The “Selfie” Seen ‘Round the World

 The Selfie Seen Round the World

PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for President Obama

If President Obama wasn’t suffering enough PR damage lately, a seemingly thoughtless gesture during the memorial service for anti-apartheid crusader and former South African President Nelson Mandela sealed the deal.

Acting as though they were at a party instead of a memorial service, Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt took a break from the eulogies to snap what is known in today’s tech parlance as a “selfie”. Unfortunately for them, someone else was snapping their photo at the same time – and the photo immediately went viral.

Everything about the photo induces a wince, from the trio crowding their heads together like goofy teenagers to a possibly furious Michelle Obama appearing to ignore them. Sadly, the selfie seen ’round the world became more newsworthy than Obama’s own moving and powerful speech about Mandela’s life.

Is there a silver lining here? Possibly. The faux pas also overshadowed Obama’s other gaffe that day, an  “unplanned” handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro that forced the White House to reiterate the president’s “grave concerns” about human rights violations in the Caribbean nation.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for President Obama.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Public figures are always on display, never more than when the chips are down. In late November, a poll suggested a majority of Americans don’t think Obama trustworthy as his advisers sought to divert attention from the PR debacle associated with the rollout of Obamacare. Using his exceptional oratorical skills at Mandela’s memorial service might have been a way to remove some of the tarnish. Unfortunately, forgetting that he must always be presidential cost him that opportunity.

Sochi Media Won’t Include Social Media

soc olympics1 Sochi Media Wont Include Social Media

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for sponsors of 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

If it weren’t offensive, it might be almost quaint: an Olympic sponsoring committee seeking to impose arbitrary limits on social media. That’s what organizers of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are trying to do. Journalists covering the games will lose their credentials and be booted out if they take and post unauthorized photos or video with a smartphone. It’s possible that specators will face restrictions on photography as well.

The motivation here is more profit than censorship. The Games are big business and event organizers understandably want to wring every conceivable rouble from their sponsorship. To do that, they want absolute control of images, and there’s precedent for such an effort: Organizers of the 2012 London Summer Games sought similar clampdowns on use of social media.

As for censorship and eavesdropping, fear not, comrades: the Russian government has the games hard-wired and will be monitoring all communications, filtering as needed.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the Sochi Games sponsors and their control issues.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Accept forces beyond your control or risk coming to grief. Social media is like a fire hose you can’t turn off – your best bet is to keep it pointed in the right direction. Competition in this case is among the athletes, so there is reduced reputational and competitive downside for  the organizers. Instead Sochi’s sponsors could channel their repressive impulses in a different direction to promote goodwill without affecting profit – a photography contest, for instance? Better to channel the wisdom of crowds than to risk their wrath.

NSA’s Defense On Ally Spying: We Didn’t. But We Would

Merkel NSA 150x150 NSAs Defense On Ally Spying: We Didnt. But We Would

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (“PR Problematic”) for the NSA. (Pictured: German Chancellor Angela Merkel)

The National Security Agency (NSA) this week defended itself against explosive charges that it has spied for years on top world leaders, including US allies. The accusations, which have infuriated Europe, come courtesy of Edward Snowden, the US citizen holed up in Russia who continues to dole out incriminating and deeply embarrassing tidbits about what the US has been up to since the Cold War ended.

Appearing before the US House Intelligence Committee, the NSA’s top brass responded to the charges in a way befitting a spy shop, both denying and acknowledging the accusations. To paraphrase: No, they did not spy on France and Spain; France and Spain did that themselves, and sent the information over to the US. However, they do think spying on one’s allies is perfectly fine.

It is? Yes, according to the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., who said snooping on other countries’ leaders has gone on for decades. “It is one of the first things I learned in intelligence school in 1963. It’s a fundamental given.”

It may be a given in spy school, but it comes as a bit of a shock to everyone else, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is livid over claims the US has been tapping her mobile phone for years. President Obama has left his intelligence chiefs to fend for themselves, intimating he was unaware of their overzealous eavesdropping.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (“PR Problematic”) for the NSA. The revelations, and embarrassment, just keep on coming.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Sometimes stating the obvious isn’t, well, so obvious. Industries besides espionage – think medicine or technology – operate in ways that aren’t easily understood or accessible by those outside. That makes PR tricky when matters spill over into the outside world. Good PRs invest time in educating journalists about their clients. Those regular lunches or “meet-and-greets” with senior personnel don’t always yield stories, but they do give reporters a basic knowledge of how companies or industries work. It works well with technical industries; perhaps “PR 101” should be added to the intelligence school’s curriculum too.

