Mr. Peanut Takes The Fifth

Man. It’s windy in Northeast Ohio this morning. Wonder if all the gasbags who were on Capitol Hill yesterday came here for a little R&R? Nah. Probably not. The Wizards of  Wall Street tend to visit more exotic and expensive places. Particularly since they are now wards of the U.S. taxpayers.

But what we saw yesterday was what happens when you forfeit trust and credibility. Congressman Michael Capuano, a Democrat from New Jersey, told the Wizards: “America doesn’t trust you anymore.”

Enough said. And beyond that the other members of the House Financial Services Committee gave the Wizards an expected but quite perfunctory tongue-lashing. Ordinary citizens, given the opportunity, would have used a bullwhip. I digress.

So now it’s up to the Wizards to demonstrate that they really do get it. As we know in PR — it’s actions and deeds, not words that really matter. Well see.

Speaking of which, Mr. Peanut — Stew Parnell — didn’t have much to say during his time in the congressional dock. Other than — “On advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your question based on the protection afforded me in the United States Constitution.” OK. This appears to be a matter that has moved from the realm of ethics and personal responsibility into the legal arena. And maybe that’s all Mr. Peanut can say these days. But if I were giving him PR advice I sure would have tried to figure out something that he could have said honestly and truthfully other than give the ultimate no comment.

The result of the Fifth Amendment strategy? Here’s Dana Milbank writing in The Washington Post, “Mr. (Tainted) Peanut Pleads the Fifth“:

In another time, Stew Parnell, the man whose peanut butter killed eight people and sickened 550 more, would have been put in the stocks or the pillory.[See, I told you.] Congress didn’t have such tools at its disposal yesterday, so lawmakers did the modern equivalent: They put him through the walk of shame.

Story continues.

“Mr. Parnell, did you put profits ahead of the public’s health?”

“People died, sir. Do you have anything to say to their families?”

Parnell, limping as he fled on foot, jaywalked across Independence Avenue, stealing anxious glances at the pursuing pack of cameras as his lawyer urgently worked his cellphone to locate their getaway car. The fleeing peanut tycoon had to backtrack when his entourage was blocked by a fence on the Capitol grounds, eventually finding their Suburban near the U.S. Botanic Garden. Only when the cameras had given up the chase did Parnell smile and accept a congratulatory pat on the back from a colleague.

Say what? “A congratulatory pat on the back from a colleague.” Please, God. Don’t let that colleague turn out to be his public relations adviser.

So beyond the obvious legal and ethical questions for Mr. Peanut, how much trust do you have in the safety of peanut butter these days? Not much, apparently. Peanut butter sales are off about 25 percent since this debacle surfaced — and at the store where I shop, it looks like they are almost trying to give away the off-brands. Without many takers.

But if I wanted to buy peanut butter (which I don’t), I would buy one of the products made and sold by Smucker’s. Why. Because I trust Smucker’s, which over the years has gained a well-deserved reputation for quality, community involvement and, dare I say it?, ethical management and civic morality.

Gee. Maybe those qualities — things that we talk about in PR all the time — really do matter after all.

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