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The mysterious gathering of the public-relations foot-shooters

Why they taped this meeting is beyond me, and why, having clearly decided they wanted this footage of themselves at their very lowest to be revealed to the world, they sent it to me – working, as I do, in print – I'll never know, but all of this does seem to be very much in character; they botched their own humiliation roll-out.

Last Wednesday, I received a video recording of what appears to be a meeting of a support group for public-relations foot-shooters.

On the hour-long tape, a portion of which I have transcribed, there are three men in a room, seated in a circle around a woman they variously address as "Sheila," "Stephanie," "Dawn" and "Valued Customer." The woman appears to be a counsellor of some kind – in that she's able to complete full sentences without doing irreparable damage to her reputation, and the reputations of everyone associated with her and the brand of soft drink in her hand.

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"So, is there anything you want to talk about this week, Pepsi?" asks the woman on the tape who, when I contacted her, said, "We have a policy of confidentiality. I can't talk about our members. Although, for the record, my name's Karen."

"Look, I just wanted to harness the power of protest to sell a soft drink," sighs a dishevelled-looking man slumped in a stackable chair.

"We worked hard to ensure the ad was devoid of anything that might be mistaken for meaning of any kind! It's not easy to construct something as recognizable as protest without suggesting that any of the sign-holding people presented in that tableau might be feeling remotely oppositional about anything – except maybe thirst!"

"So, let's look back, Pepsi. Have you tried to identify where, exactly, the delivery of your un-message went wrong?" Karen asks, gently.

"I don't know! We had a whole team of uninspired engineers working in beige corduroy lab coats (we started with grey, but there was concern that would be too edgy), in a controlled, message-free environment, for months. They listened exclusively to Coldplay. Did we not go far enough? I knew we should have gone with Mumford and Sons!"

"In retrospect, do you really think it was a good idea to try to tap into public feelings of anger and resistance with an ad featuring a lot of pretty extras from Happy Casting, holding signs that say 'Join the conversation'?"

"Do you think we should have gone with 'Words, They Are A Thing'? I liked that one."

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"Pepsi …"

Pepsi sighs. It sounds like a can being opened. He smiles. "Look, I made non-controversial controversial. I'm going to go down in public-relations history as the brand who found America's blandness tipping-point. That's 'America' as in 'American cheese,' Stephanie. People said it couldn't be done.

"I restaged the iconic photograph of Ieshia Evans, who, last summer, stood still, strong, calm and beautiful before the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during an anti-police-brutality protest. But instead of a black woman who was a nurse and mother, I used a white reality-TV star! The girl in our spot is so intrigued by all the attractive people engaged in an act of mass non-confrontational moseying outside her fashion shoot that she takes off her blond wig, thrusts it into the hands of another woman – and we told casting, 'Can you get us a young Butterfly McQueen type?' – and deigns to walk with the cute commoners. Although they can't be that common, because one of them is carrying a cello. As one does.

"People got so mad! The actual Ieshia was arrested, whereas our heroine hands a can of pop to a hot cop and the crowd goes wild. The subtext is she scores a threesome with Riot Cop Ken and Cello Guy. I diluted that powerful Ieshia Evans image so much, I gave it extreme potency. It's like the homeopathy of hucksterism. If homeopathy worked – and the goal was to make everyone hate you!"

"Okay," Karen interrupts. "Everyone's looking a little down, so why don't we take a moment to talk about some of the things in our lives we're grateful for right now. Why don't you start us off, Pepsi?"

"Well, mostly I'm grateful for these two guys," says Pepsi, gesturing to his fellow members of the group.

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"Ahh, thanks," United Airlines cuts in. "Fun air-travel fact: Ability to express gratitude for the very existence of United is just one of many factors we take into account when deciding who gets to be the lucky winner of our Not Getting Violently Thrown Off An Airplane prize."

"Love that competition," Pepsi says. "It turns out that if everyone is staring in shock and horror at a video of an elderly gentleman being dragged down the centre aisle of a plane he paid to be on, they just don't have the time to be upset about cola advertising."

He moves to high-five United, who bursts into tears.

"Okay, United, we seem to have touched on something," Karen says, "and that's what we aim to do here at Press Release Us. Is this something you want to talk about?"

"Well, Dawn, I just get these urges sometimes. I don't understand them and I try to resist them, but whenever I do something boneheaded, I'm compelled to spend at least a day or so defending my actions in the most self-destructive way possible."

"Go on …" Karen says encouragingly.

"Well, let's say that someone live-tweets one of my check-in agents demanding that some young girls change out of, or wear dresses over, their leggings, or they won't be allowed to board their flight. Next thing you know, I'm on Twitter vehemently championing this action and policy, while implying that everyone flying on my airline should hide their legs, lest they arouse the wrath of my despotic, limb-hating (why do you think we provide less and less legroom?) employees.

"Before you can say 'regrettable situation,' I'm up and feeding this negative story about my brand like it's my own beloved child, I'm knitting that story little bad-publicity baby-booties! It's a disaster of my own making. All I had to do was calmly state that this dress code applies only to people travelling on free or discounted employee passes because they ostensibly represent the airline, and the public anger would have been reduced to a dull roar. What the hell is wrong with me?"

"Man, even Hitler wouldn't have handled that as poorly as you did," Sean Spicer says.

Everyone stares.

"Did you just compare me unfavourably to Hitler?" says United, rising angrily from his lofty tower of six stackable chairs.

"Allow me to clarify …" Mr. Spicer says.

"No!" shouts everyone in the room.

"Sean," Karen says, "what is the first rule of being Sean Spicer?"

"Never ever clarify anything?"

"No, that's the second rule of being Sean Spicer. The first rule of being Sean Spicer or anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time, representing anything that isn't literally the Third Reich, is Don't compare Hitler to anyone favourably."

"What I meant to say," Mr. Spicer says, "is that Hitler, unlike Bashar al-Assad, didn't 'Sink to the level,' those were my words …"

"Yeah, we know," United says. "At least you didn't, in the context of genocide, use the word 're-accommodated'…"

"No, United!" says Karen, standing up, allowing United to steal her chair. "Don't give him ideas."

"Of using the gas on his own people …" Mr. Spicer finishes, for the time being.

"You know," Karen says, "we don't have a rule about not saying Hitler didn't gas anyone, or implying that German Jews weren't German. We just took not saying those things as a given. We're going to amend those rules, Sean, now that you're with us, and I'm not sure where you were going with that …

"Oh, wait a second, I am: You were wandering, intentionally or in one of the apologia-induced dazes for which you've become famous, deep into the various provinces of Holocaust denial, during Passover, no less, and on behalf of an administration that's flirted with white supremacists and played coy with the KKK."

"As I clarified," Mr. Spicer says, "I said Hitler only used gas in the 'Holocaust centres' he 'brought them into'…"

"Oh, just re-accommodate me now," Karen says. "Six million people were murdered and you just made it sound like they were invited to a place with a membership-rewards program."

Mr. Spicer rises and lights himself on fire.

"Alright, someone put him out, before the clarification spreads," Karen says, "and I'll see you all back here next week."

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