By letterhead | February 22, 2010
If you want to see how future national policy wars will be fought, then keep your eye on Coca-Cola Company and the American Beverage Association. Over the next few years sugar will become the new tobacco – even as they try to quash the movement before it gets going.
"Fructose has nothing to do with obesity" is shaping up to be the "cigarettes don't cause cancer" debate for the 21st Century. Battle lines have been drawn; the fighting has started; the idea of a sugar tax has been getting more and more attention (in CA, NY, MA, MS, among others); and now that the First Lady has made obesity a national issue (calling out high-fructose corn syrup [HFCS] by name), the fighting will only get more intense.
Here we have a terrific case study in the making: the anatomy of a true 21st Century national PR/policy campaign (FYI… the bit about Coke comes at the end):
First Step: Fill The Coffers
The American Beverage Association, one of the primary conduits of sugar into the American bloodstream, is amassing a war chest that's unprecedented in its history.
Last year its lobbying budget swelled from a modest $1 million a year in 2006, 2007, 2008, all the way up to an eye-popping $20 million for FY 2009, with $17 million of that coming in the period October 2009 through January 2010. (According to the U.S. Senate LDA disclosure database.)
What are they getting ready for? All out war.
Step Two: Craft Your Messages
The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) made a good start with its “Sweet Surprise” website and ad campaign. The campaign tells us that high-fructose corn syrup is no worse for you than sugar. Which is like saying heroin is no more addictive than cocaine. But hooray for the effort at clarification.
And while corn refiners were busy on the biochemistry front, the American Beverage Association took a different tack. They added the tax issue to the "education" effort. Their message is that you can't tax people into better health. That's the role of education… helping people make better, smarter choices.
Seems like a reasonable position until you recognize that if the corn refiners succeed in their propaganda war, then refined sugar will remain ubiquitous and "educated" people will still make the same bad choices as before. See how nicely those two initiatives fit together?
The two-pronged approach is actually quite smart: While the aim of the overall program is to avoid taxation on sugar and sugar-heavy products, that goal can't be achieved unless people believe that sugar isn't bad for you – or at a minimum that it's "not that bad for you."
Without a benign public profile, all those sugar-heavy industries would have lost much of their defense against additional taxation. And with hundreds of industries, trillions of dollars, and millions of jobs on the line, we just can't have that. So…
Step Three: "Educate"
Part A of the education program is getting your key representatives out there to talk up your messages. Like this webinar by President of the Corn Refiners Association Audrae Erickson, which is currently up on the website of Supply Side,one of the largest trade shows for the food additives industry (registration required). The goal is to leverage self-interest to recruit key supporters to the cause.
Part B is to get a Spokes-Guru. It appears that the corn refiners have gotten themselves a guy by the name of John S. White, an industry consultant who does business as White Technical Research and brings over 20 of experience in "nutritive sweeteners." (He co-hosted the webinar with Ms. Erickson.) Expect to see a lot of Mr. White blogging, writing articles, lecturing, appearing at government hearings and on TV morning shows as an "independent" analyst.
Part C is to have a whole book of half-true talking points that you can use to coax or cudgel your audience – as required.
Messages like "a calorie is a calorie." In energy content yes. But not metabolically. A calorie of glucose metabolizes differently and in different parts of the body than fructose, with very different results.
Step Four: AstroTurf
The Beverage folks are spearheading an effort called Americans Against Food Taxes, at the charmingly named URL "nofoodtaxes.com." According to the group's profile on the site:
Americans Against Food Taxes is a coalition of concerned citizens – responsible individuals, financially strapped families, small and large businesses in communities across the country – opposed to the Government's proposed tax hike on food and beverages, including soda, juice drinks, and flavored milks. The coalition has twin primary aims: 1) To promote a healthy economy and healthy lifestyles by educating Americans about smart solutions that rely upon science, economic realities and common sense; and 2) To prevent the enactment of this regressive and discriminatory tax that will not teach our children how to have a healthy lifestyle, and will have no meaningful impact on child behavior or public health, but will have a negative impact on American families struggling in this economy.
"A coalition of concerned citizens." Doesn't that sound so… grassrootsy? And if that's not enough, check out these background images lifted from the site:
Not a fat kid in the bunch. All beautiful white teeth. Great skin. Presumably they guzzle soda all day, and still they all look like the pretty, carefree, all-American teenager we all want to be.
And speaking of non-pimply teens… why is an anti-taxation website targeting 14-19 year olds? Because the Beverage Association believes 14-19 year olds are experts on tax policy? Because they're the next generation of Alex P. Keatons? Hell no. It's because kids are the primary market for soda and other sweetened drinks.
In reality — despite the fact that "big companies" comes last on their list of "concerned citizens — this AstroTurf group is bankrolled by more than 400 of the biggest names in food production and distribution, including:
- National Association of Convenience Stores
- Corn Refiners Association
- American Beverage Association
- Grocery Manufacturers Association
- National Supermarkets Association
- Florida Chamber of Commerce
- Georgia Agribusiness Council
- National Association of Theater Owners
- National Retail Federation
It even includes these unlikely groups:
U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Federation, Hispanic Institute, The Hispanic Media Council, National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, National Hispanic Leadership Agenda…
Even the National Hispanic Medical Association! A medical association? Really?
How on earth did a medical association get behind a campaign to defend our kids' right to guzzle sugar? This is where we get to the part about The Coca-Cola Company.
Step Five: Mobilize Your "Communities"
Coca-Cola invests millions in Social Media. The company is so far ahead of the curve that it's getting top billing at this week's Ragan Communication's Social Media Conference and is even hosting the event at its Atlanta headquarters. (Feb 22-24).
And this, I believe, is going to be the most interesting part of the policy debate to watch: the Social Media mobilization. It will be the first real test of a corporation's ability to use social media PR not to sell product, but to mount a substantive defense of its business in a bare-knuckled policy fight.
Which brings us to the Hispanic Medical Association… this article from the L.A. Times reports that as part of its "minority marketing" efforts, Coke gives money to a lot of the Latin organizations mentioned above and even has executives on some of their Boards.
And a reporter from MinnPost confirmed with the LAT reporter that something got left out of his story: Bill Clinton spoke out against the sugar tax, but when the reporter checked the donor list for the Clinton Foundation: he found that Coke had given $5 million. Coke is even getting its workers into the act – protesting local sugar taxes.
Yeah so what. Most of this is old hat. No? Well, it is and it isn't.
Back in 2007, the head of Coke's PR department gave a presentation to the Georgia Chapter of the PR Society of America. In that presentation he showed the following graphic. (via O'Dwyer's, subscription required)
The key thing that's different today is that Social Media PR will give Coke the tools necessary to unite and mobilize all of its "communities" in business, government and civil society all at once in ways that "marketers" never imagined: as a PR army focused on fending off a threat to its business.
It will take the form of Facebook and Twitter and MySpace; contests, pages, groups, petitions, ringtones, and iPhone apps; it will be micro-targeted regionally, by age, by employment, by product preference, and by lifestyle choices like recreations and hobbies.
In short: this engine was built for marketing products. But now, it is about to be geared up and mobilized for another purpose: war. Specifically, to protect the profit interests of the corporation and maintain a business model that is potentially harmful to the "communities" that will be defending it.
The nofoodtax website has a few Social Media tools, but it pales in comparison to what a pioneer like Coke brings to the effort… not to mention Pepsi. From a PR point of view it will be a fascinating thing to watch.
If you're a parent worried about your obese pre-diabetic teenager… I'd have to imagine it'll be infuriating.
A Sugar Addict Confesses
sugar skulls by aliciapolicia.blogspot.com
I am a sugar addict. I love the stuff. Can't get enough of it. Takes all my willpower to walk past the dessert tray in the company cafeteria. I tend to cycle up and down and am currently about 180 pounds at 5'10" tall. This is my tipping point. The pants are a bit tight. The face feels a bit fleshy around the jowls… All the warning signs that I'm about to pork out. And yes even with a regular work-out routine and diet of mostly whole foods, sugar still does me in. (Could it be the eggs, butter and flour that the sugar is packaged with? You think?)
And yes, I love Coke. A big frosty glass of Coke with loads of ice. I like to wait until it's so cold it's almost frozen. And then I take little sips. Letting the caramel taste wash over my tongue before I let it slide down. So freakin' delicious.
But I also know it's a potential killer. I say "potential" because there are a lot of caveats to that statement. To get an idea of the content and temperature of the debate, do two things:
- Watch this video (link)… in which Dr. Lustig makes a pretty compelling case that the metabolic pathways for fructose can create exactly the physiological effects that are the hallmarks of metabolic syndrome. (It's about 90 minutes)
- Then read this post AND all the comments (link). In the comments Mr. Aragon debates Lustig. And Aragon makes a pretty compelling case that despite the chemistry, clinical research has yet to make a causative link between fructose and obesity. (Took me about 1 hour to read all the comments)
Notwithstanding the histrionics, both camps seem to agree on a couple of key points: the health effects of fructose are dose and context dependent; and excessive consumption of refined fructose really is bad for you.
So a few cents extra to make me think twice before I slug down a 16-ouncer is probably a very good thing. And if you don't drink soda then why the hell do you care if I'm paying a few cents extra in tax?
