Shutdown, Tragedy, Looming Default: Welcome to Washington

 Shutdown, Tragedy, Looming Default: Welcome to Washington

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the United States government.

The fictional town of Sunnydale was the site of the Hellmouth in the popular TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but it’s starting to feel like the true location of the portal to Hades is Washington, DC. Look at the events of the past week alone. First, the government shut down. A few days later, a delusional woman went on an automotive rampage near the Capitol and was shot and killed by Capitol police – who were receiving no pay at the time due to the shutdown. Earlier this week, a man self-immolated on the Washington Mall, motives unknown. And next week, should Congress fail to come to terms, America will hit its debt ceiling and go into default. End times, or what?

The game of high-stakes poker between Congress and President Obama saw much sweat on the Republican side and no blinking from the Oval Office. As of yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner said “I’m not drawing any lines in the sand” about budget issues – a far softer message than was broadcast merely one day ago.

Meanwhile, Congress and the government in general are coming under increasing pressure to get past this problem. Citizens are shouting at their representatives. Petitions to put Congressional paychecks on the same freeze as those of government workers are gaining signatures. And the stock market is flattening as a result of the impending default. How deeply will Washington peer into this abyss?

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the United States government. They would have earned an “F,” but we’re saving that for next week.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Remember who you’re fighting for. While Democrats say they’re trying to give Americans affordable health care, and Republicans are saying Americans don’t want it, both sides are receiving substantial paychecks, unlike some of their constituents. The longer the standoff, the more Americans become united – in their increasing ire at their own elected officials. Seems likely that, come voting time, Congresspeople will have hell to pay.

The New York Times and When Not To Publish

 The New York Times and When Not To Publish

The PR Verdict: C (Distinctly OK) for The New York Times. (Pictured: Times editor Jill Abramson.)

When does The New York Times decide it won’t publish something on the grounds that it might impinge on national security? It’s a question the paper of record has had to address recently. An angry Congress wants clarification, as do some readers. What to say?

The controversy stems from recent articles published in the NY TImes about President Obama’s “kill list,” as well as the U.S. government’s computer virus warfare against Iran.  Obama’s critics claim the information came directly from the White House in order to bolster the President’s tough image on national security. Obama’s PR says this is dead wrong and that the President is intent on cracking down on staff leaking classified information.

The Times‘s defense? It always consults with government officials prior to publication. The paper confirms that government officials had not asked the paper to spike the two stories in question, and it rejects any suggestion that national security was endangered. “No story about details of government secrets has come near to demonstrably hurting the national security in decades and decades,” is the official quote. Case closed for The New York Times (for the moment).

The PR Verdict: C (Distinctly OK) for The New York Times, whose response still keeps the decision to publish or not in the realm of a high level of discretion. Something more objective might help the debate.

PR Takeaway: Freedom of speech and public interest rest on a continuum of interest and competing concerns. The Times has chosen to portray the issues as relatively straightforward – dangerous to release, or not? Why not talk about the issue as a long continuum with transparency at one end and secrecy on the other. List and weigh factors that might have a bearing on publication. Think of it as a point system; it will undoubtedly be imperfect, but it would change the debate from a discretion-based decision to something more independent and apolitical.

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Is The New York Times releasing information that could compromise national security, or exercising the freedom of press? Give us your PR Verdict, below.

WHO Dares To Take On Big Tobacco

en banner 300x193 WHO Dares To Take On Big Tobacco

The PR Verdict: “A” (Gold Star!) for WHO and its very public and unapologetic fight with Big Tobacco.

Who wants to take on Big Tobacco? The famously disliked industry with deep pockets has had its fair share of scraps and sworn enemies.  But how about a fight with the UN, or an international agency? Enter the World Health Organization (WHO), now aggressively throwing some tough punches at one of the world’s most powerful industries.

Two weeks ago was World No Tobacco Day. The day is used to generate awareness that tobacco kills nearly 6 million people annually. WHO, wanting to ramp up pressure, selected the provocative theme of  “tobacco industry interference” as its big idea. Building on the idea that tobacco kills, a new layer of detail was added: Big Tobacco is a Big Bully.

Mincing no words, WHO said the campaign is meant to shed light on tobacco’s brazen attempts to undermine regulation. Describing the tobacco industry’s tactics as “nefarious and harmful,” it lists strategies from Tobacco’s PR attack template: Use  front groups to make your case; interfere with political and legislative processes; and find ways to manipulate scientific evidence. The website, in a “name-and-shame” tactic, then obligingly lists groups and individuals that advance the industry’s interests.

The PR Verdict: “A” (Gold Star!) for WHO and its very public and unapologetic fight with Big Tobacco. To have had this approved by the powers that be is extraordinary. To have heard nothing from Big Tobacco warning about Big Brother bureaucracies shows that this might be working.

PR Takeaway: “Know your enemy” seems to be WHO’s mantra. The campaign is a warning shot to every smart lobbyist in Washington and PR agencies globally that they are being watched. By exposing the PR playbook, WHO has the upper hand. At the same time, WHO might want to check that all its senior officials and budgets are in line and above reproach. Any weakness in that area is where volume two of the PR playbook typically begins.

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Will WHO’s brazen tactics against Big Tobacco work or backfire? Give us your PR Verdict in Speak Your Mind, below.