Some long overdue notes on Lowe’s canceling of its ads on a reality TV show about Islamic-American families

When the news hit last month that Lowe’s, the home improvement chain, was canceling its ads on “All-American Muslim,” a reality show about Muslim families in Michigan, it was with some guilt that I decided not to write about it. The guilt came because I felt very strongly that the Lowe’s decision was overtly anti-Islamic, which to my mind is no different from anti-Semitism and racism. I had my reasons for not commenting, one ideological and the other personal.

From the ideological viewpoint, I did not want to appear to be supporting a reality show, for these reasons:

  • These shows are often scripted, which means the reality part is fraudulent. In addition, they often contain edited sequences that do not reflect accurately what the unedited camera saw (which I am now calling “Breitbart editing” after the trust fund baby turned right-wing provocateur who turned a government official’s impassioned plea for racial understanding into a false example of black-against-white racism and got all the mass media to believe it).
  • The shows take as their basic premise the ideology of mindless consumerism—the idea that all human emotions and interactions reduce to engaging in commercial transactions. 
  • The shows manufacture talentless celebrities. At least Lady Gaga can sing a little.  The horde of Gosselins, Snookis, Tone Tones and Kardashians have no visible reason for being lionized by mass culture, other than the fact that they were featured on these shows as “real people.”
  • None of the real professionals behind these shows—the camera crew, editors, writers and directors—get union wages, which increases the profit for the show’s producers and TV networks, and therefore exemplifies one of the main ways that the top 1% have created a nation of rich and poor over the past 30+ years: replacement of union workers with non-unionized workers who make much less. 

But I also had a personal reason:  Three months earlier, I had analyzed a similar decision by a small-town Pennsylvania school board to cancel a production of Kismet, an early 50s musical which presents a very homogenized Arabic environment. I really didn’t want to repeat what I said at that time, even though it applies quite directly to the Lowe’s situation. 

Remember, it took the complaint of one man in Florida to cause Lowe’s to drop its ads on “American Moslem.” Years ago I faced the very same situation as PR counsel for a large supermarket company. An advocacy organization with a name that included the word “American” wanted the supermarket company to put brown slip covers on copies of Cosmopolitan, GQ and other supposedly racy magazines that the supermarket displayed on its shelves. An absurd request, since the material was far less risqué than what kids could see on TV and billboards. Another major supermarket had recently agreed to this organization’s demands. Instead of knee-jerking to this unnecessary assault on first amendment rights, I had an associate do some research. We found out that in the previous three years, only one complaint of the more than 50,000 that the supermarket had received had mentioned risqué magazine covers; I should point out that virtually all of the company’s stores were in rural areas or small towns, places in which one would be more likely to receive such a complaint. The other fact I uncovered was that this foundation consisted of one individual who ran such a website. We did not agree to the covers, and we received no further complaints.

It was either a strategic mistake or an expression of racism for the school board to cancel its production of Kismet, and the same goes for the Lowe’s decision to cancel its ads.  Both deserved the criticism they received at the time.

The reason I am bringing it up now is because I want to pick at a puff piece in yesterday’s New York Times about Laurie Goldberg, the public relations executive for TLC, the cable network that produces and runs “All-American Muslim.”

The high end mass media (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist and National Public Radio) are always running pieces which praise professionals of one sort of another for doing what, for the profession, is standard operating practice.

I might not have singled out this puff piece, except for one thing: the writer, Brian Stelter, throws out an extraordinarily stupid idea about crisis communications.  Here’s the key quote: “Despite all its controversial shows, TLC’s brand has remained mostly unblemished these last few years. That may be in part because, while Ms. Goldberg is genial and helpful with reporters off the record, she routinely doles out no-comments to them on the record, thereby refusing to make big stories bigger. She declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.”

The writer wants us to believe that because she officially says no comment but feeds the reporters information on the sly that she has kept the TLC brand from being harmed by controversy. But isn’t controversy what has created the TLC brand? The old saying that even bad press is good does not apply to industrial companies, hospitals and politicians, but it does apply to most controversies involving those appearing on the screen in television entertainments. All the controversies mentioned in the article (Sarah Palin’s reality show and the divorce of the Gosselins) enhanced the ratings of the shows, and I’m sure that the controversy over “All-American Muslim” has juiced up its ratings.