And if it makes soda more expensive, and kids drink less of it, isn't that the whole point? Foes of the tax need to explain how it's a "burden" on families to drink water and eat fresh fruit, as opposed to buying expensive sodas and sugar-laden, over-processed foods in a box. How can reducing sickness and healthcare costs be a burden?
Who's Lobbying for You? Mobilize Yourself!
And this is why a Social Media PR campaign on sugar will be so interesting to watch. All our incentive is to eat less refined fructose. Food companies have no such incentive. All their incentive is to get us to eat more of it.
To food companies, refined fructose (especially HFCS) is an important competitive advantage, in terms of taste, texture, shelf life, cost, among other things. It helps them sell. That's why they want to put more of it in more products, to get you to buy more of those products today than you did yesterday, last week, last month, last year. It's how they grow revenues and profits and generate returns for shareholders.
Their goals are to sell more and keep barriers at bay.
And to the latter point, Coke works with power-player Glover Park Group (GPG), a "strategic communications" firm in DC. It's no coincidence they picked GPG, which has had two consecutive assignments with the Grocery Manufacturers Association on ethanol… GPG knows corn.. and the Senators that support it!
For their part, the Corn Refiners have retained a lobbying firm called DTB Associates. Their home page explains what they do:
We are committed to helping our clients find and use the most effective legal, lobbying, or negotiating tools to respond to whatever obstacles stand in the way of achieving their objectives in the global marketplace.
The goal of food companies in the "global marketplace" is to sell more product, and if it takes more refined sugar to do that, then that's what they'll do.
It's why corn refiners want to sell you sugar… grocery stores want to sell you sugar… beverage makers want to sell you sugar… bakers and cereal makers and dairy producers and convenience store owners and Burger King and the Hospitality Association and vending machine operators and movie theaters owners… they all want to sell you sugar… as much of it as you'll eat.
Preferably a hell-of-a-lot more than you need. And preferably in food that you don't even know it's there. That's their goal in the "global marketplace" and they're not going to let any "obstacle" stand in their way, not even your health.
Will they be successful in harnessing Social Media PR to get customers (who should be eating less sugar) to mobilize in "communities" in defense of companies who want customers to do just the opposite and eat more sugar?
We'll come back to this in 12 months or so and deconstruct it.
In the meantime, when you get hit up to participate in a fructose community mobilization, before you dive in, ask yourself: when it comes to the negative effects of sugar on your health… Who's really lobbying for your interests? Coke?
By letterhead | February 1, 2010
National debates – like healthcare and financial reform – tend to focus on the big concepts, big ideas, and big fixes. What gets lost, unfortunately are all the small, cumulative causes of the original problem.
That’s unfortunate because the causes are too often tied to our own behavior and choices. Choices that are too often tied to flawed thinking, which is influenced by… (more than we’d like to admit)…. PR.
Take this latest news from the PR front (via O’Dwyer’s/subscription required)… Facial plastic surgeons are looking to hire a PR firm to give their image a facelift:
“The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery is looking for a PR firm to handle its $11K a-month budget to promote its specialty within organized medicine. The 2,800-member group is circulating an RFP to generate positive media coverage in ‘health and beauty venues.’
“The AAFPRS wants a PR firm to develop story ‘hooks,’ pitch ideas, promote meetings, arrange a media tour/day in New York City with at least eight interviews for the national beauty/health print and broadcast media.”
OK ladies… (84% of facial plastic surgery patients are women)… expect to see lots of inspiring stories in the next 6 to 12 months about successful surgeries that helped so many people live more fulfilling lives.
Expect to see heartwarming stories of service men and women returning from the Middle East who received (truly) needed reconstructions. The home page of the AAFPRS website features the organization’s “FACES OF HONOR” program, offering subsidized treatment for those coming home from war.
There’s Nothing Wrong With That
First: The AAFPRS “Faces of Honor” program is admirable and deserving of support… only a heartless fool would claim otherwise.
And yes, just like any other businesspeople, plastic surgeons should be free to market themselves.
And yes again, their credentials are indeed impressive. The focus of the campaign is the extent of AAFPRS members’ training – i.e., according to the group, its members are “equipped with ‘more comprehensive training in facial surgery’ [face, head and neck] than other doctors who deal with the whole body.”
And yes, furthermore, their clients should be free to pursue any and all efforts at self-improvement. Freedom to choose smaller noses, fuller lips, pinned back ears, or deeper eyelid creases.
All wonderful. All true
Does This Look Like You?
But there are other dimensions of truth to be considered.
The biggest one is that plastic surgery, like any business, has a product to sell… And according to the group’s own statistics (download PDF), plastic surgeons are primarily selling to white women between 35 and 60 – almost half of whom (48%) are repeat customers.
There are also some truly… um… “interesting” categories among the group’s patient trends… categories noteworthy enough to call out in their study:
- “cosmetic surgeries to remain competitive in the workplace” (someone call Oprah!)
- "teens undergoing cosmetic surgery” (someone call Child Services!)
- “plastic surgery as a gift” (is that supposed to be a compliment?)
- “mothers/daughters undergoing plastic surgery together” (someone call Maury Povich!)
The vast majority of patients are not war veterans, or horribly congenitally disfigured, or accident victims in need of life-saving treatment.
All those extreme – and in some cases truly heartbreaking – stories paraded before you in the media are put out there with a deliberate purpose: to make you think of plastic surgeons in the kind of heroic, safe, empowering way that encourages you to: 1) trust them, and 2) open your purses to shell out thousands of dollars… all while feeling positively WONDERFUL about it!
In short: it’s PR. It’s a sales tool. And strictly from a commercial point of view, that kind of marketing program is a failure if it doesn’t sell the product. In this case, if it doesn’t get you into the doctor’s office and into a treatment chair… or onto a table with an I.V. in your arm. Assuming you’re predisposed to doing so. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. If you got the money and you want it… more power to you. Make sure you pick a good one.)
But What’s The Long-Term Prognosis?
Effective PR has a kind of mind-bending quality to it. It sort of “softens you up” without your even realizing it. You see an inspiring story on Oprah one day. Then, a few weeks later you might see a story on the local news, or in the local paper. You start looking at yourself differently in the mirror. Then a friend twitters you about some awesome new product/procedure. (And she gets compensated for “word of mouth marketing.”) And one day you get a coupon in the mail and figure… “What the heck. Those wrinkles do make me look kinda old.”
“And you know what… my house could use a sprucing up. All the papers say that my house is my best investment. And the market is on fire! A home equity line sounds like just the thing. And with my credit score so low I’m lucky they offered me such a great deal. So I might as well take a vacation, too, while I can get the cash… because you just have to get a ticket before prices go up!”
And that’s how disasters happen.
We are more impressionable than we like to think. And PR people count on this slow drip-drip-drip of impressions to add up to a wholesale change in thinking.
The High Cost of Low-Brow Thinking
For example, take the topic of “healthcare.” Our national debate isn’t really about either. We’re not talking about health + care; the issue is really medicine + insurance. There’s a big difference.
Put it this way: You may think your thin eyelashes are a horrible curse that’s ruining your life, but sorry, you don’t need medicine. Even if there is a drug for it. And a celebrity spokesmodel to sell you on it. Really, it’s a lifestyle, self-esteem thing.
And that’s the problem.
Thanks to decades of whiz-bang PR, our perception of “healthcare” has become so skewed that it now occupies an entire constellation of important, urgent, and very emotional “quality of life” and self-esteem choices, to which the industry’s ever-more-expensive products and services are indispensable.
Natasha Singer has a good piece in the NY Times on the trend toward the medicalization of everything:
“Creating a blockbuster quality-of-life drug… sometimes requires a drug maker to create and market a whole new category of disease.
“The template goes something like this: Start with a legitimate quality-of-life issue — like fitful sleep or shyness — that does not yet have its own prescription medication and is debilitating to a few people a lot of the time. Next, position the quality-of-life issue as a medical condition with symptoms so common it covers vast numbers of people who had previously not identified themselves as having a health problem, or who thought they were just experiencing an occasional and normal annoyance.”
I Had Cancer… I Know “Healthcare”
And as a cancer survivor, trust me, I know the reality of medicine + insurance.
From this experience I learned that “medicine + insurance” is NOT the same thing as “caring for your health.” The latter involves a whole lot of lifestyle choices that have nothing to do with buying medicine or seeing doctors. (Paging Dr. Ornish!)
But these days we make all kinds of momentous decisions based on a warped, emotional, medicalized idea of “healthcare” — public policy decisions, national economic decisions, family decisions, and personal medical decisions. And our solutions reflect our bias, recalling the old saw that “To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.”
Lots of things that could be solved without buying medicine or paying doctors have become co-opted as “healthcare” issues… overburdening the system, adding to the cost, and generally diverting our sense of personal responsibility about things that we want to believe can be fixed by a guy in a white coat offering an orange bottle full of pills.
Patient Heal Thyself
The root of the problem isn’t that there’s a cabal of corrupt healthcare evildoers out there seeking to control your mind. It’s really just thousands of big companies and small medical businesses all trying to sell you stuff and eke out a profit. All pitching the same line, that “healthcare” is more about spending than doing.
But their sales pitch only works if you think a certain way and see things in a certain way – more specifically, THEIR way – which leads you to pick them and their products over other choices. That’s where PR comes in. As much as PR people hate the word, it really is “spin.”
