexplicably, in uniform… ‘A lot of people don’t like you.’ And then: ‘Don’t fuck with things you don’t understand.’ And too: ‘This is fucking war, asshole.’ And finally: ‘No more questions for you.’” That's what happens when you ask to look behind the curtain. “You’ve met the Hitler youth,” another reporter told him.
Ad Age reports that WE Network, one of the 250 or so cable channels dedicated to women’s issues is launching a new show, Full Frontal Fashion with the support of L’Oreal, which is being described as “an integrated sponsor.” “They are a rather large sponsor. They own quite a lot of inventory in the show. And we are doing a segment with their stylists,” says Liz Koman, senior vice president of ad sales for Rainbow Media’s WE Network.
Everyone found it hilariously funny when the Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf claimed there were no American troops in the city of Baghdad, raising his voice over the sound of gunfire and rumbling tanks. So how come no one poked the same kind of fun at Donald Rumsfeld this weekend after he claimed television stations were showing the same footage over and over again “of some person walking out of a building with a vase.” Sure, Rumsfeld wasn’t actually on the scene, but all he had to do was flip the channel and he would have seen, as the rest of us did, looting of museums, libraries, even hospitals. Added Rumsfeld, “Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” No word yet on when those freedoms—known elsewhere in the world as anarchy—will be extended to the U.S.
This probably isn’t a good time to get tagged as unpatriotic, so companies that have recently moved their headquarters offshore as a way of dodging U.S. taxes should monitor this story very closely. A group of taxpayer and citizen organizations calling itself The Bermuda Project is running ads to pressure Congress to pass legislation to stop companies from moving to offshore tax havens. “In the sands of Iraq, our soldiers risk their lives for our country,” says a voiceover. “At the same time, big corporations are abandoning our country and setting up phony tax shelters in the sands of Bermuda.” Interesting note: the ads are funded by Working Assets, a telecommunications company that donates profits to good causes.
Former Reagan aide Dale Petroskey wasn’t introducing politics into the Hall of Fame when he disinvited (item below) liberal activists Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins from an event to celebrate Bull Durham—he was trying to keep politics out. That at least is his explanation, after the move prompted controversy. He says he was worried that the actors would use the forum to speak out against the war, an explanation that is—to quote an old English comedy sketch—“a transparent tissue of odious lies.” First, it might have been simpler to simply ask them not to comment, although Petroskey acknowledges he made no attempt to contact them before his announcement. Second, Petroskey’s line about putting U.S. troops in harm’s way did not sound like a non-partisan attempt at defusing the debate. And third, if Petroskey wants to keep politics out of Cooperstown, he’s a recent convert to that philosophy, as this press release—inviting White House propagandist Ari Fleischer to speak—shows.
Scholar and baseball fan Gerald Early once observed that “there are only three things that America will be known for 2,000 years from now: the Constitution, jazz music and baseball.” The last of those things demonstrated its contempt for the first this week, when the Baseball Hall of Fame (run by former Reagan administration press secretary Dale Petroskey) decided it didn’t agree with recent remarks by actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon and so canceled an event to celebrate the movie Bull Durham, in which the pair appeared. In a letter to Robbins, Petroskey argued that by criticizing the president, Robbins “ultimately could put our troops in even more danger,” a notion that belongs in the Speciousness Hall of Fame.
Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi Ari Fleischer, has become something of a cult figure in the last days of the war, as his pronouncements became more and more obviously disconnected from the truth. In this Slate article, several industry experts—including Leslie Dach and Frank Mankiewicz—offer their observations on the representative of the crumbling regime, including this from one from Mike McCurry: “I’m sure the poor guy has to do this because someone's going to shoot him if he doesn’t. At least I never had that problem.” Meanwhile, The Guardian reports you can now buy T-shirts commemorating al-Sahhaf's special brand of public relations.
Okay, stay with me on this…. Tyco has asked a federal judge to dismiss securities fraud claims against the company, arguing that it was the victim, not the perpetrator of the fraud. “Tyco is the victim, not the perpetrator, of executive misdeeds,” according to a dismissal motion filed last week by Tyco lawyers in U.S. District Court in New Hampshire and quoted by Reuters. According to this novel theory, the company has no responsibility for the actions of its CEO. By that theory, Exxon was a victim, not the perpetrator of the Valdez spill, because the captain of the ship lost all the company’s oil. Corporate Babble, as always, has a pithy observation.
This has to be the creepiest page on the Internet. Ari Fleischer, spinmeister general of the Bush administration, has his own fansite. Sample kudos: “Hi Ari, You are so damned hot... And smart, too!” “Ari represents the informed and intellectual approach we should all have in this war.” “He handles the press with so much style. Also, he is ‘one’ fine looking man.” (Not sure why there are quotation makes around “one”—is Ari really identical triplets, rotated in and out of service?) “Even my husband knows of the crush I have had on Ari and I finally now know I am not alone. There are others who see the poise, intelligence, patience and underlying virtue that I do!”
“But we wanted you to tell people how bad our products are for them without saying anything negative about us.” R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, seeking an injunction halting some of California’s Prop 99 anti-tobacco advertising. The lawsuit alleges that California’s ads are a misuse of taxpayer funds, violate the companies’ constitutional rights, and have a prejudicial effect on potential jurors who might be empanelled in lawsuits related to smoking. “Reynolds and Lorillard have no objection to ads intended for tobacco-related health education,” says a shill for RJR. “However, the state of California has taken it upon itself to essentially re-write Prop 99 and direct taxpayer dollars for uses the voters did not approve; namely, to attack legitimate businesses and their employees.”
Remember when Hewlett-Packard was a leader, a progressive company run for the benefit of its stakeholders rather than its management team? So does Lex, columnist for The Financial Times (subscription required), who obviously hasn’t been keeping up with current events, because he seems surprised that HP flunked its opportunity to take a leadership position on corporate governance issues. “The board may have narrowly won the vote against mandatory options expensing, but such accounting policies will eventually happen, and HP could have set an example,” says Lex. Similarly, the board opposed a measure that would oblige it to ask for shareholder approval to set up a new poison pill scheme (it lost).”
One of the best sites—and certainly the most salutary—for public relations people is Corporate Babble, which tends to find two or three examples of corporate double-speak each week worthy of its mockery. This week, Corporate Babble is taking on Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, which pulled what the site called the "Friday Night Slight," announcing it would not be joining the other big firms in separating their accounting and consulting practices. (Pulling the Friday Night Slight in the middle or war is an impressive twofer.) The Babble’s cartoon says it better than we could: “Yes, we considered doing the right thing like the other big accounting firms. But our rigorous analysis revealed it would not really be convenient for us right now.” Of course, any U.S. firm using DTT as its auditor is going to stink worse than Andersen clients did a year ago.
Philip Morris, victim of its own PR. The cigarette giant is “being buried under a growing mountain of litigation,” says the BBC, reporting that the company may have to file for bankruptcy because it is neither willing nor able to pay a $12 billion bond demanded by a court as part of a smokers’ lawsuit. The company is being sued not because its cigarettes were harmful, but because it lied about how harmful they were: the case involves misleading smokers into thinking its “light” cigarettes were less harmful than regular brands. There was always a perfectly sound and ethical argument to be made for selling cigarettes, but it revolved around the idea of informed consent. Unfortunately, misinformed consent doesn’t count, and Philip Morris was addicted to misinformation. Like we always say, it’s not the crisis—it’s the cover up that gets you.
The Onion, as always, asks the question that has been on all our minds: “What good is our right to free speech if our soldiers are too demoralized to defend th