Monday, March 16, 2009

Repping the Bad Guy

What happened to this great nation? We produced the likes of George Washington, who couldn’t lie about cutting down a cherry tree, and Abraham Lincoln, someone who understood the need to respect all people (maybe there were a few exceptions we didn’t know about but mostly, all people). In case you don’t have the answer to the ‘what happened’ part of the question, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC provided some of the results in an editorial about Burson-Marstellar, (a giant PR firm) and evil.

A few years ago my son, who was a journalist, decided he wasn’t making enough money and wanted to try to work at a PR firm. After a few days he called me to confess he was not happy. “They want me to make up quotes”, he said. “They want me to lie about something someone said. I don’t think I can do that.”

I laughed and assured him it’s what all PR people do. In fact, it’s what they get paid for. And the better the quote—especially in a crisis, the more effective you will be for the client. He remained unconvinced and quit that job to resume his career as a journalist.

In retrospect, I am not sure that this seemingly uncomplicated act of making stuff up is as simple and harmless as I first thought. If you look at corporations like AIG, you will see that their list of PR firms remains almost as large as the bonuses they intend to pay their less than deserving senior executives. In fact, if you look at too many corporations, American or International, you will find that there are a plethora of these companies making up things that sound good to an unsuspecting public, rather than actually solving real problems.

A few years ago, when we first started our small (some would prefer boutique) public relations business, (which we called an ‘access’ firm, don’t worry it no longer exists), we decided to bid on an AT&T contract to move the Olympic Torch around the USA. We had no idea about the competition, but we assumed the list would be long. On the day we did our presentation, I had an enormous sty on my eye which, because it was ready to bust, was incredibly gross. Marthena had forgotten to button her skirt and it actually fell off during the pitch. OK it would have been pretty amusing had we not been a new struggling all women’s company. But, the show must go on and we plunged ahead suffering our humiliations bravely, but expecting rejection.

AT&T called us about three days after the presentation and offered us the opportunity to teach Burson-Marsteller, how to do what we had presented to them. They wanted a name – talent and experience was secondary. It would have been a great deal of money. When we turned them down we asked if Burson was going to oversee the entire effort. They told us that they had hired a coordinator to direct operations. As it turned out, this slime Wally, who took the job, only knew about it because we, in our never ending attempts to see good in all mankind, had told him about it and asked him what he thought. He thought it was great for us, but not as great for us as he thought it was for himself. And they all lived happily ever after making mega money by ripping off their friends and the rest of the world.

We stayed in business for a few more years and produced movie openings, corporate parties, and even gave advice to nice people who needed it. But nice and fun isn’t as lucrative as a willingness to forgo a moral core for, dare I say-- evil. Whether it be bonuses at AIG, or hiring someone to declare “Mission Accomplished” It’s likely it started as simply as making up a quote. What else do you need to know?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

as an old college acquaintance of Iris, I can testify to her level of integrity and creativity..what a shame on those PR types who wag the dog. Your Mom would be proud..and so am I