If you don’t believe in it at some level, then you won’t buy it… no matter what the magazine or TV advertisement says. So when it comes to the “healthcare” debate, or a whole lot of other debates on important issues, do yourself a favor and inoculate yourself with a radical old idea, updated for the modern era. Instead of “Buyer Beware”… tell yourself this: “Believer Beware.”
Constantly ask yourself: Who wants me to think this way, and see things this way… and why? What do they gain from my believing this picture they're painting… and from the choices I make based on my believing it?
It might be painful initially, but trust me; the treatment has unarguable long-term benefits.
By letterhead | January 19, 2010
Sometimes a story just sticks with you. Such is the crazy and amusing story of Dana Perino – Bush’s White House House Press Secretary – who admitted she had no idea what the Cuban Missile Crisis was. She asked: “Wasn’t that, like, the Bay of Pigs thing?
Here was the spokesperson for the “leader of the free world,” as she unceasingly called her boss… (a boss involved in two counterinsurgency wars)… and yet she knew nothing about JFK’s anti-communist counterinsurgency program that nearly provoked a nuclear war within windsurfing distance of Miami Beach.
Then, in a move of shock and awe (surely designed to pander to the Right Wing that has been so incredibly helpful to him in the last 12 months) President Obama nominated Ms. Perino to the Broadcasting Board of Governors. So that she can manage our message to the rest of the world.
Plenty of people have, and will, catalogue Perino’s many sins of flackery, beyond her ignorance of ancient history. So I won’t do it here except to mention one, which Rachel Weiner picked up a few weeks back: Perino apparently claimed that “We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term.”
But It Sounds So (In)Credible
As long as you say it with conviction, it doesn’t have to be true. That’s the mantra of the “expert inexpert,” who in so many areas of public and business life seems to be ruling the roost.
The expert inexpert is quite common among the pundit class. Consider this example from conserva-pundit Michael Smerconish. He’d just returned from a CENTCOM embed when he wrote:
“I have done thousands of hours of talk radio, and written numerous columns and two books about the war on terror, but never before had I seen it being waged.”
Holy crap on a cracker. It’s enough to make your head spin. Thousands of hours of radio? Two books?… But he’d never before seen it waged?
Well then…. what the #@%! was he going on about?! What was the basis of all those thousand of hours… and hundreds of pages of opinions? Navel lint? Maybe naval lint?
And consider this story from several years back, about a 22-year old computer science undergrad from Stanford:
[Andrew] Mo begins work in the fall as a management consultant with The Boston Consulting Group, helping to lead projects at multinational companies…
"A consulting job injects you into companies at a higher level," he said. "You don't feel like you're doing basic stuff."
OK kid. First of all, you’re 22 years old. You should be doing basic stuff. Most of the world turns on “basic stuff.” Most people live their lives doing, thinking, eating, making, and buying basic stuff. And you don’t get to boss people around until you’ve done some basic stuff yourself.
Learn it. It will serve you well grasshopper when you’re trying to motivate them to “operationalize the re-branded SixSigma, optimized, global right-sizing paradigm.”
The Un-spokesman: Heck of a Job… Whatsyourname
The issue with the Perino Conundrum, as I call it, goes far beyond the tyranny of authoritative-sounding inexperts in high places – e.g., “Heck of a job Brownie.” Brownie was hardly an expert at anything.
The problem is that lots of folks who have become expert at something very narrow and tactical think it qualifies them to subsume everything larger under their purview – e.g., putting kindergartners in Brooks Brothers suits and calling them “consultants.”
The problem with PR, specifically, is that PR’s expert inexperts dominate public debate on many of the nation’s most crucial issues. And their tactical demands for winning – indeed their undeniable expertise in winning – is squeezing quality, substance and nuance from all public debate.
As people like Perino continue to float to the top, it is only getting worse. She was recently hired by Mark Penn… of “Hillary for President” polling fame… to be something called a “chief issues counselor” for Burson Marsteller, one of the world’s biggest and best-connected PR firms. (WSJ take here. Wonkette’s ribald take here…. it’s short and hilarious and worth the 10 seconds to read.)
Perino and Penn, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. The autocratic, control-the-story-at-all-costs approach to “communications” has taken hold all down the PR food chain. As far down as local city government.
Check out this op-ed in the Springfield News Leader from Bob Priddy, news director at a local web-based outlet called Missourinet:
The rise of the official spokesmen, spokeswomen, spokespersons, spokesones — pick the one that works best for you — for state government agencies is becoming more pervasive and more oppressive with each administration in Jefferson City.
It too often reaches a point where reporters are refused opportunities to speak to those in state government who are most knowledgeable about a subject, policy or issue.
At least Priddy got to name a spokesperson in his piece. Seattle Times reporter Jonathan Martin got the cold shoulder from a ghost… whom he calls an “un-spokesman:”
“In response to a request to talk with [T-Mobile] CEO Robert Dotson and other executives this week, I got an email back from the PR firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide that ended with a strange request: ‘Please note that if you plan to use this statement in your piece, I am not a T-Mobile spokesperson and to use my name would be inaccurate.’”
Martin says: “To be clear, the statement is from a ‘T-Mobile spokesperson,’ but the spokesperson has no name, and saying that the spokesperson does have a name would be ‘inaccurate.’”
In his article, Martin also says that a colleague Craig Welch got the same treatment from a Starbucks flack:
“Thanks again for contacting Starbucks. While I'm not a company spokesperson and should not be quoted, you may use the statement below as background information and attribute directly to a Starbucks spokesperson.”
The Starbucks flack worked for Edelman… another PR global powerhouse… (one that plays the sprawling polyester alter-ego to Burson’s gimlet-eyed, stiff-necked tweediness).
Nameless, Faceless Voices…
When people think of a nameless, faceless voice making inflexible pronouncements from on high, it’s usually coming from Heaven, not from a PR flack’s email account.
But there is a whole army of PR “experts” out there who are expert in nothing except the bare-knuckled tactics of PR. And too often they outright co-opt public discussion… mangling all meaning and content in service to a single narrow aim: institutional control of what you read, see and hear.
In this kind of game, knowledge that doesn’t track with the story line is unnecessary to your job and even unhelpful. You don’t need it cluttering up your brain. Bay of Pigs? Didn’t that, like, happen in the 20th Century or something? Like, who cares?
All the PR “expert” needs to know are the basic tactics of how to promote your story line, or better yet… how to deflect and downplay the story of your opponent:
question their veracity/motives/authenticity/professionalism/patriotism/etc.
- if the matter has been settled, assert that it hasn’t
- your experts are better than their experts
- your facts are better than their facts
- find a credible patsy
- if there isn’t one, say that what matters is moving forward
- imply that you’re a better person
Our public discourse is increasingly at the mercy of such people. (And trust me, they have none.)
No Angels To Save Us
Lest one think that only Conservatives are good at this game, check out David Plouffe on the Daily Show a couple of months back. At about 3:20 in the clip, some kind of switch goes off and Plouffe springs into flack mode, channeling his inner Ari Fleischer. The switch is so pronounced that even Jon Stewart is taken aback.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
In response to Stewart’s needling, Plouffe spews all sorts of inanity as to why Obama can’t get deliver on his soaring rhetoric – the biggest excuse:
“Washington is built to do small things not hard things… political things not tough things.”
Nice soundbite Dave!… Sadly, despite the confident delivery, it’s total B.S.
For starters, if you knew that going in, David, why did you talk incessantly about big, hard, tough things during the campaign? Someone with more intestinal fortitude than I have might be so bold as to say that was cynical.
Wait. No. We won’t ask the hard questions because Washington isn’t built for that. It never does hard things. Ever. Like, say… Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the 19th Amendment giving women the vote, the Voting Rights Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, the GI Bill, the Interstate Highway System, the National Park System… no Washington never does anything hard, or big.
Especially not when there is an incrementalist in the White House whose scope of possibility is limited to what’s politically practical.
Sorry, The Real “Expert” Is Unavailable
Unlike Dana Perino, David Plouffe probably knows all about ancient U.S. history.
What he is counting on is that you don’t, or that you’re not engaged enough (or critical enough) to question his frothy answers. Ultimately his goal is control… first of the message, then of you… your perceptions, understanding, emotional commitment to the President, and ultimately your money and your votes.
On issue after issue, this is the way the game is played. The story line is dominated by tactical PR “experts” and the institutions that pay them – whether those are big companies vying for control of the legislative/regulatory agenda, or local town halls just trying to control the message.
We are fast getting to the point where you can’t ever hear from a real “expert” on anything unless he or she is pre-packaged, pre-approved and edited by some flack, whose only expertise is in flackery.
When we can’t even trust that blogs are authentic any more… Oh what kind of world are we living in?
An ARMY of Flacks
But this PR skill set is increasingly valued and well-compensated. And when I say an “army” of flacks, I mean it: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are about 300,000 of us in the U.S. today… the equivalent of about 300 battalions… a bit less than three times as many troops now serving in Iraq.
Increasingly, as the profession grows, PR “experts” are infiltrating every nook and cranny of every kind of public and private outfit. You can’t so much as pick up a local community newspaper without suffering a flack attack… assaulted by “messages” and “talking points” attached only to nameless, faceless institutions.
It’s getting so that just leaving your house without a thick shield of skepticism… because wading into any kind of public debate without heavy-duty intellectual armor is likely to end up just like that “Bay of Pigs thing.”
