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.

The Onion Makes China Cry

 The Onion Makes China Cry

The PR Verdict: “F” (Full Fiasco) for China’s People’s Daily news outlet.

What do Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Channing Tatum have in common with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un? They all share the global title of “Sexiest Man Alive.” The three actors, previously anointed  by People Magazine in its annual “Sexiest Man Alive” issue, now share their title with North Korea’s recently appointed dictator – courtesy of satirical magazine The Onion. Good one!

Not everyone got the joke, however. China’s leading online media outlet, The People’s Daily, immediately took up the story on its website and fawningly celebrated the universal appeal of its close ally – without realizing the story was a joke. The article included over 55 photos of Kim Jong Un, but unlike People, none of them showed the winner shirtless.

China’s paper of record unwittingly quoted extensively from The Onion‘s text, adding, “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true.” Clearly not afraid to overpraise, the news organization went on to say that the dumpling dictator made the editorial board swoon with his “impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile.” Channing Tatum, eat your heart out.

The PR Verdict: “F” (Full Fiasco) to The People’s Daily, whose credibility reached a new low.

The PR Takeaway: Death by a thousand laughs. The serious mouthpiece of the Communist party just had one of its more embarrassing and funniest falls. The official response at the outset was that The People’s Daily “verifies all its sources,” but since then the story has been taken down. The Onion is understandably boasting, “We just fooled the Chinese government!” Credibility is at an all time low. In the PR arsenal, ridicule is far more damaging and long lasting than ongoing protest.