Caribbean Nations Sue Over Slave Trade

 Caribbean Nations Sue Over Slave Trade

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly Okay) for the fourteen Caribbean countries filing suit against nations that made them the victims of slave trade.

The film Twelve Years a Slave was released this past week at a pivotal time – the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Though the movie focuses on slavery in America, it was made by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, whose parents are from the West Indies by way of the slave trade. A quiet coincidence could be found in latter pages of the news: this weekend, fourteen Caribbean countries damaged by the slave trade announced they will demand apologies, and reparations, from Britain, France, and the Netherlands.

The case is based on the past’s lingering effect on the present, according to the nations. “Our constant search and struggle for development resources is linked directly to the historical inability of our nations to accumulate wealth from the efforts of our peoples during slavery and colonialism,” said Baldwin Spencer, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda. The list of damages they bring to Leigh Day, the London-based law firm representing them, ranges from underdeveloped economies to health issues.

With crimes over two centuries old and, in fact, not legal crimes when they were committed, reparations seem unlikely. However, settlements may be reached, bringing the Caribbean nations some of what they wanted: money, and acknowledgment.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly Okay) for the fourteen Caribbean countries filing suit against nations that made them the victims of slave trade.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: There are strings attached to every endeavor. History has a way of being forgotten unless brought up in ways that can make a weary world take note, as with Twelve Years a Slave‘s release on an historically significant anniversary. While the Caribbean countries may have wanted more than mere acknowledgment of barbarity, asking for reparations may be a stretch. Should modern-day nations pay for injustices committed centuries ago? Whether the courts decide may be beside the point. What was desired was acknowledgment and money, and the nations still suffering may get some of both – along with discussion as to whether these kinds of wrongs can ever be righted.

 

After Taliban Shooting, Malala Is Still On Message

 After Taliban Shooting, Malala Is Still On Message

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Malala Yousafzai.

Before anyone knew her name, or even that she existed, Malala Yousafzai had a mission: that she, and other girls like her, should be able to go to school. A simple right for many, yet forbidden to Pakistani girls like Yousafzai by the Taliban. But the world came to know the young crusader on the day a Taliban soldier boarded a school bus, asked “Who is Malala?” and shot the then-11 year old in the face.

Miraculously, Yousafzai survived. Even from a hospital bed, she was undeterred and unintimidated. Her parents soon reported that she was requesting her schoolbooks so that she wouldn’t fall behind in her studies.

The now 16-year-old Yousafzai tells of the day she was shot, and what has happened since, in her book I am Malala, being released worldwide tomorrow. She has addressed the United Nations and become the youngest person to be nominated for Nobel Peace Prize. Through it all, the girl who took on the Taliban at age 11 has stayed on message, on mission: “I was spared for a reason,” she writes. “To use my life for helping people.”

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Malala Yousafzai.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Don’t lose sight of your cause by becoming a celeb. Acts of heroism can be blurred by exposure in the limelight. If the mission is to become a star, as is the case with those who sign on for reality shows, then there’s no such thing as bad publicity. However, when the mission is of a humanitarian nature – say, fighting for the right for girls to be educated, against the edict of an oppressive regime – there’s a delicate balance between being the face of a movement and becoming a name. While no one may have known of Malala Yousafzai before she was nearly murdered by the Taliban, she makes sure her mission stays front and centre.

The Fat Lady Sings at the Met, Despite Protests

Met Eugene Onegin 150x127 The Fat Lady Sings at the Met, Despite Protests

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for The Met’s straightforward, on-brand response to protestors. (Pictured: performers in The Met’s production of “Eugene Onegin.”)

As Russia put harsh anti-gay laws into place, celebrities have begun announcing boycotts in protest; Bravo’s Andy Cohen announced he would not co-host the Miss Universe pageant taking place in Moscow while Cher is not including stops in Russia. But when protesters planned to picket the production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” The Metropolitan Opera said the show must go on.