By letterhead | January 12, 2010
Public Relations is a funny business. And when I say “funny” I don’t mean hilarious. I mean the same thing as your grandmother did when she told you to “sit down there and behave and no funny business.”
She was talking about something that used to be called “shenanigans."
Well, the PR business gets up to a lot of shenanigans. One of their favorites is using sponsored “experts” (through independent-sounding Think Tanks, Institutes, and Conferences) to spin public debate.
The most infamous example is the Tobacco Institute. For years, it clouded the national debate on smoking with sponsored “research” (i.e., disinformation) aimed at disproving the link between smoking and cancer… all under the guise of professional science.
Inside the Turret of Alaska’s “Conference” Initiative
The latest entrant in the “sponsored-ideas” derby is Alaska, which announced a $1.5 million, 2-year program to kill polar bears… er… sorry, the stated goal of RFP No. 505 [PDF/subsription required] issued by Alaska’s Legislative Affairs Agency is to:
“… empanel select individuals for an Alaska conference on the Economic Impacts of Endangered Species Act (ESA) and climate change. The conference will address the effects of climate and environmental change on the state for the fiscal years [2009 and 2010].”
They call it a “conference,” and give it an innocuous and objective-sounding goal. But the conclusion foregone: to prevent the Feds from using “climate change” to designate polar bears as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
How do we know? Because the RFP pretty much tells us:
First, they’re hiring a PR firm. Second, applicants have to submit a list of panelists they’d recommend for the “conference.” If you don’t think that’s an attempt to stack the deck with friendlies, then I have a Bridge-to-Nowhere to sell you.
The RFP also states that the legislature is “interested in discovering the best approaches to mitigating economic damage due to ESA listing,” and that they’re “working with other states to propose changes to the ESA.”
So when PR firms are told: “give a brief indication of how the panel debate on the subject would be framed,” [emphasis added] you can bet they’re not looking for a statement of objectivity.
AIG Think Tank Fiasco… Hacking Away at “Transparency”
On the one hand you can’t fault Alaska for a lack of “transparency.” They’ve made it clear what they’re asking for and why: a hack conference to support their economic development agenda.
On the other hand, it makes you wonder why companies, PR people, and even governments bother with these kinds of transparently stilted initiatives in the first place. An editorial in the Anchorage Daily News sums it up:
“The suspicion always is that the backers are looking for data to fit their foregone conclusions and will dismiss data that doesn't… Alaska's battle with the Endangered Species Act will be won or lost in court, on the merits. The state has a case. So do the feds. Having decided to go to court, the state should focus its efforts there, not on a public relations campaign likely to have credibility problems from the start.”
A little over a year ago AIG tried hosing the mud off CEO Hank Greenberg’s reputation with the same lame “Think Tank” strategy. (story here)
They hired a firm called eSapience to start two think tanks. The idea was to give Mr. Hanky independent-looking platforms from which to bloviate… to make him a “visible and highly credible voice about public issues that are completely unrelated to his legal situation.” (via O’Dwyer’s; subscription required)
The program was a failure. Not only did it put a dark cloud over Greenberg, it put an ethics cloud over eSapience principal Richard Schmalensee: how was it that the Dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management was moonlighting and charging up to $1,000 an hour for private advocacy work on a behalf of a failed CEO?
The backlash was ruinous, with eSapience suing for $2 million in unpaid bills and eventually shutting its doors. Though it appears eSapience principals Karen Webster and Richard Schmalensee are running new Boston-based strategy firm called “Market Platform Dynamics.” (Their bios make no mention of AIG or eSapience.)
The $2 Million-Dollar Question: Why Do They Do It?
Why do they do it? To fleece their clients? No. They do it because they get paid millions of dollars to do it. And if it’s not done in such a public and ham-fisted way… it works.
For the right price, and with the right connections and credentials, you can easily buy intellectual influence. eSapience claimed that it could:
“blunt and/or change the conversations that influential people, including public intellectuals, have about the set of issues we are asked.” (via DailyKos; original reporting by TNR and WaPo has been moved or taken down.)
Back in 2007 Ken Silverstein wrote a stunning investigative article for Harper’s investigating just such funny business. I quote from it here at length for two reasons:
1) Because everybody should read it; it should be appended to tax forms and hung on the wall at the Post Office and mailed out with Social Security checks. It’s that important to understanding how the influence game is played: who benefits and how.
2) Because it might move you to subscribe to Harper’s, or at least spend the ten bucks to buy this back issue (July 2007 – article: Their Men in Washington).
Caught Red Handed
The set up:
– Silverstein asked: How is it that America has given so much money and aid to the most heinous regimes on Earth?
– He went under cover to find out… he picked a suitably authoritarian and corrupt regime (Turkmenistan) and created a fictional private investment group of “natural gas” execs (ironic in itself) looking to build a pipeline there.
– He approached influential Washington lobbying firms to see how they would handle this assignment: burnish Turkmenistan’s reputation to help the pipeline deal along.
The PR firm most prominently features in the piece was APCO, and their approach was your typical bait-and-switch:
Tactic #1: Distract by changing the subject: “Energy security” would be the hook that blunts criticism over human rights and financial corruption, and they would sell it hard.
But it also included PR’s dirty little secret… Think Tank marketing:
Tactic #2: Buy intellectual validation for your chosen message: They’d build a “coalition” of allies to talk to the media, specifically “think tank experts and academics.” From Silverstein:
“One possibility, Downen said, would be to hold a forum on U.S.-Turkmen relations, preferably built around a visit to the United States by a Turkmen official. Possible hosts would include The Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations.
“‘Last week I contacted a number of colleagues at think tanks,’ Downen went on. ‘Some real experts could easily be engaged to sponsor or host a public forum or panel that would bring in congressional staff and journalists.’
“The only cost would be refreshments and room rental—Schumacher joked that APCO would bake the cookies to save The Maldon Group a little money—and [it] could yield a tremendous payoff.
“‘If we can get a paper published or a speech at a conference, we can get a friendly member of Congress to insert that in the Congressional Record and get that printed and send it out,’ Schumacher said. ‘So you take one event and get it multiplied.’
“Another option, he explained, would be to pay Roll Call and The Economist to host a Turkmenistan event. It would be costlier than the think-tank route, perhaps around $25,000, but in compensation we would have tighter control over the proceedings, plus gain ‘the imprimatur of a respected third party.’
“In order that the event not seem like paid advertising, the title for the event should be ‘bigger than your theme,’ Schumacher explained, even as it would be put together in a way ‘that you get your message across.’”
[They suggested generic sounding name like “Energy Security” or “Caspian Basin Pipelines.”]
And of course all of this would bubble up through the press onto your TV screens, and into your newspapers, and it would all be designed to look independent and objective – with “the imprimatur of a respected third party.”
Public speaking is a valuable and worthwhile PR tactic.
I work with a healthcare consultant who is doing unique and truly groundbreaking stuff in patient safety and evidenced-based medicine. She should be speaking at conferences and participating in a wider discussion – not only so her work is recognized, but also so that it’s objectively tested and validated by her peers.
That’s not what this is about. And it’s not even about the work of unabashedly partisan groups and think tanks that wear their bias with pride.
This kind of Think Tank marketing is about co-opting seemingly independent, unaffiliated sources to shill for a hidden agenda… presenting conclusions as if they were arrived at organically through debate rather than as what they are: pre-determined and put forward for the sole benefit of the sponsor.
This was astroturfing before there was a word for it.
Anybody remember the run up to the first Gulf War?… and the front group “Citizens for a free Kuwait” established by PR firm Hill & Knowlton to hold events like “National Free Kuwait Day,” “National Prayer Day” (for Kuwait), and “National Student Information Day?”
The ironic thing about the APCO pitch was that sponsoring a “conference” with an independent outfit like The Economist gives them more control over the agenda, not less. That’s what PR people take advantage of: trust. Their Trojan message is delivered in a trustworthy package, like intellectual malware.
It’s hard to impress upon the reader just how deeply embedded in the PR playbook is this kind of insidious, co-opted message delivery. You, my friends, are swimming in it every day and you don’t even know it. Even if you think you do, you don’t. Not even close.
The worst thing about it, however, isn’t even the dishonesty; it’s the effluvium. After decades of marinating in it, the public has developed a kind of a hard-boiled, resentful skepticism. Their default position is believing that everything is cop-opted surreptitious propaganda. (And you’d be better off with that as your default position than believing its opposite.)
It’s depressing. And the PR profession has a lot to answer for. You know the old saying “caveat emptor?” (Buyer Beware.)
Well our new hyper-cynical millennium might best be summed up with a new and very sad slogan: “Believer Beware.”
That, dear reader, is one of the chief legacies of “professional PR.” And it should give you a shiver, even in thawing Alaska.
Note: Ken Silverstein blogs at Washington Babylon. Read him!
By letterhead | December 7, 2009
No one seems to be dancing to Goldman's tune these days. No matter how hard they crank the 'ole gramophone. But they are trying a new approach, actually publishing dance steps to Goldman's Bonus Hustle… a 14-page presentation on why they make so much damned money.
First though… who's getting the blame for Goldman's missteps? According to Charlie Gasparino it's the highest paid PR guy in the business: Goldman PR chief Lucas Van Praag. (Well… it's hard to say in fact he is the highest paid. Maybe George Sard makes more. But $1 million + probably puts Van Praag close to the top.)