The fact that Goldberg answers questions off the record suggests that TLC knew that the controversy was good for business and would likely help the shows’ ratings. In my experience, if a company is worried that more information will fan the fires of bad publicity, they limit information to a “no comment.” The companies with the best PR professionals will not say “no comment,” but instead will give a statement that describes why they can’t comment, e.g., “the company has a legal obligation to keep employee matters confidential.”

The article gives us the impression that Goldberg is effective in tamping down controversy, yet the strategy that he says she uses is guaranteed to keep the controversy in the media—just what TLC wants. And it seems to have worked.

One sign of a puff piece are puff quotes.  In this article, the only people quoted are Goldberg’s bosses and a writer for People Magazine, which thrives on the type of tidbits of gossip that are the stock and trade of entertainment PR. PR people and celebrity media work hand in glove, since the one supplies the gossip that the other publishes.  The article contains no quote from any independent communications expert.

I have nothing against Goldberg, who is probably a competent professional.  What I object to is the article, which pretends to be about crisis communications, but is really a veiled advertisement for TLC’s reality shows. Thumbs down to TLC for carrying this dreck, thumbs down to the New York Times for willingly being an accomplice to TLC’s PR campaign and thumbs down to Lowe’s for pulling its advertising for the wrong reason. 

BP hollow advertisement for Gulf Coast beaches and seafood neglects what makes each Gulf state distinctive

While watching five minutes of one of the professional football games this past Sunday, I experienced a very bizarre TV commercial. 

On the surface, it had markings of a typical spot promoting tourism: people having fun doing things and eating. But right away, this commercial seemed different. The people in the ad joyously proclaimed that they were from four different states, all along the Gulf of Mexico: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.  They seemed to be engaged in a very friendly rivalry over which state was the better place for a vacation.

But something seemed out of place, something seemed strange: The Floridians weren’t talking about theme parks.  The Louisianans weren’t talking about either Cajun food or riverboats.  The Mississippians said nothing of casinos.  And the Alabamans breathed not a word about football.  No one was talking about what made their state distinctive.

Instead every image was of people doing one of two things:

  • Eating seafood, assumed to be locally caught.
  • Enjoying the beach and water activities.

This act of extreme homogenization of four very different states and the distillation of their similarities into two attributes seemed bizarre. It made me feel a little ill at ease because I kept wanting them to “show me the Mickey,” or at least a football play.  I would have settled for a shot of a jazz band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”   I just couldn’t believe that anyone would think they could sell people on traveling to any of these four states just for a sandy beach and fried shrimp.

But it all made sense at the end of the commercial when we learned on an almost empty still screen that BP Oil sponsored the spot.

In other words, running this spot is part of the reparations that BP is paying the Gulf states for the 2010 Deep Horizon oil spill, which sent oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for three months.

It looks to me as if the committee that cobbled together the concept for this spot used the heavy-as-a-Mack-truck touch characteristic of BP’s interactions with the public during the three months in which nothing the experts tried could cap the leak.  Notice first, the avoidance of the problem, much as BP tried to avoid speaking about the leak: Nowhere in the commercial does anyone say that the Gulf of Mexico shore had a problem. Instead we get the squeamishly happy assertions by proud state supporters that their state is the best place to vacation, all exemplified by the images of succulent seafood and pristine shorelines that prove that the Gulf Shore is fine. Only those who remember the images of oil-covered birds and enormous slick floating ovals will get the connection.

Note, too, how narrowly the commercial addresses the unspoken public issue of the spill’s aftermath and nothing else.  That’s why there’s no room to mentioned Florida’s theme parks or Louisiana’s red beans and rice. Every image and statement focuses solely on how the public issue plays out for people who want to go on vacation: beach activities and seafood. A lawyer must have figured that one out. It was this kind of narrow response that made BP chair Tony Hayward look so uncaring and uninformed.