The protest centered around the conflict between the composer and the stars of the production. Tchaikovsky was gay; some of the performers in this staging of “Onegin” have been associated with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man who put the anti gay laws into place.

The Met’s response came from its General Manager, Peter Gelb, in a blog on Bloomberg.com. “As an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world,” Gelb wrote. “Throughout its distinguished 129-year history, the Met has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause, no matter how important or just,” Gelb wrote. “Our messaging has always been through art.” Gelb further pointed out that the Met’s stance on gay rights is reflected through “the choice of our LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rainbow of artists and staff.”

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for The Met’s straightforward, on-brand response to protestors.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Messages can become mixed when they come from the wrong messenger. It’s one thing for performers to choose not to go to Russia in protest; a similar boycott took place when celebrities refused to perform in Sun City, a South African resort, when it was still under apartheid rule. But where is the line drawn? On artistic soil. The Met is in New York, a melting pot for cultures and a place where the arts can unite people of all diversities. Gelb stated the Met’s case respectfully, unequivocally, and quickly. In this case, the hubbub was over before the fat lady sang.

The Worm Turns…Into a Diplomat?

 The Worm Turns...Into a Diplomat?

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Dennis Rodman (pictured with Kim Jong Un).

Dennis Rodman has always been a maverick. And while few thought they’d seen the last of him when he retired from professional basketball, even fewer could have predicted that the ostentatious athlete would be making headlines for his  attempts at international “diplomacy” nearly 15 years later.

On the court, Rodman was known as “The Worm” and played an aggressive defense for several top-ranked US teams. Off the court, he was equally well known for his multi-hued hair, wild tattoos, and laundry list of wives and legal woes. After stints in acting and professional wrestling, the now 52-year-old Rodman has a new career: unofficial ambassador to North Korea and its young dictator Kim Jong Un, or – as Rodman put it this week – his “friend for life.”

Returning from a  second trip to see Kim, Rodman held a press conference this week to dutifully convey Kim’s message to the world: Hey, North Korea isn’t so bad! Kim, Rodman insisted, is “a very good guy,” and, really, just wants to talk. One presumes Rodman’s state-managed tours of the North Korean countryside did not include the millions believed starving and living in forced poverty, or the gulags where multiple generations of a family are imprisoned for a single relative’s transgression.

While a few naïve hopefuls continue to view Rodman’s visits as positive, the growing feeling is this “basketball diplomacy” is at best entertaining and at worst embarrassing. As one late-night comedian put it, “Not since Sea Biscuit and Hitler has there been a more strange pairing of athlete and dictator.”

THE PR VERDICT:  “D” (PR Problematic) for Dennis Rodman. US Secretary of State John Kerry need not fear for his position.

THE PR TAKEAWAY:  There is a fine line between outrageous and oafish. Rodman’s antics have always pushed the envelope, and he has been rewarded with lots of attention. But there is something pathetic about this latest publicity grab: Rodman appears less a savvy envoy and more an aging ex-basketball player mesmerized by a young despot who flatters him and makes him feel important. “I’m not a joke,” Rodman insisted at the press conference, sitting next to a bust of his own head. “Take me seriously.” If only it were that easy, Dennis.

Syria: An About Face to Save Face?

 Syria: An About Face to Save Face?

The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for Syrian President Bashar-Al-Assad.

Call Syrian President Bashar-Al-Assad what you will – and he is being described by many names these days – and add another to the list: master of public relations. Remember the days before war broke out in Syria? A  fawning feature in Vogue celebrated Mrs. Assad and her presidential mate as the Middle East’s glamorous, modernizing couple. Such was the range and power of their PR machine.

By the time the Vogue article hit the stands, Syria was burning, and Assad was being called, at best, a dictator. The news has only gotten worse over time, coming to a head when US President Barack Obama threatened air strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons against its people.

In the ensuing debate, as pundits interviewed members of Congress on their voting intentions, one voice was quiet: that of Assad himself. Until he made himself available to American TV journalist Charlie Rose, that is.