According to the Charlie:
"a much-needed shift in public-relations strategy is in the works, sources close to the firm say"
Hmmm… interesting that this news appeared on the same day that Bulldog Reporter's newsletter (The Daily Dog) reported that Goldman has put out a 14-page slide presentation explaining why its executives deserve to make so much money. And boy is it a dooozy!
DO THE HUSTLE!… THE NEW GOLDMAN DANCE CHART
If this represents the company's "much-needed shift" in PR strategy then it is in big trouble.
The charts and graphs are pretty, if entirely abstruse. Its main point seems to be that Goldman does much better than its peers, which is why its execs get paid more. What it doesn't address are all the issues that people actually have a problem with… like:
– Why does the entire sector suffer from bloated salaries and bonuses?
– Why is your bonus pool so stupendously huge… less than a year after you nearly went bankrupt?
– How did you TRIPLE firm revenues in just three years (2004 – 2007) after five years of relatively flat earnings?
– Could it possibly be that you attached a Hoover to the mortgage and derivatives markets — sucking out tens of billions in earnings and leaving the nation's pockets empty?
THE ZERO-SUM END-GAME
When this game of musical chairs is over, Mr. Van Praag may be without a seat at the Goldman buffet, but my guess would be that Goldman's C-Suite is so hidebound and tin-eared when it comes to reputation risk, that no one could talk sense to them. Even if one dared.
But it does show to go ya, you can bite your tongue in the presence of sr. execs and execute on all their bad ideas to save your job and not rock the boat. But bad ideas are bad ideas and they never work. And the one who ends up executed is you.
The short-term incentive is to shut up and salute. In the long-term it gets you the same place you would have if you'd spoken up and challenged them in the first place.
Kinda makes you think…maybe speaking up and challenging the powerful is worth the risk.
Who knows, you might succeed. At least you can say you tried. And you won't end up the scapegoat for all their bad ideas.
By letterhead | December 6, 2009
It's tough to pinpoint when the PR profession "jumped the shark." But it has, and in spectacular fashion.
Outsiders are seldom privy to the inner workings of the global spin machine. But every once in a while someone leaves the door ajar and you can peer in to see just how twisted are its guts.
Such is the case with newly released documents in the ever-widening Sarah Palin ethics quagmire. Seems that Andree McLeod just won't give up, even if it is all the result of a "falafel fight." Well, 'tis her right. And accrues to our benefit.
Take the recent emails she unearthed. (Posted by Sam Stein on HuffPo)
Get the Pepto-Bismol ready and then read the following. It's from an internal email, from one of Palin's communications staffers, asking the campaign for clarification about what the candidate believes:
"On abortion, she is pro-life, but does she oppose exceptions for rape and incest? On sex education, does she favor an abstinence-only approach or does she allow for contraceptives?"
Here is one
PR staffer flack asking another PR staffer flack to tell him exactly what Palin is supposed to believe. At least, in public.
This is how the game works folks. In black and white. Couldn't be any clearer. Many of Sarah's supposedly deeply held ideas about the moral issues of the day are a confection.
In reality, most public "messages" and images are manufactured to achieve a specific goal, and very rarely are: 1) the messages true to the speaker, and 2) the stated goal of the speaker and her true goal one and the same.
All the feigned certitude by politicians and business scions is just that, feigned with an institutional purpose. All thanks to the "conscience" of the world: its highly paid flack army.
CANONIZING SAINT STALIN, FOR A HEFTY RETAINER FEE
Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter recently reported that Russia hired a PR firm to rehabilitate the reputation of one Josef Stalin. Yes, that one: he of the ruthless, repressive, dictatorial 30-year reign. He of the Great Purge, and Gulags, and secret Pogroms. 20 million dead. Maybe more… who knows.
According to Eurobserver.com, the program is being run by the state-owned Russian news agency in partnership with a private outfit called RJI Companies… which offers no definition of itself on its website, only that it provides "strategic communications" according to the following ideal:
"In the international game of strategy, winning is the result of global intelligence, expertise, and bold vision. Today, the stakes are higher, the strategies more subtle. With RJI on your team, you bring unparalleled experience, subtlety and integrity to the table."
Interesting that the word "subtle" is the only word (other than "the" and "and") used twice in this short primer. In other words: secret, hush-hush, under-the-radar propaganda. Visit the website and see if its clandestine look and feel doesn't give you the shivers.
Eurobserver reports that RJI has tried to recruit heavy-weight PR firms to the cause:
"A senior executive at the PR firm in question recalled one particular exchange with the RJI Companies envoy: 'I asked him "Do you want us to say that Stalin was not such a bad guy?" And he said "Well, I know it will be difficult." I said So, you want history to be rewritten? And he said "Yes, in a way."'
"'Expect to see more articles in European newspapers saying that Stalin had his good points as well,' the PR executive said."
Inside Russia, such efforts are apparently "well underway," including the rewriting of high-school history books. Outside Russia, it's all a lie or course, according to a flack for the Russian news agency. She told Eurobserver that no such PR contracts exist. Whom do you believe?
(And for the record, Russia's PR firm in the U.S. is Ketchum.)
ENOUGH ABOUT "CONSCIENCE" ALREADY
We need to stop lionizing the PR profession as some sort of "conscience." It's self delusion that only masks PR's terminal disorders and prevents effective treatment.
We've talked about how PRSA chairman Cherenson loves that sort of baseless happy talk. But even the admirable gadfly Wendell Potter still encourages PR professionals to consider themselves the "'conscience' of their employers," according to the Nov 18 issue of O'Dwyer's. Apparently Potter and Arianna Huffington were on a panel together at a PRSA event in San Diego and were of the same mind.
Sadly, as LiteralMayhem has chronicled, when a corporation (or any center of power) is pressed to the wall by outside forces, PR pros have little to no influence in how the powerful respond. Rarely does conscience enter into C-Suite or political decision making.
And all too often PR pros are eager to do any bidding, no matter how foul; say anything any create any image, no matter how stilted; and devise any talking point no matter how obfuscatory; in short, do anything necessary to serve the client/boss… and secure a fat retainer/pay check.
As a result of PR's Machiavellian misadventure, the public is all the poorer… Public discourse corrupted for a pfennig, a corner office, and a lucite memento of the deal. It's a shame really because there is such potential for good.
But maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill. Perhaps it's just human nature. After all, manufacturing a vice presidential candidate or rehabilitating a vicious dictator is small potatoes compared to American conservatives' efforts to rewrite the Bible.
By letterhead | December 5, 2009
One of our chief entertainments here at LiteralMayhem is the contortion, manipulation and general abuse of language — primarily at the hands of PR and marketing folks. But sins abound throughout the worlds of business, academia, and politics… and when those worlds collide, watch out.
You're certain to get some truly head-spinning, tongue-teasers like this one:
"We come together to offer a tangential view, not a consensus view, and not the average view. We seek to synthesize information and ideas from different vectors and extrapolate a resultant vector in an orthogonal dimension."
Sometimes you read something and you feel like you've just had brain surgery. It hurts so much you have to ask: Oh for Heaven's sake, what on Earth were you thinking? What does it MEAN??? Please, someone pass the Vicodin.
The quote comes from a blog on Huffington Post by Leslie Pratch, an executive coach who "assesses the leadership potential of executives." Ms. Pratch appears to be a highly qualified academic who:
"helps executives strengthen their capacity for active coping and bring about dramatically improved performance in a relatively short period of time."
In other words (less than the 1,500 or so used on the firm's website to describe its service offering), she counsels CEOs on how not to act like dickweeds.
REDUCING WAGES TO "MARKET-CLEARING LEVELS"
What caught my eye was a recent post by Ms. Pratch entitled: "Are U.S. Workers Overpaid?"
Hmmm… But who, pray tell, is a "worker?" Don't we all work? Doesn't Ms. Pratch herself "work" for a living?
The term "work" comes from Old English "weorc," its original meaning closer to achievement, accomplishment, or deed — the outcome of one's labor rather than the process of one's labor (i.e., doing work). But over the centuries, the term "worker" has evolved to connote more about the process of work, particularly manual, industrial, or manufacturing labor… or as a catch-all: unskilled labor.
For example, Marxists deepened the association of "worker" with manual labor in mid-1800s, as did the U.S. trade union movement during the Industrial Revolution, and Maoists in the 1920s with their identification of "workers and oppressed peoples."
All this is a neat preface to Mr. Pratch's point when she says:
"U.S. workers are overpaid relative to equally-productive foreign workers doing the same work. If the global economy is ever going to get back into balance, that gap needs to be closed…
"It's possible to run the numbers to show that U.S. manufacturing workers should take average real wage cuts as much as 20% to get into global balance. The required cut may be smaller."
And if one follows today's economic debate — about jobs, wages, inflation, and middle class prosperity — the crux of the problem always seems to be these pesky "workers" wages. U.S. "workers" are uncompetitive and they have to suck it up and take a pay cut.
Pay has to be "equalized" to "market clearing levels," according to Pratch, so that poor countries no longer outcompete "rich" countries simply on wages and productivity. The threat hanging over our collective heads is… "something approaching 1930s levels of unemployment."
A "WORKER" HERE, A "WORKER" THERE…
What's interesting here is that the cultural definition of "worker" (i.e., our notions about who is and isn't one) is central to the economic debate and greatly influences its outcome.