Finally, note that way the message—that Gulf waters and beaches are clean—is married to a product for sale, to wit, vacationing on Gulf beaches. Someone on the committee insisted that as long as BP was going to do “image advertising,” some industry should benefit. 

Of course, none of the states will benefit from an ad such as this one.  No one says, “Honey, let’s go to a Gulf beach this next vacation,” the way they may say, “Let’s go to Europe” or “Let’s go to Africa.” It will take many years and more money than BP will want to spend to establish the idea of the Gulf as a region to visit. And why would any of these states want to homogenize their image? Why would Louisiana want to tell people that it’s “just like Alabama?”  Meanwhile, all of these states already have their own clear image to tourists, which depends to a small degree only on seafood and beaches. 

The ineptness of the ad would astonish if BP did not already have a track record for awkward and rigidly controlled communications.  It seems as if BP has a tin ear to how the public reacts to anything other than the price of gasoline.

Iowa straw poll symbolizes today’s elective process: those with money get more say in the voting

The first vote of the presidential election cycle took place this past weekend, and Michele Bachmann squeaked out a 400-vote (one percentage point) victory over the septuagenarian libertarian Ron Paul.   The question on everyone’s tongue is if the straw vote of just under 17,000 Republican regulars and enthusiasts in Ames, Iowa will change the complexion of the race.  Will other also-rans besides Pawlenty drop out?  Will contributors line up now to fill Bachmann’s coffers? 

Instead of analyzing the results of the straw vote, I want instead to examine its place in American politics, especially as a symbol of how money has subverted the one-person one-vote principle of representational democracy.

We start with two simple facts, reported by a number of sources: Straw voters had to pay $30 a piece to vote, and the campaigns of the various announced candidates “footed the bill, throwing in a lunch of barbecued pork, grilled hamburgers and ice cream as an enticement to spend part of the day in Ames.”

A little simple arithmetic reveals that Michelle Bachmann probably paid about $150,000 directly to people to have them vote for her.

And make no mistake about it, the paid-for-in-full Iowa straw voters have more of a say in who will be elected president in November of 2012 than any other voters do. 

The concept that applies to the situation is the tabula rasa, or blank chalkboard.  In philosophy, tabula rasa is the theory that individuals are born without built-in beliefs or knowledge and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception.  A corollary of the tabula rasa theory is that the first mark on the blank chalkboard of the mind tends to have more meaning to people than later marks, because that first mark is the only thing on the chalkboard at the time, i.e., the only experience or facts known by the person.

The application in communications is that when considering any issue, most people begin with a clean slate.  The first facts and opinions they hear about the issue tend to shape their reaction.  I have applied this principle for more than 25 years in advising companies and nonprofit organizations how to respond to a potential crisis or get people to believe their side of the story in a crisis or regarding an important issue.

For example, my public relations firm was asked to publicize the position of a well-respected private college after a large Pennsylvania healthcare system tried to steal its name and use it for its new medical college.  We decided to announce the college’s lawsuit late in the business day so that the healthcare system had no time to respond.  The first day articles all told the story from the college’s point of view using the college’s facts.  The result was that the public and elected officials all came to the immediate conclusion that the healthcare system was in the wrong.  We were first out of the gate, and therefore created the reality accepted by the world.  After days of bad publicity for the healthcare system, the lawsuit was quickly settled out of court to the benefit of the college.  We won by putting the first mark on the tabula rasa.

In a profound sense, the Iowa straw vote is the first mark on the tabula rasa of the presidential political season.  No matter how small a mark it is, it takes on an unwarranted large significance by virtue of there being no prior indicator of true voting sentiment.   So this first straw poll vote is more influential, by definition.  Over time, the significance of the Iowa straw vote will fade, as more and more votes are taken in the various states.  But for the time being, the actions of less than one thousandth of one percent of eligible U.S. voters are driving the early phase of the election cycle, in which we discover which of the candidacies is viable.  Some candidates will soar and other fall by the wayside based on how campaign contributors and other voters react to the Iowa straw poll.