In the interview, the man many are calling a monster was calm, not defensive. Bankers responsible for financial crimes have sweat far more than Assad, a man accused of mass murder. He followed up that calm show with an announcement: that Syria would agree to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile – if the US backed down from a strike.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for President Bashar-Al-Assad. An albeit reluctantly high grade for a dictator using his PR machine to play chess with the world.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Image need rehab? Appear cooperative. Whether one believes Assad or not, he has pounced at the right moment. The media reports that Americans are sympathetic to the Syrian people, yet fearful of involvement in yet another Middle Eastern war. Congress is at odds as to what to do. And suddenly, Assad the Impaler comes into our living rooms as Assad the Reasonable Cooperator. Timing is everything, and in the midst of a fray, heads will turn toward the calm voice of reason – no matter the source.

The PRV Report Card: This Week’s Winners & Losers

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & LosersPR WINNER OF THE WEEK: A (PR PERFECT) to Edward Snowden, the American intelligence analyst-turned-global fugitive who reportedly walked out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Thursday a free man (for now). Snowden’s improbable mission to expose secret American surveillance programs will see another chapter writ after Russia granted the 30-year-old temporary asylum for one year. During his five weeks in the airport’s transit lounge, Snowden stayed away from cameras and stressed, through statements and spokespeople, that his quest is about the American people. The aura he’s created is one of honest motivation and cool determination. Folk hero, anyone?

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & LosersPR LOSER OF THE WEEK: F (FULL FIASCO) to Barbara Morgan (at left, with Anthony Weiner), communications director for the death-spiraling Anthony Weiner campaign who – not realizing she was on the record – went on a profanity-filled tirade to a journalist. Anthony Weiner, of course, is the delusional mayoral candidate for New York City who has repeatedly sent photos of his crotch to young women. It was in commenting on one of them that Ms. Morgan unleashed her verbal assault, calling former intern Olivia Nuzzi a “slutbag,” a “bitch,” and several other unprintable epithets. In a shocking development, Weiner said he’ll stand by her.  The only thing missing from this circus is a clown car.

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & LosersTHE PRV “THERE’S NO ‘THERE’ THERE” AWARD to the Obama Administration, for over-promising on releasing new details about the government’s domestic electronic surveillance program. The not-so-big reveal came as Administration officials again appeared before Congress to testify on the legality and necessity of the surveillance program. But the three – yes, just three – documents were heavily censored and clarified “nothing of importance,” as the New York Times editorialized. Testimony before Congress also produced nada of substance. Meanwhile, events continue to blow past the Administration’s efforts to contain the damage: UK newspaper The Guardian published more spying program details, and a day later, Russia granted secret-leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum.

Royal Baby Gives Royal Boost to UK

royal baby 150x150 Royal Baby Gives Royal Boost to UK

The PR Verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) for the new prince’s effect on UK economy.

Economy ailing? Country need a financial boost? Just get your beloved monarchs to give birth to a future king. That’s exactly what Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge did for the United Kingdom when a new prince was born.

Though at press time the baby was still unnamed, the financial figures from the birth of His Royal Highness were already in. The Center for Retail Research estimated that Royal Baby Watchers would spend upward of $420 million in celebration over the birth of the third in line for the throne. There was a boost in visitors to London, not least of which from the media, camped out for weeks to get shots of the royal trip to the hospital and the first photos of the future queen or, as it turned out, king. Commemorative merchandise was for sale, along with donuts iced with baby footprints, and, of course, a lot of alcohol for toasting.

This boost in economy is yet another part of the re-branding, if you will, of the monarchy. In the past, Britain’s royals have struggled with scandal, but recently that has changed. William bucked Buckingham to marry his choice and when Kate was caught topless by paparazzi, the verdict was shame on the magazines that ran the snaps. Now, a baby brings glad tidings during an ongoing worldwide recession. The royals are on a roll.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for William, Kate, and the UK’s warm, PR-savvy welcome to the royal baby.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Accentuate the positive. In a time of a struggling economy, good news – from any source – is always welcome. The British Royals have always grabbed the headlines, occasionally like some sort of reality show meets romance novel. William and Kate are playing their PR cards well. It’s called making hay while the son – sorry! – shines.