Seriously, Karl. Did You Not See This One Coming?

Political Mastermind Walks Right Into PR Trap

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Whether you agree or disagree with Sheryl Crow or Laurie David and their take on the global warming issue, you've got to give them credit for pulling of a slick PR stunt at the expense of presidential advisor Karl Rove at the recent annual White House Correspondent's Dinner.

Eric Webber Eric Webber
Singer Crow and David, a producer of Oscar-winning global warming pic "An Inconvenient Truth," approached Rove ostensibly to engage him in a dialog about the current administration's views on climate change. I say "ostensibly" because I don't think many people actually believe that their motive was anything other than to poke Rove with a sharp stick and then wait to see what happened.

"What happened" is that, reportedly, Rove became incensed, maybe rude, possibly even outraged depending on where you get your news. It doesn't matter exactly what was said or at what volume/level of aggression. What matters is that Crow/David knew they had a very good chance of getting a newsworthy reaction from the famously short-fused Rove.

I'm not a big fan of the orchestrated ambush, but Crow/David deserve kudos on two fronts. First, can you possibly choose a better place to try and make political news than in a room full of political reporters? More important, the two understand the speed at which news now travels.

They quickly spread the story around to the gathered reporters. But they didn't just wait for anyone to bite; they immediately began writing their version of the events for blogs, and word was on the web before Rove had a chance to get home and into his Dr. Denton's.

By the next day, David was all over the airwaves, recounting how all she wanted to do was talk, maybe give ol' Karl a hug and say "Can't we all be brothers?" And, much to her surprise (where's the emoticon for sarcasm when I need one?) Rove went ballistic.

David and Crow were in a no-lose situation. However Rove responded, the two were prepared to make PR hay from it. Maybe Rove would politely listen. If so, David and Crow come off as looking diplomatic and open-minded. Even if Rove had respectfully disagreed, they still could have lauded themselves for making the effort.

Or he could have done what he did and given the two the perfect opportunity to do what they did -- create news out of seemingly nothing. Picking a fight -- or even fighting back -- with an opponent who has nothing to lose is a very dangerous proposition.

Rove didn't help himself when he decided to respond with a bit of self-aggrandizement, claiming he works "for the American people." He doesn't, of course. He's not appointed or elected. He's accountable only to his boss (who does happen to work for the people). In other words, this turned out as well as Crow and David had hoped it would.

For Rove, this latest publicity black-eye was entirely avoidable. Surely by now he knows that there is a long line of people wanting to slap a "kick-me" sign on his back. He doesn't have to oblige them. Here's a tip, Karl. If you happen to be sitting at a table of New York Times reporters, in a room full of other journalists, and someone comes up in an obvious attempt to antagonize you, don't accommodate them.

Instead, he should have composed himself and said "I'd be happy to talk to you about this, but this isn't the right time or the right place." Good PR is just that simple sometimes. Even if he wouldn't really be all that happy to do it, it's a fair response and would diffuse the situation. Crow and David might have still drummed up a story out of this, but it would not have been nearly as good, and certainly not at such a cost to Rove.

Maybe Rove just doesn't care about public image. But if he really sees himself as a public servant, then he should. And ask anyone upset about the loss of a Republican congressional majority, and they'll certainly tell you that he should care.

It seems like such a simple lesson for people in public life -- pick your battles carefully, and gracefully avoid a fight whenever you can. But if I had a dime for every time I'd seen a public official carelessly open his mouth and step in the pile rather than around it I'd have, well, a lot of dimes.

So it's one "thumbs-up" for a PR plan well-conceived, executed and exploited, and one "thumbs-down" for being so easily suckered into helping it succeed.
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