Yet only people who paid could vote, and those who did vote mostly received the voting fee from the candidate for whom they voted. 

The Iowa straw vote thus symbolizes the whole electoral process:  people with money have more say in who is elected. 

The candidates with the most money:

  • Always get more coverage by the news media, always get more positive coverage in early media reports and always are considered frontrunners even if early polls suggest otherwise.  Proof positive is this year.  The news media has already decided that Mitt Romney (and now the other money-bags, Rick Perry) are frontrunners, and took the Huntsman candidacy quite seriously simply because Huntsman has hundreds of millions of his own money to spend, if he chooses to do so.
  • Can afford to stage more special events and thereby get even more news coverage.
  • Can do more advertising and hire more people to go door-to-door, make phone calls and attend rallies.

What that means is that to win an election, the candidate must either have a lot of money or appeal to those who give a lot of money to campaigns.  A candidate may have views that reflect the overwhelming majority of citizens, for example Dennis Kucinich, and yet never get a chance to be taken seriously, because the views he/she favors are not the views of political donors.  It has been many an election since the winner of a presidential election spent less money than his opponent. 

Most people can only vote.  Those with money to spend can also influence how we sort out candidates and issues, and thereby limit our choices to those candidates that support their positions on the issues that they care about, even if those positions and issues do not represent the will of the people.

There has always been a bias towards money in American politics, but it’s gotten a lot worse since our right-wing Supreme Court overturned laws limiting corporate campaign contributions last year.  And it will continue to get worse until we can pass campaign financing laws that will survive the gauntlet of corporate toadies that now represent our Supreme Court majority. 

It was okay for Facebook to hire PR pros to go after Google until they started to lie and conceal the client’s name

Don’t be shocked by the news that Facebook hired public-relations agency Burson-Marsteller to plant negative stories about Google ‘s social-networking feature, Social Circle.  Companies, governments and politicians try to plant stories and create Internet buzz all the time in an effort to shape public opinion or influence elected officials and regulators.  They also establish support groups and foundations, fund research, commission experts to write articles and distribute video news releases to TV stations.

I’ve been involved in these kinds of issues management public relations campaigns from time to time.  I want to share one example that concerns a now defunct supermarket company, The Penn Traffic Company, which at one time made the Fortune 500 list of largest companies by sales volume.  A stitching together of several regional supermarket chains across upstate New York, New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, Syracuse-based Penn Traffic’s business eroded over two decades for a number of reasons, one of which was Wal-Mart.  The Northeast was the last U.S. market to which Wal-Mart expanded and wherever Wal-Mart went in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, it seemed to run into a Penn Traffic store.  Wal-Mart always has looked first to small towns and that’s where Penn Traffic was strongest.

Now when Wal-Mart opens a store in a small town like Rome, New York or DuBois, Pennsylvania, the local downtown stores usually die quickly, and money in the form of profit flows out of town to Wal-Mart corporate headquarters.  That’s why soon after an announcement of Wal-Mart’s plans to build, many local small businesses band together to try to stop the behemoth.  And guess who provided financing to these anti-Wal-Mart groups in the towns where Penn Traffic had supermarkets?  Yes, Penn Traffic did.

And there was nothing wrong with it, for two reasons:

  1. We (Penn Traffic and its PR agency, Jampole Communications, Inc.) never lied.
  2. We never tried to conceal what we were doing.

Over the course of several years, reporters from various local newspapers may have asked me a dozen times if Penn Traffic was funding a specific group, and I always answered with some version of the following, ”That’s right, we support these groups and are proud of it.  Wal-Mart will take business away from our store, because every new supermarket takes business away from the existing supermarkets; Food Marketing Institute numbers show that half of food sales go to the new nearest supermarket, and every new supermarket becomes the nearest one.  But we are also very concerned about the negative impact of Wal-Mart on small towns.  Everywhere Wal-Mart has gone, it has cannibalized local and regional businesses owned and operated by residents, turning smaller cities into ghost towns.  We are more concerned about what Wal-Mart will do to our community than we are about its impact on our business, which is large and thus able to respond to competitive challenges.”

