At the Intersection of PR and Robert Goulet

Once in a very great while, and because I have a bit of radio in my distant past, someone will ask me to do a bit of voiceover work. Usually when they need it to be free.

In the fall of 2002, I was in a downtown Minneapolis studio recording a tagline for some political radio ads as a favor to a friend. In between takes, I wandered out to a little lounge area to grab a coffee. Down the hall, I could hear a stentorian baritone from another studio’s monitors, voicing a single line over about six takes.  Something about a rabbit.

“Wow,” I thought. “That guy does a mean Robert Goulet.”

As it happened, it was Robert Goulet. Taking a break himself, he came strolling down the corridor moments later, looking very much like a Central Casting version of himself — assured,  completely at ease, impossibly well-groomed. He paused to nod a warm hello, and for a bit it was Bob and me, the “talent,” hangin’ out between takes and having a coffee. Shortly thereafter, I was back to being a PR guy again — my show business zenith having been hit.

When my University students talk about being drawn to advertising and PR, they sometimes mention what they perceive as the “glamour” of the profession. For most, I suppose that dissipates with the first press kit stuffing or the 200th pitch call. But the job does have its occasional unexpected moment, doesn’t it?

Knock ’em dead up there, Mr. Goulet.  73 was way too early.

 — Hornseth

Lacuna Matata

Each new political era seems to bring new words into common American usage. The 2004 election brought us “NASCAR dad” to compliment the term du jour from the 1992 race, “soccer mom.” The Iraq War is bringing us “Islamofacism,” among many others. The 2000 election brought “chad.”

I heard a new one yesterday associated with the Blackwater scandal – “lacuna.” Now, I’m just a South Dakota hick who has misplaced many brain cells over the years, but that’s a new word for me. I didn’t realize that a “lacuna” is a Latin word for a “gap or missing part.”

Anyway, according to Secretary of State Rice, it seems there is a big honkin’ “lacuna” in the law that prevents independent contractors like Blackwater from being prosecuted in the United States for crimes committed in Iraq. This makes it a lacuna big enough to drive a truck through. But “lacuna” sounds much more refined than “loophole.”

If you’re Blackwater, you gotta love lacunas. Lacuna matata, what a wonderful phrase. It means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s a problem-free philosophy.


Recovering From An Addiction to Being Right

It’s been over a week since Austin and I, and Eric Black and Charlie Quimby, went up to Princeton to Chad and Michelle Everson’s farm (they had chickens and ducks) to muck around in clay and talk with several conservative bloggers.

I’ve been buried in editing a book and doing other work and in the raw emotional experience of having someone very dear to our family be in Hazelden for treatment.  I’ve found something powerfully in common between Princeton and Hazelden — it’s listening, and its opposite, pushing your position.  I’ve discovered (Good Lord, how long must it take?) that communication isn’t about advancing my position, however right I’m sure it is.

Eric Black was talking with Joey Monson of Wisconsin while both were sitting on hay bales up in Princeton. They were arguing about America’s standing abroad as the war in Iraq goes on and on. Eric was reciting facts and figures. Now, nobody is better at facts and figures than Eric Black, who used to write for the Strib and now blogs and writes for Minnesota Monitor. I’ve always loved reading Eric’s explanations of complicated things — the Palestinian question, the Kurds, what makes omelets poofy. He makes convoluted things clear. But this day he was really pushing his info, saying something critical of American policy and not changing any minds. I said, to try to shift us from arguing to thinking, “So you’re one of those people who blames America first. Everything’s our fault.” He looked at me as if I’d just slipped a few rungs down the evolutionary scale, and said, “Well, if you want to reduce this to absurdities and ignore the facts and arguments…” I was playing the role of a conservative who who didn’t want to hear his liberal rap because the conservative felt no connection over which to hear Eric. “What if you said,” I proposed to Eric, “Look, I love America, I feel very fortunate to live here, and that’s why I want America to be strong and stand for good things. And when we do something I think is wrong, I believe it’s patriotic to criticize ourselves so we change and keep closer to our values,” or something like that. Lay out something he might have in common with a conservative, rather than argue a barrage of facts. Find some common goal, and then say, “Well what if we tried to get to that goal this way…”

The biggest lesson I learned from the Princeton “Conversation by Fire” bloggers’ gathering was that only when we find some connection over things that we value in common might we actually listen to one another. Charlie asked us each to say where our positions come from, what in our backgrounds and experience makes us be liberal or conservative. It was a brilliant question. And the time in Princeton spent listening to and saying why we hold the views that we hold was rewarding and interesting. The time spent trying to push those views into somebody’s stubborn head was boring and dispiriting.

Back home, my wife and I disagreed on some step in our involvement with the recovery process for our dear one at Hazelden. Lisa said something as we talked late at night in bed, and I thought her view was wrong and would even be harmful. I could hardly wait for her tongue to stop before I was in there telling her she was wrong, and why, and what would probably happen if we followed her course. I didn’t change her mind. I just pissed her off. Made her feel not heard, made her feel I wasn’t with her in this difficult situation.

I discovered, later, that it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. Really, who the hell knows? This recovery process ain’t easy. Regardless of what I thought of her view, I needed to be there “at whatever address she’s at,” my therapist (one of them) told me. If we can stand together in that doorway, hear each other, discover what we value in common (the wellbeing of the person in recovery), then we can walk out of the doorway and say, “Now, which way do we go, left? “No, I think we go right.” We may disagree, but we’ll be together on the journey. I gotta listen first, draw her out, understand why she’s saying what she’s saying, try to get what she’s feeling. Hold onto my reactions until later. Tell her where I’m coming from and what I think only after I’ve really listened to her.

