Everything Counts but Nothing Matters: Roy Moore & the Strange New World of Public Relations

Everything Counts but Nothing Matters: Roy Moore & the Strange New World of Public Relations

There’s a story that outlines, in crystal clear terms, the strange new world that the art of modern public relations inhabits.

It’s a story that just keeps going: the endless parade of powerful men being exposed as sexual predators and serial harassers. It’s beyond unnecessary to give the rundown; we all know the big names, and as their numbers grow, it becomes a torrent that’s pointless to try to keep up with. And the unmaskings have reached Congress as well, having already felled Democrats Al Franken and John Conyers and Republican Trent Franks.

And then there are the accusations leveled against Roy Moore.

Rather than catalog those numerous accusations, which have dominated the news for weeks (a rare feat in the news firehose that is 2017) and with which we are all familiar, I want to take a different course and ask a question I’m not seeing discussed elsewhere: which party is handling this situation better and whether or not, from a political and public relations standpoint, it even matters right now.

That last question isn’t one I’m especially thrilled to be tackling, so let’s start at the top; are the Democrats or the Republicans handling this ongoing crisis better? The answer you may immediately be jumping to – that it’s clearly the Democrats – might prove surprisingly incorrect, because we’re not asking a moral question. We witnessed over the course of the 2016 election that stubborn, intransigent denials can work marvels, and obvious evasions can successfully deflect questions almost indefinitely. Less than a month after the “grab ‘em by the p*ssy” tapes leaked, Donald Trump was elected president; the news cycle moves quickly, and the lesson the Republicans learned is that mastering it means winning the day, not the point. From a PR perspective, modern politics operates in 24-hour increments (if that).

We need only look, again, at last year’s election for proof; the drumbeat of scandal that plagued the Trump campaign meant that all it had to do was ignore a problem long enough for it to go away, while the Clinton administration couldn’t avoid the day-in day-out reminders of a single scandal. Trump knew that all he had to do was win the day and he’d be fine; tomorrow, he’d sort out that day. It’s media-driven public relations more than politics itself, focusing on evasion over confrontation on a daily basis.

Apple's Foxconn Problem

Apple's Foxconn Problem

At first, there seems to be a banal inevitability to headlines about Apple benefitting from shady labor practices, which makes it easy to sweep reports that Apple’s flagship luxury phone, the iPhone X, was reportedly manufactured using illegal student labor. Much like news about the president saying terrible, indefensible things or that yet another beloved media icon is facing allegations of being a sexual predator, it’s almost part of the background radiation of our times; Al Franken has been accused of assaulting a sleeping woman, and the most popular phone in the world is reportedly being built by exploited Chinese labor.

What else is new?

That attitude, however, may not apply here; we live in strange and angry times, and the vox populi is much less forgiving these days than it might have been even eighteen months ago, let alone in 2012 when Foxconn’s illegal practices were first brought to light in a partially-retracted episode of NPR’s This American Life. The Chinese manufacturing giant – one of Apple’s biggest partners in the world – has, despite that retraction, been plagued by accusations of unethical practices. It’s unfortunately a common woe in the technology sector, but one which Apple, due to its visibility and leadership, is uniquely vulnerable to. Foxconn in particular has been noted for a rash of worker suicides since 2010 at its massive plant in Longhua where the bulk of Apple products are assembled.

So the fact that Foxconn is yet again in the news for engaging in illegal labor practices isn’t surprising, but it’s something Apple can’t afford to sweep under the rug.

Here’s the skinny, in case you’ve missed it under the crushing weight of the looming destruction of net neutrality and the president threatening nuclear war with North Korea: six high school students have come forward accusing Foxconn of making them work long hours of illegal overtime as the company struggled to catch up after summer production delays of the iPhone X. The students maintain they were forced to work there by their school in order to graduate, while both Foxconn and their school maintain the work was voluntary; for its part, the local government of Henan province mandated that student labor, where available, be sent to Foxconn to help meet demand.

In other words, it’s a scandal where no one looks good. And while, in the annals of labor disputes generally and of Foxconn specifically, it isn’t the biggest scandal in the world, it only shines a light on an ongoing story that Apple would certainly wish away if it could: its inability to reliably supply the world with its coveted products without resorting to partnerships with demonstrably unethical companies like Foxconn and its ongoing willingness to tolerate questionable, if not illegal labor practices.

The Weight of Trump: The GOP’s Narrow PR Path to 2018

The Weight of Trump: The GOP’s Narrow PR Path to 2018

This past Tuesday, the world rocked a little bit.

All told, it was a comparatively minor quake, nothing like the monster tremors of 2016 that seemed to shake the very foundations of reality for a large swathe of the American people. But the first real electoral test of the Trump coalition – that erstwhile basket of deplorables – did not go terribly well for the Grand Old Party. I suspect one would not be remiss in describing the results as fundamentally catastrophic.

