Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The PR Appeasers of Corporate America

It would be refreshing to see the American incarnation of McDonald's do something like this:
In its new campaign, McDonald's [of Australia] attacks Spurlock's film as being "about someone who decides to overeat."

Russo appears in the ads himself, targeting Spurlock's claim that eating nothing by McDonald's for 30 days can make you sick.

"You're right," Russo says in the commercial. "Surprise, surprise. He finds out it was an error. I could have told him that."
Translation: "Well, duh, you grandstanding purveyor of jackassery."

I don't see anything about the American wing following up with a similar campaign. Perhaps it's because Super Size Me hasn't made as big an impact in America as it has Australia, but I'm more inclined to believe it's because US corporations tend heavily more towards the spineless mode of public relations. Case in point: Jesse Jackson being able to extort millions because he deems there to be insufficient black faces in the company's management.

I see this type of problem as being at least in part a tragedy-of-the-commons situation. I think in the short term, it's probably the safer bet for corporations to take the spineless route and, say, take the $10 million hit in donations going to Jackson's pockets so they can get the Rainbow Coalition seal of approval, or to make a meek and half-hearted effort to point out that McDonald's is trying to add healthy alternatives. In both cases, the corporation in question is essentially ceding the argument on its merits to their respective fraudulent gadflies that are trying to score a buck, rather than attacking their accusations as the often baseless and self-serving canards they are.

How satisfying would it be to see a CEO from a Fortune 500 tell Jessie Jackson where he can stick his "concerns" about "diversity?" How satisfying to see Charlie Bell, the CEO of McDonald's, come out on TV and say, in effect, "Spurlock, you're a dirty liar and a shamelessly opportunistic filmmaker"? They wouldn't have to use those words, but even getting that message across in language suitable to the professional public sphere would still be refreshing enough to put in a Sierra Mist commercial.

If corporations were willing to take those kinds of stances, I think such self-serving tribunes of the public would soon evaporate in a cloud of self-righteousness. But, like I said above, taking the route of appeasment is often the most rational thing for each individual entity to do in the isloated context of their ability to act as a private corporation. Confronting yappy attack dogs like Jackson or Spurlock runs a much higher immediate risk than trying to sit them down at your table and get them on your side.

Say Jackson needs another million to pay off yet mother to keep quiet about her new illegitimate bundle of joy that will grow up with a inbred penchant for preaching and rhyming and so suddenly decides that GM doesn't hire enough minorities. No problem there, he says to the board of directors. A tidy donation to Jackson's personal slush fund foundation will allay his deep misgivings about GM's committment to minority employment.

It would certainly be appealing on an emotional level to stand up publicly to this kind of shysterism, but corporations aren't about fighting the good fight and scoring points against some transparent public blowhard, they're about protecting the value of their company to shareholders. Even waging that battle successfully could very well cost as much as Jackson is asking for, and there's a real risk that Jackson would win the PR battle, and then GM gets branded with a reputation for wearing white hoods in the board room and becomes a dirty word on the public tongue.

So, it's in everyone's best interest on an individual level to appease or engage these kinds of people, while in the long run setting themselves up increasingly as legitmate targets in the public mind, to regularly take frivolous potshots at and see what you can get out of the deal.