Charlie Quimby and Joey Monson — liberal and conservative –are doing a brave thing after meeting at Chad’s farm in Princeton. They’ve created a blog called American Crosscut, where they intend to advance differing views on an issue while — sit down for this — actually listening to one another. I mean, here’s what these fuzzy-headed idealistic liberal/conservatives are saying they hope to do on this blog, and hope others will do: “Listen to understand instead of to refute.”

Good God. That could save the world. Bless you. And hey, Ryan, we started something. Way to go. And a ways to go.

— Bruce Benidt

An award-winning link from across the pond

SRC blogger and friend Kris Morrill sent this link suggestion from England for an hot site called the nthposition:

I found a great discussion there surrounding publication of a book of poems written by Gitmo detainees — poems that are said to contain metaphors, imagery and words. The words proved especially problematic, it seems, because the Privilege Review Board of the Pentagon had to make certain the Arabic-English translators handling these words were themselves trustworthy. And so translators, too, had to go through security clearances. Military strategists were ultimately able to refuse some poems for publication with no reason given. So does this make them censors or editors?

Is it a stupid act of treachery to publish poetry (POETRY?!) written by “terrorists” (the saw is: ‘If they weren’t terrorists when they went in, they’ll be terrorists when they get out’)? Criticism is out there against the University of Iowa Press for even printing this collection of propaganda/poetry. Or is this, as others hypothesize, a new public relations opportunity for the government, one that proves to the world we allow even our enemy combatants freedom of expression?

Or, maybe these are just poems made up of just words.

The Muckluck is the Message

In academia, they say “the medium is the message.” That’s how communications theorist Herbert Marshall McLuhan put it in “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.” (I know this because a very hungover me skimmed my room mate’s Cliff Notes of this book right before an ill-fated college exam. I didn’t understand the rest of the book, but I did get that part. By the way, I now prominently display a copy of this book on my office bookshelf to create the illusion of substance.)

In politics, they say, “only Nixon could go to China.” That is, only an ardently anti-communist pol like Richard Nixon could get away with, gasp, talking to commies. If George McGovern had gone a panda watching, he would have been discredited as “soft on communism.” But Nixon’s anti-communist resume made him largely immune from such criticism. “Only Nixon could go to China,” therefore, has become an analogy to explain the unique ability that hardline politicians have to change seemingly unchangeable viewpoints of their ideological soulmates, and the moderate middle.

In the entertainment world, the say “we can make the obscure cool.” Actually, they don’t say that at all, but they should. Because when Bono talks about third world debt, Jessica Lange talks about commodity subsidies or Charlton Heston talks about gun show exemptions, many previously indifferent citizens become persuaded.

Whether in academics, entertainment or politics, the concept is the same – WHO is speaking often matters more than WHAT is spoken.

The latest and localest example of that phenomena is Governor Pawlenty’s much hyped eco-tourism excursion to the South Pole to essentially skim Will Steger’s Cliff’s Notes on climate change research.

Now, if Amy Kloubachar had announced such a trip, reporters and the rest of us would have either yawned, rolled our eyes, or cried “boondoggle.” But when our little McCain maven makes the same announcement, it’s front page, above the fold, months before a single pair of mucklucks is even packed.

…as it should be. Because “conservative listens to scientific consensus” has gotten to be sort of a “man bites dog” kind of story. Unexpected, and therefore newsworthy.

Whether you approve or disapprove of the Governor’s position on this issue, this is a good reminder to communicators of all stripes to spend less time word-smithing for predictable messengers, like our clients or employers, and more time finding surprising, credible messengers who will actually get noticed and heard.

– Loveland

Peeyoo-litzer Prize Winning Reporting

In past fulminations, we’ve opined about PR people producing client-friendly video and placing it on the news, posing as reporters narrating the news in a client-friendly way and stuffing polls covered by the news in ways that benefit their clients or employers.

But the one thing that reporters still completely control is the questioning of its government and their apologists. That’s the heart and soul of the good old Fourth Estate, right?

Not so fast there, Bernstein. Last week the Bush Administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reportedly used PR flunkies posing as reporters to ask softball questions about FEMA’s response to southern California wildfires. The old “I’m not a reporter, but I play one on TV” trick. This “reporting” was apparently covered live by MSNBC and Fox.

Darn it all, if only Browny’s boys had thought of this in New Orleans! “Browny’s doing a swell job, isn’t he?” “No human being could possibly have imagined a levy could break, right?” “Would you say recovery efforts are going great, or super-duper great?”

This obviously isn’t a widespread practice, and it isn’t likely to become one. But honestly, the arrogance of the PR profession these days boggles the mind.

– Loveland

Dedicated Follower Of Fashion (Or Else)

Thought-provoking piece for marketers yesterday in the WSJ Online, looking at the marketing of designer clothing to kids and the related pressures it’s bringing about for kids at younger and younger ages.

Excerpt: “…today, guidance counselors and psychologists say, fashion bullying is reaching a new level of intensity as more designers launch collections targeted at kids… more than one-third of middle-school students responded “yes” when asked whether they are bullied because of the clothes they wear.”

Also interesting that there’s no comment included here from designers or retailers. I wonder how they’d have responded. After all, it’s the kind of thing that PR people, ad people, marketers, etc., are in business to create — the must-have product for the target audience, surrounded in a swirl of unreasonable loyalty.

It’s a success. Right?

Hmm.  Hmmmm.  Nothing like a little occupational introspection to close out the week.

— Hornseth