The products that all "workers" make are pretty much the same (notwithstanding Chinese drywall, pet food, kid's toys, heparin, etc.). A running shoe made in India is usually not materially different from one made in Indiana.
So it begs the question: If that shoe up on the shelf is worth $100 no matter where it's made, then why shouldn't the worker's share of the price be the same no matter where he or she lives? The aggregate work contribution is the same, whether it takes two man-hours on an expensive machine, or twenty man-hours at a wooden bench in thatched hut.
The answer is that if we can get away with paying less to "workers" who live somewhere else, it's better for profits… and thus, shareholders.
But such wage penalties are only applied to a subset of "workers"… only those whose jobs are mobile. It's mobility that's being penalized. Not intrinsic talent, contribution or worth.
The relevance of linguistic hair-splitting becomes clear when one considers other types of "workers"… say, of the over-paid, linguistically challenged consultant variety.
These "workers" get to charge $200 to $300 an hour to tell a CEO not to act like an asshole because that particular job isn't mobile… the CEO lives in a rich country and won't move to a poor country to save the company money.
THE DOUBLE STANDARD FOR EXECUTIVE "WORKERS"
Here's a funny thing about executive "workers": Even if the CEO did decide to move to a poor country, he'd probably get paid MORE to do so. It's called a "foreign service bonus" or a "hardship bonus."
When "work" shifts overseas for the LOCAL talent to do it, the "worker" gets paid less. But when a U.S. "executive" has to move to such a country, he actually gets paid MORE. Living with substandard amenities earns you a premium, but only if you're starting out from a place of privilege.
There's something pretty hinky about insisting that I deserve to be paid more to go live among you in your foreign, peasant shithole… but since you already live there and you're used to it, you deserve to be paid a lot less than a non-shithole-dwelling (i.e., Western) "worker" gets paid for doing the same job.
Economists will no doubt tell me I have it all wrong. It's all about capital flows, and efficiency gains, and labor cost equalization, and productivity measures, and a whole lot of other intricacies that the un-schooled do not understand. I would reply that it's about language: meaning, understanding, and perception.
Instead of saying that U.S. wages are too high, why can't we just say that really really poor "workers" deserve a really really big raise?
After all, whether I pay the "worker" 15 dollars an hour to work on a machine, or 5 cents an hour to work at a wooden bench, I'm sill going to charge you $100 for the sneakers. And I'm still going to pay Ms. Pratch her First-World salary to show me how to do it in the nicest, most humane, gender-neutral kind of way. With an "active coping style" of course.
The question gives lie to Pratch's assertion about the "required cut" in U.S. wages. There is nothing "required" about it. No invisible hand is signing U.S. pink slips. No unseen irresistible cosmic force "requires" that poor workers get paid less.
These are choices that people make because we can. And while we may look to the complex jargonistic labels of economics for rationalizations and justifications, there really aren't any. Wage levels (for both the unskilled and skilled alike) are a relative value based simply on an accident of history: where you were born. Keeping them that way is a choice, not an act of God.
LEVELLING THE CEO
To the author(s) partial credit, in the comments section of the blog post, Ms.Pratch's colleague clarifies their position on CEO pay:
"In our article we classify CEOs as workers. CEOs are employed by the shareholders via the board. Most CEOs are not owners of their business. CEO wages need to get normalized as well."
Well actually, in the article Ms. Pratch says no such thing. There is no mention anywhere of "CEOs as workers." And CEO wages being equalized DOWNWARD is about as likely as Rush Limbaugh tongue kissing John McCain on the Capitol steps.
All the references in Ms. Pratch's piece clearly are to "workers" of the manual, industrial, manufacturing, unskilled, under-educated variety. And her partner Raj's hostility to "workers" of this ilk is evident in his comment:
"Lazing in a recliner, claiming exploitation, blaming the world and reminiscing about past glories is not the playbook to compete globally."
Unless of course you're an ousted CEO who flew off on his golden parachute to a comfortable retirement in Boca. Or an academic with a thriving CEO baby-sitting practice.
Economists treat "workers" akin to vivisection subjects only because they don't identify with them. The word "worker" has a precise cultural meaning that splits them off from all of us who "work" for a living, but whose jobs are not mobile enough to be vulnerable.
All of that is changing. For those of us lucky enough to have jobs these days, "work" is a blessing. But it's also a source of angst. Even many "workers" of the executive variety are now finding themselves just as vulnerable as workers of every other kind.
Figuring out a solution to our employment, wage and quality of life issues requires dropping our current limited concept of "worker" — as well as its narrow implications. Everyone is vulnerable, even Ms. Pratch and her fellows in the consultant class. Have you seen the quality of the robots coming out of Japan these days?!
[P.S. "orthogonal" = perpendicular; and if you teach yourself how to "extrapolate a vector in an orthogonal dimension" you'll have job security for life!]
By letterhead | December 3, 2009
Calling the Goldman Sachs $500 million small business initiative "philanthropy" or "lending" is like saying that frosted Pop Tarts are made with "real fruit filling."
Thankfully most media types called it for what it was: BS, BS, and more BS. But it got me thinking about my career in PR… I know two people who work at Goldman in PR. Both of whom are very smart and talented. One of whom actually has a conscience.
After my last in-house gig, I just couldn't take working in financial PR anymore and opted for a poorer but more low-key life of writing. ("Scrivnering" for those who insist on verbifying everything.) And as I was walking home from work one sunny, breezy day in San Francisco, I was cursing my decision.
A place like Goldman was the next step for me. I had even interviewed with the hedge fund arm of Citigroup in its heyday and walked away before the talking really started. (It would have been great money, even if it was a soul killer.)
On that sunny, breezy walk home I imagined that my life would have been much much easier (financially) had I just stepped up that one last rung on the ladder. The people I know at Goldman are probably making $400K a year, maybe even $500K or more. Cushy perks. Great benies. What a life.
But the PR debacle of the "loan" initiative, made me realize that I'm just not cut out for it. And all you PR students and wannabes listen up, because that initiative on its own should capsize any illusions you have about being "the conscience of the corporation" as PRSA
blowhard chairman Cherenson put it.
IMAGINE… ALL THE MEETINGS, CLOGGING UP YOUR WORLD…
I imagined sitting in a meeting with senior Goldman executives trying to explain why the $500 million boondoggle wouldn't fool anyone and was just a total waste of 1/8 of the CEO's bonus money…
"We're going to give a million dollars to charity," says one.
"Brilliant idea," says another. "But better make it $5 million. Sounds more generous."
"I have it!" shouts another. "$500 million!! It will knock their socks off. Take all the heat off us. Make us look like we care. We've got to give til it hurts to show them that we're serious. We need to make it serious money!"
Eyes are popping. Hands are shaking. Smiles are beaming all around the room. I'd probably be sitting there with my head in my hands.
"Gentlemen, let me play devil's advocate here for a minute. $500 million isn't squat. From a PR perspective, it's dangerous. It's cynical. It looks like a payoff on the cheap. Especially since after the tax benefit it will only cost us $150 million. You might as well hunker down and keep all the bonus money because that piddling amount will NOT get you the absolution you're looking for. It will just engender more resentment."
"Well, snot nose… how much should we give?"
I'd say: "All of it."
"ALL OF IT!?!?!?!"
"Yes all of it… The whole $20 billion… At the very least… half of it."
"HALF OF IT!?!?!?!! But that's OUR money!"
"Again… I say this as a devil's advocate gentlemen… not at all as a Goldman communications officer (though some might say they are the same thing)…
"Aren't you people rich enough already? Can't you forgo your bonus for ONE year??? Especially as MILLIONS of people and businesses are on the brink of financial extinction? Can't your… excuse me… OUR… exorbitant base-pay suffice for just ONE year? Just ONE year. That's all I am suggesting.
"Next year we can all go back to business as usual making (and keeping) trillions of dollars and say we've done our part. And the money will buy you, literally, DECADES of goodwill, not to mention the Secretary of the Treasury slot for all of eternity."
Imagine all the open-mouth stares.
"Gentlemen… seriously. This is a bad idea. If a wholesale change in perception is what you're looking for, it will only come from a wholesale departure from business as usual. This is not change. If anything it reinforces the perception of Goldman a bunch of greedy, manipulative shysters.
"Plus, you are ensuring that the next Secretary of the Treasury will come from… <gasp>… a community bank… or worse… <fainting>… ACADEMIA!"
AND THE AWARD GOES TO…
I wouldn't last 5 minutes at Goldman Sachs. I barely lasted the 20 years I did spend in PR, and I have very little of my tongue left… from biting on it all the time.
The Goldman initiative is pure, unadulterated bullshit. But what's most galling about it is that they really thought (or why else would they have done it), that it would buy them some goodwill. And my smart, talented friend in Goldman's PR department (the one with a conscience), probably just sat there… with a bleeding tongue. The one without a conscience probably thought it would be a good career move to champion the idea, no matter how bad it was, because the senior executives wanted it.
And you know what… in reality, championing a rotten idea because the C-Suite wants it is often the best career move in PR. Sad but true.
But it still doesn't make a rotten idea into a good one.
And so Goldman Sachs… for your corporate arrogance, your cynicism, your anachronistic faith in propaganda, and your outright shamelessness, we grant you the BS of the Month Award, for November 2009.
Use it liberally. Use it often. But just remember that it won't fool anybody, because it still…
By letterhead | November 4, 2009
I quit you. I'm done. Last night killed it. I have been a registered independent since my first presidential election in 1980, in which I voted for John Anderson.