I would also make sure that reporters understood that although many articles identified me as a Penn Traffic spokesperson, I was in fact an outside consultant hired by the company.

Contrast this attempt to influence the public and regulators to what Facebook/Burson-Marsteller (BM) did: The posts that BM employees made contended Google Social Circle violated user privacy and may have broken federal regulations. Two USA Today reporters uncovered that many of these claims were false.  When asked about its involvement, BM at first refused to name the client. 

By spreading falsehoods instead of speaking the truth and by not identifying who was paying for the message, Facebook/BM crossed a very clear and clean ethical line.  It is shameful and gives other corporations and their propagandists a bad name.

The broader issue if course is whether or not it’s okay to hire professional communicators to pass on truthful information, assuming that it’s relevant to the issues at hand.  I think it is okay, because not to allow the free dissemination of truthful information is a form of censorship. 

With one PR blunder, Meg Whitman may have wiped out $120 million in election spending.

Let’s say one subgroup who represented 18% of all voters all cast their ballot against one candidate, which in the United States would usually mean they cast their vote for the one other candidate.  That means that the candidate against whom that one subgroup voted would have to win about 61% of the rest of all voters to win the election.

Getting 61% of any non-ethnic group to vote one way is very tough to do, especially if the candidate is a Republican in blue-state California.  And that’s why yesterday Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for Governor, may have committed the very worst public relations blunder of the 2010 election season.

Earlier this week, a former housekeeper for Whitman, the billionaire founder CEO of E-Bay, said that Whitman knew for years that the housekeeper was an illegal alien, but kept her on illegally all the same.  Whitman has denied she ever knew the housekeeper was illegal.  The crux of the dispute comes down to a letter that the Social Security Administration sent to Whitman in 2003, which Whitman claims she never got.  The letter said that the housekeeper’s name did not match the Social Security number she had submitted to Whitman.

Here is the Associate Press version of Whitman’s explanation today of why she never got the letter:

When asked at a news conference whether the worker, Nicky Diaz Santillan, might have taken the letter intended for Whitman, she said “it’s very possible.” The housekeeper was in charge of going through the mail, she said.

“She might have been on the lookout for that letter,” Whitman said. “It would pain me to believe that that’s what she might have done but I have no other explanation.”

In other words, the billionaire white lady accused her Hispanic housekeeper of thievery!

How do you think Whitman’s comments will sit with Hispanic voters, who every day experience the prejudice of being stereotyped as dishonest, especially as hired help?  The stereotype of the dishonest Hispanic maid or hired hand is almost a standard caricature in TV and movies.

It was okay for Whitman to deny the allegation that she knew her housekeeper was illegal.  But to accuse the Hispanic maid of stealing the letter was a big step into deep doo-doo, or, if you prefer, a whale’s mouthful of foot.  I’m certain that most if not all Hispanic voters will get a shiver of disgust when they read or hear Whitman’s comments.  It reminded me of George Allen, 2008 Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Virginia calling someone at a rally a “macaca,” considered an odious racial slur in much of the world.

Luckily for Whitman, Hispanics constitute 37% of the population of California, but only 18% of its voters.

We know that a certain part of the population everywhere believes the stereotype or have other racist opinions about Hispanics.  But those people were never going to vote for Jerry Brown or any other Democratic candidate.  Hispanics, an economically and even socially diverse group of people, might have voted for a Republican.  Political candidates from both parties have actively courted the Hispanic vote in California for years.  But I don’t think they’ll vote for anyone who trades in an awful and untrue stereotype about them.

When asked the question, Whitman should have said, “I don’t know why I never received the letter, but I know I never did” and left it at that.

And to think, Meg-Bay has spent $120 million of her own money getting elected Governor so she could fight for lower taxes and other standard Republican positions.  Could it all be down the drain because she or her public relations advisors went into attack mode with no evidence?  She violated one of the most important rules of PR: don’t attack unless you have a clean kill.  With nothing but speculation on her side, Whitman’s verbal attack on her former maid did nothing but hurt her own cause.