China and public relations

Too bad Ed Bernays, the so-called father of PR, didn’t spend some time writing a definition of public relations. Instead he gained his reputation, at least in part, by planning publicity stunts like the one that encouraged generations of women to begin committing suicide by cigarette — as Vonnegut said, referring to his own addiction. And gee. Was Bernays in this instance practicing public relations at all?

Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not sure I can define public relations. But I have a number of views about it. Here’s one. Advertising and marketing can alter your view of reality. After all, Pepsi is only colored sugar water and a dream. And Starbucks isn’t about coffee. It’s about creating a community of dilettantes willing to stand in the queue for an unlimited time to buy an over-priced honey latte. But I digress. Public relations, if done ethically, can only in the long run reflect reality. It can’t save Bear Stearns from pathetic mismanagement. And it can’t enhance a country’s (or an organization’s) reputation unless it’s justified — and true.

Here’s what got me thinking about this. As I was running on the treadmill this morning, the talking head on TV opined that China was heading for a public relations disaster. Oh, my. It appears that the Olympic Torch didn’t advance from square one in Greece yesterday before protesters jumped up to criticize China’s current actions in Tibet. Something tells me it’s going to be a long road to Beijing and the Summer Games.

Is this really a public relations problem? Or is it a problem involving the Chinese government and people who don’t really believe that China is as open and free as officials would like the rest of the world to believe? The Beijing Olympics, after all, were intended to showcase China to the world. Well here come protests — government restrictions — and dare I say it: reality. Good luck to the PR guys and gals.

So now, if you are a corporate sponsor of the Olympics, what would you do? Anne Applebaum has an interesting article in Slate that looks at this issue and others: Boycott Beijing: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest.

The article says in part:

“We believe the Olympic Games are not the place for demonstrations and we hope that all people attending the games recognize the importance of this.”

That, according to the article, is the view of Samsung Electronics, one of 12 corporate sponsors. And I agree. Much better to protest at every store in the world selling Samsung products. But, again, I digress. And the sponsors knew what they were getting in to. Did they think they could change reality?

And another aspect of the so-called public relations problem. China, according to an article in The New York Times, has told broadcast officials that it will bar live television shots from Tiananmen Square during the Summer Games. Ouch. NBC , according the The Times article, paid $2.3 billion for rights to broadcast the Olympics in Athens, Turin and Beijing.

The marathon starts in Tiananmen Square. This should be interesting.

NBC declined to comment.

Three press officers with the Olympic organizing committee declined to comment.

Wonder what happens if someone has to clear a body or two from the track before the start of the 4×4 relay?

So China has a public relations problem? Nah. How about a reality problem.

Where’s Ed Bernays when we need him?

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11 responses to “China and public relations

  1. Politics, personal freedom and all that silliness aside, China has yet another problem: You can’t breathe there without an oxygen tank. This does not bode well for the runners like Haile Gebrselassie, world record holder in the marathon, who has announced that he won’t compete in the Olympics out of fear for his health.

    Ed Bernays would have solved this PR problem in a flash. He’s just talk the American Tobacco Co. into sponsoring the Beijing Olympics. Then, at the end of the marathon, each runner would light up one of those “Torches of Totalitarianism.” I’ll bet it ‘d make the front page of the Times — and someday the PR textbooks!

  2. Bill,

    As usual, your insightful comments demonstrate why you are a tenured professor in one of the best public relations programs in the country. But, good grief. Please don’t share your “Torches of Totalitarianism” idea in a venue where someone may actually read it. If so, NBC will use it an promo it from now until the end of August. It’s great. Wish I would have thought of it.

    Rob

  3. I don’t enjoy poking fun at Ed Bernays, who was — by all accounts — a brilliant practitioner and a visionary. Ed actually wrote about symmetrical concepts (adaptation) of PR practice back in the 1950s (The Engineering of Consent).

    Ed’s clients didn’t value him as a boundary spanner, but as an applied social psychologist who had an uncanny knack for getting the masses to do exactly what he wanted them to do. You have to wonder how he would have adapted to a Web 2.0 world and to watchdogs like John Stauber at PR Watch.

  4. Bill,

    I’ll admit that I don’t know all that much about the career of Bernays in total. Although from what I have read he does appear to have been a visionary and leader in the development of public relations as a management practice. Still, I’m not sure he would have adapted very well to a world now with watchdogs like John Stauber. His work to get women to smoke was a publicity stunt — and, in my view, an example of manipulative marketing. And I believe that approach — when labeled PR — has diminished the value and reputation of public relations and PR professionals.

    Now about your “Torches for Totalitarianism” campaign. Any chance Edelman will pitch that to Wal-Mart?

  5. If the Chinese government could only just build a wall around Tibet (Mt. Everest poses a problem, but who’s gonna climb up there?), seal it with some kind of greenhouse plastic, and then filter the Beijing air pollution in—the whole games could be a potential success. Though I hope the decathaloners have practiced hurdling over burning Tibetan Buddhist monks. I really don’t mean to make light of it, but this is going to be one giant clusterf*&k.

    And “torches or totalitarianism” is the most hilarious idea I’ve heard in a long while! I would absolutely buy that tee-shirt!

  6. Well, I’m convinced we’ll see “Torches for Totalitarianism” as an in-store promotion at Wal-Mart before this is over.

  7. Considering modern world we live in today, don’t go too hard on Samsung and other sponsors. The reality is also that without corporate sponsors, the games wouldn’t happen. Advertisers are in a “no win” situation, they can be damned for not supporting a supposedly world-unifying event that brings attention to a troubled part of the world or damned for being associated with it.

    Aside from the Chinese people, the athletes are the ones who lose. Athletes rely on sponsors very heavily for support in order to be able to take the time train properly. They spend years training for what in most cases is a once in a lifetime opportunity and they will unfortunately be overshadowed by all the other realities.

    And don’t worry about NBC getting a shot from Tiananmen Square. The smog will be so bad they can stage a shot of a marathon in L.A. and nobody will know the difference! You up for a marathon Rob?

  8. Tom,

    I agree with your point about sponsors. Realistically they stand to be criticized regardless of what they do. My advice to them though would be to focus on the fact that they believe this is a good way to reach a big audience (much like the Super Bowl). That’s fair enough. Once they venture into telling people that the Olympics aren’t the venue to raise a protest — well, not so sure about that. And I’d be up for another marathon but not in China. Wearing a gas mask for 26.1 miles is too much for me at this point.

  9. You know, the more I think about this thing, the more I think we need to trademark the idea so it’s never used. But I also wonder if we should explain it to those who haven’t read PR history.

    When I posted the comment, I should not have assumed all readers would understand the reference to Ed Bernays’ labeling of cigarettes as “torches of freedom.” Those torches enabled women to cast off their shackles and enjoy a good smoke in public with the rest of us guys. Given that the health impact of tobacco wasn’t a big deal in 1929, his idea was, in fact, boldly feminist and egalitarian.

    Ah, the importance of context.

  10. Bill,

    I agree. Context is everything. And you raise a point I truthfully didn’t consider. In 1929 Bernays’ campaign was most likely viewed as feminist. My point in talking about Bernays at all was just to use that as a way to say that I think it is unfortunate that every time there is a problem it is referred to as a — public relations problem. I just don’t believe that.

  11. Pingback: Public relations and the Olympic torch « PR on the run

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