The public relations craft proved again a few days ago why its practitioners may be the most overestimated tradesmen at work in the business and political culture.
Long criticized for its fabled feats of brainwashing alchemy and mass manipulation, a Florida unemployment agency came under fire for spending more than $14,000 to distribute 6,000 red superhero capes to the state's unemployed. The capes were a part of Workforce Central Florida's "Cape-a-bility Challenge" to lick unemployment. Get it? Capes. Cape-ability?
Just what decent people who can't find work need: Superhero capes.
But this esteem-building fiasco unmasked a larger point, which is the trend toward insipid propaganda to make the public appreciate powerful entities for being who they are not.
Think about BP's longstanding sunflower campaign to reposition the company as being "beyond petroleum" even though they are fundamentally in the business of drilling for fossil fuel.
Or Wal-Mart's apoplectic attempt to apply the green label to whatever they could, even if their customers weren't buying it.
Or the drinking game where a bureaucrat chugs a mug of self-congratulation whenever he can claim some anemic gesture is an act of "transparency."
There are, however, rays of hope in our swamp of communications treacle. One is Taco Bell's gutsy campaign to call out plaintiffs lawyers for their attempted shakedown of the restaurant chain for supposedly not using real beef. Taco Bell, standing by its product, thanked the hustlers for suing them after their sham lawsuit was dropped. Good for them.
Another surge of spring air comes in the form of a new book, Bingsop's Fables, by corporate oracle Stanley Bing. Bing's specialty is diagnosing organizational pathology in a way that makes flow chart weenies suffer seizures. His twin geniuses are a darkly accurate assessment of human nature and his capacity to predict just how events will unfold in accordance with the laws of the universe. Both are showcased in Fables.
In the Pantheon of wartime consiglieri, Bing consistently violates the scripture of anthropological correctness by putting corporate folks into - gasp - categories! No, it turns out that we capitalists are not unique and special snowflakes, or our own beloved brands.
Bing's archetypes, which he sets forth in a prescriptive style that invokes Aesop's Fables, include publicity-addicted moguls who engage in locker room comparisons of magazine profile size; ruthless general counsels gone to seed from gorging on ill-advised acquisitions; bloviating marketing gurus enslaved by the fetish that they are visionaries; and mid-level turf warriors who conflate titles with authority.
Bing's writing style is paper-cut sharp: "A middle-aged Mogul, whose hair had begun to turn rather sparse in inverse proportion to his girth, found himself pursuing two supermodels at the same time. One of them was obsessed with youth, which she was then on the point of losing, and the other was obsessed with food, which she was not permitted to eat."
Bingsop's Fables force one to wonder cringingly about one's own follies and vanity. Think about this tweak: "If you think you're only as good as this week's press, then you probably are."
Or the consequences of outrageous behavior: "Not only good deeds get punished."
Or the need to question everything: "There's no such thing as 'too paranoid' anymore."
Or the realities of management: "Employees can be really f-ing tiresome if you don't tell them what you want very, very clearly."
Or the consequences of loudly-proclaimed organizational equality: "When the lion lies down with the lamb, only one of them should sleep with both eyes closed."
Or the consequences of making a stupid acquisition: "Winners of a loser are losers, and the losers, winners."
Bingsop's Fables will not be included in business school curricula because it contradicts the apologetic capitalism being peddled in academia these days, but it should be. If contemporary B-school texts trigger a mild sensation of acid reflux, Fables gives you that guttural thrill one feels on the down slope of a roller coaster. That's due in part to the disbelief you'll feel that Bing actually commits his "morals" to paper ("Just because he's a philanthropist doesn't mean he's not a d--k.")
The crew in that Florida unemployment shop should be thankful Bing's book went to press before they started handing out capes.