Yet, I marched for you. I gave money. I handed out posters to my friends. I volunteered. All for you. Because I believed, naively it turns out, that you would deliver on your rhetoric. And that you would do your best to fix what was wrong. The moneyed influence. The injustice. The political horsetrading with people's lives and livelihoods.
Yes, we all know that presidents have limited powers. (Less limited these days thanks to an ever-expanding executive branch and a neutered Congress that gladly hands over power to their guy in charge.)
But you…. YOU DIDN'T EVEN TRY!!!!
FUCK YOU ON GAY MARRIAGE
You had the time to travel to New Jersey — THREE TIMES — to prop up a failing governor with an approval rating in the low 30%. You sent Joe Biden to fight for Corzine. You even dispatched your own campaign staff to take over the wheel of his flagging campaign.
(Conspiracy theorists could have a field day with the fact that Corzine is ANOTHER former CEO of Goldman Sachs… but that assuredly had nothing to do with it.)
You were clearly so tired campaigning for Corzine that you had not an ounce of energy to lift a finger of help for your gay supporters in Maine… who were in a battle for their rights. Your campaign organization (now an arm of the DNC) went to the trouble of sending out emails to Maine voters reminding them to vote, without once mentioning the marriage referendum, or to Vote NO on 1.
No money. No resources. No support. Not even a whisper… not even a whimper. And this comes after speaking to the Human Rights Campaign just THREE WEEKS AGO!!
When you said:
"My expectation is that when you look back on these years you will look back and see a time when we put a stop against discrimination … whether in the office or the battlefield… I'm here with a simple message: I'm here with you in that fight."
Really? Turns out. No you aren't. You are an empty suit spouting empty words. A liar… plain and simple.
So, fuck you on that one.
FUCK YOU ON LAME HEALTHCARE "REFORM"
You got health insurers to agree to take on millions of new customers. Congratulations.
Either we pay into the protection racket, or get whacked by a federal penalty? Thanks a bunch.
The point, once again, is that you DIDN'T EVEN TRY for something better. You bargained away a public option from the get go, and then sought to kill it whenever it raised its stubborn head. You gave the drug company lobby, and the insurance lobby more attention and clout than the average middle class American that you purport to hold so dear.
So now millions more Americans will have the privilege of having what I have as a sole proprietor: expensive health insurance that doesn't pay for a damn thing except catastrophic care. I have to pay for all my ongoing medical care out of my own pocket. On top of my premiums.
Great. You didn't reform "healthcare." You simply expanded access to expensive useless insurance. All from the same people who brought to us the crappy outdated teetering-on-the-brink system we have to day.
All the same warped incentives are still in place… no incentive to keep people healthy, all the incentive is on denying care. And if you think that they won't, well just look at what the banks are up to.
So fuck you on healthcare "reform" too.
FUCK YOU ON FINANCIAL "REFORM"
On this one it's difficult to know exactly where to start. So let's try this. A 63-year old retiree saw her interest rate on her CD get cut in half when her bank failed and her deposits were bought by another institution. A contract, it turns out, is not a contract if you are a responsible, risk-averse retiree on a fixed income.
If you are AIG, then it's a different story entirely. Treasury Tim spent $32 billion in taxpayer money to retire retire swaps and acquire CDOs from AIG and insisted that contracts be honored at 100 cents on the dollar, even though counter-parties had already agreed to take less than half that.
Like the huge bonuses at AIG and Merrill and elsewhere… a contract is a contract… if you work for Wall Street.
On the foreclosure mess, your own oversight panel rebuked your consumer protection measure as inadequate. Sure lots of people got in over their heads. Wall Street got in over its head to the tune of several hundred percent. Many of the worst offenders in the financial crisis were leveraged 30- or 40-1. But Treasury Tim and Loophole Larry made sure THEY got bailed out.
Goldman even made billions shorting the mortgage market while it was selling tens of billions in worthless securities. Illegal? We'll never know because there will be no investigation.
But it's certainly unethical: Say you own a plant business. And some guy sells you a truck load of plants that he swears are perfectly healthy and a good investment. You get them to your greenhouse and not only do they die, but they bring a bug infestation that kills off half your inventory.
Later on, you find out that he was writing on his blog and sending letters to other customers saying that he was pretty darn sure those plants were carrying a dangerous infestation. Then the government gives this guy a bailout and leaves you fighting for your life with half your business destroyed. Sound fair or ethical to you?
And as for your "protections"… a plethora of industries are wiggling out of being covered by your signature consumer financial protection agency, which is being watered down by Barney Frank even as six dozen consumer and banking experts a law schools around the country beg you to preserve its teeth. And what have you to say?
Crickets… I hear… crickets… oh wait… you spoke at an industry event in NYC (a fundraiser was it?) and you "encouraged" Wall Street to cooperate with reform. Forgive me if I'm not impressed.
As for TARP, your own inspector general testified before Congress that $23 trillion could be the total taxpayer tab for the Wall Street bailout and there is woefully little transparency into how that liability is being managed by T-Tim. The proposal to fix what went wrong, put forth by Tiny Tim, has been dubbed "TARP on steroids." It's a crime to propose more of the same poison when we're not going to make any money on our current investment… even as… get this:
C.I.T. declares bankruptcy and Goldman Sachs makes ANOTHER $1 billion at taxpayer expense??!?!!? Excuse me but how the fuck did Goldman make ANOTHER billion dollars when the taxpayer just got screwed AGAIN???
Taxpayers have gotten nothing, and likely will get NOTHING from the trillions we used to backstop the billionaires from bleeding to death. They're not using TARP money to lend, or finance the real economy. Instead they're using it to bolster their balance sheets, generate trading revenue, and make acquisitions.
"Too big to fail" has gotten bigger. Loopholes are larger. Banks are hoarding cash. You knuckled under to big business and abandoned your pledge to crackdown on tax havens. Derivatives are still unregulated. Banks rake in tens of billions in profits that are a gift from the government, with NO demands for anything in return.
And now you and Rahmbo are even gutting the post-Enron protections in Sarbanes-Oxley?
Look, we all know that there's plenty of blame to go around for the mess we're in. Share the blame. Share the pain.
Except that you have made absolutely no effort… ZERO… to force Wall Street to share the pain. And THEY were the ones who dragged the entire global economy to the edge of utter disaster.
NO ACCOUNTABILITY… ONLY BILLIONS IN REWARDS? All for those idiots who fucked up the global financial system so badly that it's practically beyond any capacity to measure!
Who gets to share the pain? The average middle class American is getting screwed at every turn, while gigantor corporations use our tax money to stuff their pockets and then turn around and fight protections for the rest of us. (Case in point: squeezing in rapacious rate increases on credit cards before new protection measures go into effect.)
What the fuck are you thinking??? And why does Tim Geithner still have a job?! Maybe because financial industry lobbyists spent $224 MILLION in just the first six months of the year.
On financial reform you're not even trying. And this is just a small taste of the awesomely skewed priorities of your henchmen at the Fed and Treasury… not to mention the devastating results that are ravaging the have-nots, and even the sort-of-haves, nationwide.
So that gets a double "fuck you."
FUCK YOU ON… THE DALAI LAMA?
While we're at it… fuck you for dissing the Dalai Lama. The friggin Dalai Lama for Christ sakes. (Literally)
For the first time in almost 20 years, the Dalai Lama visited D.C. without getting an audience with the POTUS. As theologian David B. Hart recently wrote, it's easy to romanticize the Tibetan cause, when in reality the country's history is violent, theocratic and riddled with political intrigue.
But as he says of the current plight of the Tibetans, presidents meet with is Holiness the Dalai Lama as a gesture of conscience, done out of recognition of…
"the monstrous crime of China’s invasion of Tibet on the pretext of some fatuous historical claim to sovereignty over the region… [and recognition] of the rule of terror, torture, imprisonment, and disenfranchisement by which it governs there, or of its systematic policy of cultural destruction."
It is sheer lunacy to believe that after nearly 70 years of ceaseless and violent repression, that China will somehow be more compassionate toward Tibet because Obama dissed the guy in saffron robes. If anything it marginalizes the Dalai Lama and emboldens the Chinese.
It's hard to disagree with Hart when he says it was "an act of moral cowardice."
That gets a big "FUCK YOU"… all caps.
SCREED YES. ANGER? CHECK. DISENCHANTMENT? YOU BET'CHA
David Plouffe can kiss my ass. His defense of Obama rings hollow. On Obama's major efforts he has been a calculating establishmentarian and corporatist. His actions don't live up to his rhetoric, plain and simple… on healthcare, or financial reform, or net neutrality, or state secrets, or the Patriot Act, or transparency at the Fed, or NAFTA, or knuckling under to lobbyists, or any number of other issues.
Too many people are getting too screwed while a few rich, powerful interests are munching on federal bacon… or eating cakes with dollar signs written in green frosting. Choose your clumsy metaphor, they're all apt in describing the clumsy (if not callous) way Obama has downplayed or outright ignored the concerns of the people who elected him to enact "change we can believe in."
The issue is one of balance. Of shared sacrifice. Of fairness and justice. No president can make everything right. But Obama has made things "right" for the privileged few against whom he railed during the campaign. Somehow making things right for them at the expense of the people to whom he promised change.