There is essentially no way anyone within the Republican Party could look at November 7, 2017 as anything less than a repudiation, not only of Trump’s agenda, but of Trump himself. And when your party is so closely tied to a deeply unpopular president, when that president has so thoroughly co-opted its ideology and mission statement, you’re going to go down with him.

That is the devil’s bargain the GOP struck when it nominated him; “if we can get ANY republican into the White House,” the reasoning went, “we can essentially pass our legislative package unopposed. And if the cost is that we have to let Trump carry us for a few years, it’s worth it.” Rational, if certainly unprincipled and calculating. But their electoral success last year, for all its Sturm und Drang, did little beyond exposing the inability of the GOP coalition to govern in any meaningful capacity, as the party, bereft of the unifying force of a common foe in the person of Barack Obama, has been rent by internal divisions even as the president himself is plagued by bad press. The end result has been a lack of any quantifiable results to justify the Party’s continued tolerance of the president’s antics – and ongoing scandals.

People noticed.

So now, instead of celebrating a year of legislative and policy triumphs that should have followed their conquest of two out of three branches of federal government alongside a solid majority of statehouses and governor’s mansions, the GOP has found themselvesabandoned by the people who handed them victory at a most inopportune time: the eve of a midterm election year.

This puts the GOP in a bit of a bad spot, and one they’ll need help crawling out of. It’s ultimately a question of public relations: how, if it’s even possible, can a party get out from under the toxic cloud of Trump’s low popularity ratings?

So You're Employing a Serial Predator

So You're Employing a Serial Predator

Since the Weinstein scandal broke – a long-simmering open secret in Hollywood going back at least as far as Courtney Love’s infamous, televised 2005 warning, and probably a lot further – there’s been a spate of other abuses coming to light. Mark Halperin. James Toback. George HW Bush. Just yesterday, Kevin Spacey was added to the list for an alleged 1986 incident with actor Anthony Rapp. Today? Andy Dick, after a decades-long string of arrests for sexual assault. All of this on top of the Bill O’Reilly scandal earlier this year.

While women have been keenly aware of this (and have tried telling everyone over and over again), it’s rapidly becoming clear that this problem is massive and systemic, starting from the White House and moving on down. Power, in the most patently obvious yet still somehow surprising statement that has perhaps ever been made, breeds abuse; where the victim is a woman, doubly so. Which means that there is possibly lurking, at many companies out there, someone or someones who are themselves guilty of this sort of disgusting serial predation. Which also means that it’s very possible this is an issue every company will have to deal with. And if you’re in any position of leadership, the question as to how to deal with it may fall squarely… on you.

It’s not an easy question to answer, and while circumstances are going to differ from case to case, person to person, and company to company – the Weinstein Company, for example, is going to have a hard time bouncing back when it’s literally named after a prolific accused abuser – there are nonetheless constructive steps that almost anycompany can take. With that in mind, in the event serial predation is discovered or uncovered at the top of the ranks in your company, here is a handy guide to appropriately approach the situation as well as help maintain the company’s good name and protect the lives and jobs of its rank-and-file.

Failure could put the entire company at risk.

Szechuan Fury: Are Brands Responsible for Their Fans?

Szechuan Fury: Are Brands Responsible for Their Fans?

I’d like to start with an image: a grown man climbing on top of a McDonald’s serving counter, jumping up and down like a toddler throwing a tantrum because there is not, of all things, a particular McNugget cartoon tie-in dipping sauce.

Let’s continue with another image: crowds of adults surrounding McDonald’s across the country, chanting “We want sauce! We want sauce!”

Imagine scenes like these repeating themselves around the country as people lose their minds over the unavailability of, of all things, a McDonald’s Szechuan-flavored sauce originally released in 1998 as a marketing tie-in with Disney’s Mulan. Imagine all of this is being done in the name of an adult-oriented cartoon show. Now imagine being the people who own it.

To their credit, the creators of Rick & Morty – the sci-fi cartoon that is at the very center of this mess – publicly and immediately spoke out against these displays. None of this was their fault; co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon didn’t come up with this tie-in promotion, and in fact, it wasn’t even officially connected. The whole enterprise was McDonald’s trying to bandwagon on the show’s massive popularity with a publicity stunt.

This is probably all a little bewildering, especially if you don’t live in online fandom communities, so here’s a little context: the show’s about this mad scientist, Rick Sanchez, who goes on crazy adventures across space and time with his grandson, Morty. Except Rick is a nihilistic sociopath with no regard for who he hurts, and is explicitly acting outside the best interests of literally everyone in his life. And the weird Mulan sauce thing? That, Rick insists, is his fundamental motive: he just wants that damn sauce.

The point of the joke isn’t that the sauce is particularly good. The sauce is a throwaway; the point is that nothing matters, so why wouldn’t Rick’s entire goal, the reason he has hurt and killed so many people, held his grandson hostage, demolished so many lives, is literally nothing. Nothing matters, so why not go all out for the dumb things you want? Why not act in disgusting, cruel self-serving ways – all over a Disney tie-in dipping sauce?