Weekly Commentary From the Media Guy

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The last couple of weeks we’ve been learning some truly awful, unbearable lessons. But one of the lessons has been perversely prosaic: PR only goes so far. Not only have we been parsing anew the limits of public relations, but the limits of people who have become perilously, mindlessly dependent on PR in place of action. Their leadership limits, their moral limits.

When George Bush made his first, belated stop in New Orleans, touching down at the city’s airport, he actually viewed his visit as an appropriate occasion for a little light comedy. Here’s the official White House transcript: “I believe that the great city of New Orleans will rise again and be a greater city of New Orleans. (Applause.) I believe the town where I used to come, from Houston, Texas, to enjoy myself -- occasionally too much (Laughter.) -- will be that very same town, that it will be a better place to come to. That’s what I believe. I believe the great state of Louisiana will get its feet back and become a vital contributor to the country.”

It was, of course, just the latest highlight in his career as chief marketing officer for the Rove/Cheney/Rumsfeld neo-con agenda. It’s a job that entails always sticking to a breezy, upbeat storyline.

It’s no surprise that Bush took this PR-trumps-action tack for Katrina. For much of his five years in office, he’s seen that putting a faux-cheerful, faux-hopeful spin on even the worst calamities (see also: the war in Iraq) meant that a cheerful, hopeful spin would automatically float to the top of the memepool, at least momentarily. If he kept repeating these faux-cheerful, faux-hopeful things ad nauseum, he’d have a great shot of at least partially obscuring all the actual rotting nastiness lurking below the surface.

Of course, the problem post-Katrina is that, unlike Iraq -- where journalists are no longer in the thick of things (with most abandoning the idea of embedded reporting) -- New Orleans had real journalists showing us the reality behind the rhetoric. And enough of them were sufficiently appalled at the government inaction that they basically ended up begging the feds, on the air, to come to the rescue. (Of course, that didn’t stop FEMA from issuing an absurd directive last week that journalists avoid showing dead bodies during the recovery process. Anybody who’d seen Oprah Winfrey’s Sept. 6 show, which offered devastating close-ups of victims’ bodies being left to rot, will feel outrage at the agency’s hapless, belated attempt at covering up just how murderous its glacial response was.)

On the very day the levees were about to give way in New Orleans, the buzz in medialand was about a Miami Herald article linked on Jim Romenesko’s media site. Romenesko summed it up thusly: “Is journalism in danger of losing its young idealists to PR? Edward Wasserman says young people want to do something ‘active’ -- to make things happen instead of reacting to events the way they do in newsrooms. ‘Students come back from summer PR internships with exciting tales of scanning the next day’s papers for stories they helped bring about,’ he wrote."

That’s where our heads have been in this country, and that’s where the president’s head is: PR is considered action, while actual action is an afterthought. Which is why Bush was able to publicly say to FEMA Director Michael Brown, with a straight face, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Whereas Bush & Co. have mostly been able to explain away troop shortages and strategic errors in Iraq (by simply denying shortages and errors), the troop shortages in New Orleans -- and the calamitous lack of federal strategy and response -- could not be dismissed by the president’s cheerful quips.

Still, all he knew to do was keep up the PR talk, as if leadership were made up solely of spin as opposed to, say, actually leading. And so he continued with the PR-ification of life post-Katrina, uttering this gem from Mobile, Ala.: “Out of the rubbles (sic) of Trent Lott’s house -- he’s lost his entire house -- there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.”

Sure, as Nicholas D. Kristof noted in The New York Times, the deeper scandals are New Orleans’ grinding poverty, and the fact that nationally “the number of poor people has now risen 17% under Mr. Bush,” after having declined sharply under Clinton Administration.

But from the Bush P.O.V., there’s a simple solution for that hateful reality: Sell ‘em something else. Here’s the pitch: close your eyes and imagine Lott, in an SUV, driving to the nearest Home Depot to pick up some TimberTech all-weather composite decking. It’ll be grey. With white railings. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t you, too, like to sit on a porch like that?

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The Media Guy's column appears weekly on and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]

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