Daily Kos has it right:
There will be much number-crunching tomorrow, but preliminary numbers (at least in Virginia) show that GOP turnout remained the same as last year, but Democratic turnout collapsed. This is a base problem, and this is what Democrats better take from tonight:
- If you abandon Democratic principles in a bid for unnecessary "bipartisanship", you will lose votes.
- If you water down reform in favor of Blue Dogs and their corporate benefactors, you will lose votes.
- If you forget why you were elected — health care, financial services, energy policy and immigration reform — you will lose votes.
Tonight proved conclusively that we're not going to turn out just because you have a (D) next to your name, or because Obama tells us to. We'll turn out if we feel it's worth our time and effort to vote, and we'll work hard to make sure others turn out if you inspire us with bold and decisive action.
The choice is yours. Give us a reason to vote for you, or we sit home. And you aren't going to make up the margins with conservative voters. They already know exactly who they're voting for, and it ain't you.
I ditto that. You'll never get another vote. Never get another dime. Never get another minute of my time. I did that once already and what did I get from you and all your promises? Fuck all.
empty talking heads on TV say that Obama is the consummate, calculating pragmatist. Well, here, calculate this…
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Topics: Politics | Comments Off
By letterhead | October 25, 2009
Teeth are being gnashed. Gauntlets is gettin' thrown down like warm beers at a tea party. Over what? Beck, O'Reilly, and Limbaugh? Seriously?
Nobody saw this coming? Not since 1976 when the satire "Network" hit movie screens and won four Academy Awards?
More than 3o years ago, the fictional network boss Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) cringed at the idea of putting a screaming, delusional nut-bag on TV. He said to Diana Christiensen (Faye Dunaway), head of the network's "Entertainment Division":
"For God's sake Diana we're talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national television!"
Diana just smiles a creepy, glassy-eyed smile and nods gleefully… as if to say "Um… hell yeah. Isn't it GREAT!"
The movie is worth watching just for that one scene alone. It is the tipping point at which the network descends into "shrieking nothingness" and hysteria, all in pursuit of ratings.
The relevance to Obama is: just a year ago HE was the "anger candidate." He got elected because he channeled people's ANGER.
Whether he wants to admit it or not, it wasn't hope that got him elected. He harnessed the public's anger and discontent, essentially saying:
"Throw the bums out and make room for new people like you who understand your needs… and maybe you won't have to be so scared and angry anymore."
He promised to take it to "the man"… so to speak. And millions of American's of all stripes cheered him on his crusade. But once in office he forsook that anger in favor of pragmatism, and he left a huge swath of the "anger contingent" (which includes millions of independents) unrepresented and ripe for FOX to pick it off and gin it up.
"THIS VIOLATES EVERY CANNON OF RESPECTABLE BROADCASTING"
For those who have never seen Network: The nightly news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) gets fired for lousy ratings and completely loses it on the air. He says: "Tune in next week for my last show when I will blow my brains out on national TV."
The man has clearly cracked up, but manages to convince his producer to let him say a brief farewell on the air the next day. He apologizes to viewers for saying he'd blow his brains, but he'd "just run out of bullshit."
He hits nerve of popular outrage and the ratings go through the roof. It was, after all, a post-war, post-oil-embargo, post-Watergate world of grinding economic distress.
Hackett, once he starts seeing dollar signs, lets Christiensen put Beale back on the air every night, frothing torment and all. And to whip up the public even more, she lards up the evening "news" with a Soothsayer (Tune in tomorrow to see if she was right!) and a viewer sounding board called Vox Populi (a foreshadowing of CNN's live audience-reaction graphs).
In short, Christiensen turns the "news" into a viewer-driven three-ring circus. The network's head honchos revolt against Hackett, lamenting:
"You're seriously considering putting on a pornographic news show… This violates every cannon of respectable broadcasting."
A LUNATIC ON THE AIR YELLING "BULLSHIT"
Wolf Blitzer may not be yelling "Bullshit" on the air, but his program might be better if he did. After all, the CNN Situation Room and all those shows like it are fast approaching the dazzling user-driven carnival show of the fictional Evening News with Howard Beale.
CNN's army of talking-head spokesbots are entirely predictable, rarely saying anything surprising, and usually just spar and whine and accuse each other of not fighting fair. All for the sake of
news entertainment ratings.
The network might as well go whole hog and just put "a lunatic on the air yelling bullshit." (As Hackett says of Beale.)
As for the one-man/woman lunatic sideshows (Beck, Limbaugh, Malkin, et al.) and all the other mouthy anger-merchants, Christiensen nails it when she says:
"The audience out there obviously wants a prophet, even a manufactured one, even if he's mad as Moses."
Cue Laura Ingram and Ann Coulter.
THE AMERICAN PUBLIC: SULLEN, LIMP, AND ANGRY
Dunaway gives the following speech that could easily come from a FOX news programming meeting (or CNN, or CNBC, or MSNBC for that matter):
"The American people are turning sullen. They've been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, the depression… they've turned off, shot up, and fucked themselves limp and nothing helps.
"So this concept analysis concludes that the American people want someone to articulate their rage for them.
"I've been telling you that I want ANGRY shows! I want counter-culture! I want anti-establishment!"
Replace "Vietnam" with Iraq (now Afganistan). Replace "Watergate" with illegal domestic surveillance and Justice Department scandals and a host of other ills. Replace "inflation" and "depression" with foreclosures, bank bailouts, unemployment… you get the idea.
These shows are playing to an audience. A rabid and hungry one. Even among independents.
MEDDLING WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE
In the end, Beale turns his anger on the very network that made him a star, and the CEO of the network holding company turns on Beale:
"You have meddled with the primal forces of nature Mr. Beale… and I-WILL-NOT-HAVE-IT!!!"
Beale is charged with telling his audience the truth about corporate control of their lives — that they can't escape it. Not a happy message. And one that kills his ratings.
In response, Christiensen uses the cast of her terrorist reality show (The Mao Tse-tung Hour) to assassinate Beale in their season opener.
So in the end, what have we?
- A network that cares not a whit for anything other than its own corporate agenda
- An irascible public on a hair-trigger
- Young, conniving, bloodless whores who will put anything on the air as long as it will make a buck
- A powerless old-guard with no spine and even less influence
- A growing appetite for violence as a way of expressing political and economic discontent
And the Obama White House has waded into this firestorm carrying a #2 pencil and a legal pad, attempting to school the nation in "respectable broadcasting." Yeah… OK… Obama is right about FOX
News Noise. (Good summary here.) So what?????
FOX has successfully co-opted people's anger in part because the Administration handed it over to them. The Administration pandered to big money in Finance and Healthcare and Big Business and many people — who once saw Obama as an ally — now see him as the enemy. Those who saw him as simply the enemy now see him as the anti-Christ.
"Americans are fed up," says Real Clear Politics. Independents are bolting the Obama big-tent faster than you can say Wall Street Bonus. "What does all this portend? Very possibly a Ross Perot moment — the emergence of someone with serious charts and serious language that angry Americans will see as more authentic than 'hope and change.'"
IS OBAMA HOWARD BEALE?
In a credible alternate reading of the Howard Beale story, Glenn Beck isn't Beale. O'Reilly isn't Beale. Limbaugh isn't Beale.
BARACK OBAMA IS HOWARD BEALE. (Of course, minus the ranting and frothing and mental instability.)
Obama ran for president crisscrossing the USA yelling "BULLSHIT!" He did it an an ever-so-gentlemanly way, of course. But that was essentially his message. Enough of the bullshit. Enough of the scamming. Enough of the taking advantage of the little guy. You're mad as hell and if you elect me you won't have to take it any more. "Yes we can!" was as much a metaphorical pitchfork and battle cry as anything else.
But Obama was meddling with the primal forces of nature. And America's corporate overlords quickly put the kibosh on it. Now Obama seems to preach an immutable corporate cosmology. Like he's placating the forces of corporate control… ceding to them control of government and the national commonweal. The audience hates it. And like Beale, the president's ratings are dropping.
If he continues down this path, his show will get resoundingly canceled in 2012.
I pray not. (And I especially pray not violently.) I campaigned and voted for the guy and want him to succeed. But entertainment is an unforgiving business. While America loved the pilot, it is showing little patience for the well-worn lines that the White House is trying to pass off as something genuinely new. And it's not just the FOX tea-party anti-government types who are seething. Even dyed-in-the-wool capitalists (e.g., Dylan Ratigan) are coughing up hairballs every night on cable "news."
Obama used to understand and channel the public's anger quite well. He re-directed it from cynicism into hope. "Yes we can." It's OK to be angry; but you don't have to resort to complete cynicism because you CAN do something about it.
But for some unknown reason, the president has given up trying to channel people's anger. Where is the champion? Where is the righteous outrage? Where is the "take it to them" spirit?
People are in pain, and feel like they really are just cogs in a corporate wheel. Contrary to the "Yes we can" mantra, it's looking more like, in fact, we probably can't. And that is even more cause for cynicism.
Criticizing FOX for giving voice to the very anger he used to champion, but now seems to ignore, only makes Obama seem more out of touch, and more of a sell-out.
Turns out the whole "green shoots" mentality and turn-toward-the-positive message program of the White House may have been a mistake. He should have stayed on the anger train for a while longer.
But he got off too soon and gave away that platform. That's the real danger here. And the White House seems deaf to it.
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