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Baseball, Apple Pie, and USA PR Disasters

Perhaps the only thing more gruesome and despicable than the images of American soldiers torturing, mistreating and demeaning Iraqi prisoners was the videotaped execution of an American who was abducted by terrorists in Iraq. But behind the images of both disturbing acts lays a simple premise: Public Relations.

The pictures, and according to news reports, videos that are to come, of American soldiers torturing Iraqi soldiers are probably the single worst piece of public relations the United States has suffered in decades. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in this case, the “value” of those pictures could be stunning and awful.

“[The pictures] could be worth a thousand bodies,” an old friend, a State Department staffer, told me.

Indeed, the “value” of those pictures for terrorist groups and other anti-American interests won’t be known for some time. Already, the pictures are being used as a rallying cry against America and supposedly faked photos of British soldiers committing abuses are being used against the United Kingdom. This is a worst case public relations scenario; America has provided its enemies (think of your competition) with all the ammunition needed to launch a PR offensive.

The politics of the situation aside, the President and his team have swung into crisis mode. The President appeared on Arab television and apologized for the actions of U.S. soldiers. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has publicly apologized and during questioning on Capitol Hill, he said he was accountable for the actions of the soldiers. Americans are appalled by the pictures and they condemn the actions of the soldiers, but is it enough?

PR professionals know all too well that public relations is a tricky game. In this wired age, you have to deal with public perception from all corners of the world. The media is a living, breathing, twenty-four hour/seven day a week entity ready to pounce on mistakes, bad news and pretty much anything that can be summed up with a snappy headline. And your competition is just waiting to take a shot at you and help turn public perception against you. Truth be told, the most important wars that are waged are those of public perception, which means that they’re about public relations.

If you examine the American response to the Iraqi prison photos, you’ll notice that the PR strategy that has been employed has failed to a large degree. This is evident by the fact that there are more pictures, even videos, out there and the absence of a swift resolution will certainly keep the issue in the media, and the public’s minds, for some time.

Apologies simply aren’t enough and even the specter of public court marshals won’t placate the Iraqi public. What the world is clamoring for is action. Heads must roll because that’s the only way the “bad press” can shift from no-name American soldiers who represent the country as a whole to known entities who, not just the country’s enemies, but America as well, can pour scorn upon. The Bush administration’s main problem right now is that the buck is being passed and everyone knows it. I won’t debate the merits of the job anyone in the administration has done, but the simple fact here is that someone needs to take the blame and some part-time, poorly-trained soldiers who say they were “just following orders” won’t do it.

How, you ask, does any of this apply to you?

In the world of the business, many of you are foot soldiers. Some are Colonels and Generals, some even the equivalent of the nation’s leader. But from the outside looking in, you’re all part of one unit, or one army, or one nation. Each individual represents his or her company or client, just like the American soldiers involved in this latest fiasco represent, to many, the 290 million other Americans.

Bear this in mind next time you, or someone, in your organization is about to take questionable action. Because, not unlike the U.S. military, the buck at a company usually doesn’t go up the ladder.
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The gruesome videotaped execution of an American citizen in Iraq is an unfortunate reminder that even the most savage of those who walk this earth have learned the power of public relations. Similar to the video of the slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan two years, the video is already being used by terrorist propagandists in an attempt to incite violence against America and its allies.

Terrorist organizations have proven to be remarkably savvy when it comes to disseminating information. Not surprising, they’re resorting to “guerilla PR” tactics. While I’m hesitant to suggest we can learn anything from these type of actions, it does show the flipside to the type of PR the vast majority of you practice.
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As if we haven’t had enough bad news to deal with, Major League Baseball (MLB) stepped up to the plate last week and offered a fat pitch.

When MLB announced that it had struck a deal with Sony to promote the upcoming “Spider-Man 2” movie, the public outcry was intense and vicious. Baseball fans and commentators accused baseball of literally “selling out” the game and even the players said it was a joke. For those who don’t follow baseball, the players’ ambivalence to the marketing scheme isn’t very surprising. You’d be hard-pressed to find an industry in American where “labor” so openly feuds with management.

In the end, MLB capitulated and cut out key parts of the promotion that were upsetting the public. For it’s part, Sony acted with surprise but handled the situation beautifully. No one was actually coming down on Sony – they’re just trying to promote a movie. Sony, which was paying $3.6 million to MLB for the promotion, has according to one marketing expert, already gotten twice that much publicity for the movie.

I guess it just goes to show you that there’s a silver lining to some PR disasters (just not ever, it seems, for MLB).

Oh, one last thing, while the Wall Street Journal got credit for breaking the story of the baseball-Spidey promotion, it was actually The Sports Business Journal which first reported the news, way back in February. Maybe they need some better PR, because no one seemed to pay attention to it then.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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