Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On the Merits of Blaming Your PR

There is a certain attitude that falls in upon public officials when they are in trouble: blaming the PR. At the root of this attitude is the belief that the problem is not in their problems, but rather the perception of those problems, and if they could only be explained or spun away, everything would be just fine. And they would be—for said official, as the inconvenient work of having to self-examine and to change can be helpfully avoided.

I had been planning on writing this for a day or two now, when I read this WSJ article about Thad Allen blaming B.P.’s PR skills on the problems:
…BP has much room for improvement when it comes to dealing with the people side of the disaster, he said.

“It’s something they don’t naturally have as a capacity or a competency in their company, and it’s been very, very hard for them to understand,” he said. “The lens by which the American people view them … that’s where they need to improve the most.”
Or perhaps they could improve at properly heeding safety warnings? Just a guess there. In fact, it’s difficult to tell what, exactly, B.P. could have done better—in the public welfare sense—in terms of its PR? I suppose it could have apologized more quickly in order to calm people down, but this seems inadequate with the actual human devastation that’s occurred.

Blaming the PR becomes an easy way to avoid discussing actual human problems often in such a disaster: remember that discussion of Toyota’s Prius problems? Remember the odd discussion about whether the Toyota CEO bowed low enough and what it meant: was it an apologetic bow or a perfunctory bow or blah blah blah? Meanwhile there was the whole death thing, but this becomes uncomfortable to dwell upon; moreover, the subject required some expertise, whereas everyone fancies him- or herself an armchair psychologist.

What is most pernicious about the blame-the-PR strategy is how meta it becomes: there was an article in The Guardian admiring, in a my-worst-enemy kind of a way, the economic spin of the Tories—they’d learned from the master, the article asserted. Whatever the truth or falseness of that particular discussion, it quickly focuses on the discussion of the discussion and makes everyone into insiders. And insiders like to focus on the odd kabuki of their tribe and not on the actual results of their actions.

The blame-the-PR strategy came to an odd head today with Robert Gibbs bizarrely choosing to lash out at liberals at his press conference today. Gibbs says:
“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”

The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as healthcare reform, Gibbs said: “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”
There are many odd things about this rant. First, note how it becomes about liberals’ perceptions rather than whether these people on the professional left are actually right. Second, as is often true about the perceptions game, the characterization of those liberals’ view is wrong. Usually when people try to play the blame-the-PR game, they try to misrepresent the views of whomever it is they’re blaming; in this case most liberals don’t actually want to have Canadian healthcare or eliminate the Pentagon or believe Obama is Bush. In this case the strategy is poorly executed: it’s rarely a good idea to insult your best followers, the ones who knocked on doors and gave you money; it’s even more rarely a good idea to insult your followers in a way that reinforces all of the stereotypes about liberals which can only end up disempowering your administration by implication, as it is putatively a liberal one. But whether poorly executed or not, the strategy itself is wrong: instead of thinking about what it will take to better the economy or stop climate change or end the wars, we’ll be talking about whether liberals are too mean to Obama. That’s the wrong discussion. David Brooks made a perceptive point on this score: “Politics is about choosing what arguments to have.” Gibbs chose the wrong argument, insultingly.

No comments:

Post a Comment