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03/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Perino Conundrum: PR's Expert Inexperts

Sometimes a story just sticks with you. Such is the crazy and amusing story of Dana Perino - Bush's White House House Press Secretary - who admitted she had no idea what the Cuban Missile Crisis was. She asked: "Wasn't that, like, the Bay of Pigs thing?"

Here was the spokesperson for the "leader of the free world," as she unceasingly called her boss (a boss involved in two counterinsurgency wars), and yet she knew nothing about JFK's anti-communist counterinsurgency program that nearly provoked a nuclear war within windsurfing distance of Miami Beach.

Then, in a move of shock and awe (surely designed to pander to the Right Wing that has been so incredibly helpful to him over the last 12 months) President Obama nominated Ms. Perino to the Broadcasting Board of Governors so that she can manage our message to the rest of the world.

Plenty of people have, and will, catalogue Perino's many sins of flackery, beyond her ignorance of ancient history. So I won't do it here except to mention one, which Rachel Weiner picked up a few weeks back: Perino apparently claimed: "We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term."

But It Sounds So (In)Credible

As long as you say it with conviction, it doesn't have to be true. That's the mantra of the "expert inexpert," who in so many areas of public and business life seems to be ruling the roost.

The expert inexpert is quite common among the pundit class. Consider this example from conserva-pundit Michael Smerconish. He'd just returned from a CENTCOM embed when he wrote:

I have done thousands of hours of talk radio, and written numerous columns and two books about the war on terror, but never before had I seen it being waged.

Holy crap on a cracker. It's enough to make your head spin. Thousands of hours of radio? Two books?... But he'd never before seen it waged?

Well then... What the #@%! was he going on about?! What was the basis of all those thousand of hours... and hundreds of pages of opinions? Navel lint? Maybe naval lint?

And consider this story from several years back, about a 22-year old computer science undergrad from Stanford:

[Andrew] Mo begins work in the fall as a management consultant with The Boston Consulting Group, helping to lead projects at multinational companies...

"A consulting job injects you into companies at a higher level," he said. "You don't feel like you're doing basic stuff."

OK kid. First of all, you're 22 years old. You should be doing basic stuff. Most of the world turns on "basic stuff." Most people live their lives doing, thinking, eating, making, and buying basic stuff. And you don't get to boss people around until you've done some basic stuff yourself.

Learn it. It will serve you well grasshopper when you're trying to motivate them to "operationalize the re-branded SixSigma, optimized, global right-sizing paradigm."

The Un-spokesman: Heck of a Job... Whatsyourname

The issue with the Perino Conundrum, as I call it, goes far beyond the tyranny of authoritative-sounding inexperts in high places - e.g., "Heck of a job Brownie." Brownie was hardly an expert at anything.

The problem is that lots of folks who have become expert at something very narrow and tactical think it qualifies them to subsume everything larger under their purview - e.g., putting kindergartners in Brooks Brothers suits and calling them "consultants."

The problem with PR, specifically, is that PR's expert inexperts dominate public debate on many of the nation's most crucial issues. And their tactical demands for winning - indeed their undeniable expertise in winning - is squeezing quality, substance and nuance from all public debate.

As people like Perino continue to float to the top, it is only getting worse. She was recently hired by Mark Penn... of "Hillary for President" polling fame... to be something called a "chief issues counselor" for Burson Marsteller, one of the world's biggest and best-connected PR firms. (WSJ take here. Wonkette's ribald take here.... it's short and hilarious and worth the 10 seconds to read.)

Perino and Penn, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. The autocratic, control-the-story-at-all-costs approach to "communications" has taken hold all down the PR food chain. As far down as local city government.

Check out this op-ed in the Springfield News Leader from Bob Priddy, news director at a local web-based outlet called Missourinet:

The rise of the official spokesmen, spokeswomen, spokespersons, spokesones -- pick the one that works best for you -- for state government agencies is becoming more pervasive and more oppressive with each administration in Jefferson City.

It too often reaches a point where reporters are refused opportunities to speak to those in state government who are most knowledgeable about a subject, policy or issue.

At least Priddy got to name a spokesperson in his piece. Seattle Times reporter Jonathan Martin got the cold shoulder from a ghost... whom he calls an "un-spokesman:"

"In response to a request to talk with [T-Mobile] CEO Robert Dotson and other executives this week, I got an email back from the PR firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide that ended with a strange request: 'Please note that if you plan to use this statement in your piece, I am not a T-Mobile spokesperson and to use my name would be inaccurate.'"

Martin says: "To be clear, the statement is from a 'T-Mobile spokesperson,' but the spokesperson has no name, and saying that the spokesperson does have a name would be 'inaccurate.'"

In his article, Martin says that a colleague Craig Welch got the same treatment from a Starbucks flack:

"Thanks again for contacting Starbucks. While I'm not a company spokesperson and should not be quoted, you may use the statement below as background information and attribute directly to a Starbucks spokesperson."

The Starbucks flack worked for Edelman... another PR global powerhouse... (one that plays the sprawling polyester alter-ego to Burson's gimlet-eyed, stiff-necked tweediness).

Nameless, Faceless Voices...

When people think of a nameless, faceless voice making inflexible pronouncements from on high, it's usually coming from Heaven, not from a PR flack's email account.

But there is a whole army of PR "experts" out there who are expert in nothing except the bare-knuckled tactics of PR. And too often they outright co-opt public discussion... mangling all meaning and content in service to a single narrow aim: institutional control of what you read, see and hear.

In this kind of game, knowledge that doesn't track with the story line is unnecessary to your job and even unhelpful. You don't need it cluttering up your brain. Bay of Pigs? Didn't that, like, happen in the 20th Century or something? Like, who cares?

All the PR "expert" needs to know are the basic tactics of how to promote your story line, or better yet... how to deflect and downplay the story of your opponent:

  • question their veracity/motives/authenticity/professionalism/patriotism/etc.
  • if the matter has been settled, assert that it hasn't
  • your experts are better than their experts
  • your facts are better than their facts
  • find a credible patsy
  • if there isn't one, say that what matters is moving forward
  • imply that you're a better person
  • rinse/repeat

Our public discourse is increasingly at the mercy of such people. (And trust me, they have none.)

No Angels To Save Us

Lest one think that only Conservatives are good at this game, check out David Plouffe on the Daily Show a couple of months back. At about 3:20 in the clip, some kind of switch goes off and Plouffe springs into flack mode, channeling his inner Ari Fleischer.
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The switch is so pronounced that even Jon Stewart is taken aback. Then, in response to Stewart's needling, Plouffe spews all sorts of inanity as to why Obama can't get deliver on his soaring rhetoric - the biggest excuse: "Washington is built to do small things not hard things... political things not tough things."

Nice soundbite Dave!... Sadly, despite the confident delivery, it's total B.S.

For starters, if you knew that going in, David, why did you talk incessantly about big, hard, tough things during the campaign?

Someone with more intestinal fortitude than I have might be so bold as to say that was cynical.

Wait. No. We won't ask the hard questions because Washington isn't built for that. It never does hard things. Ever.

Like, say... Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the 19th Amendment giving women the vote, the Voting Rights Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, the GI Bill, the Interstate Highway System, the National Park System... no Washington never does anything hard, or big.

Especially not when there is an incrementalist in the White House whose scope of possibility is limited to what's politically practical.

Sorry, The Real "Expert" Is Unavailable

Unlike Dana Perino, David Plouffe probably knows all about ancient U.S. history.

What he is counting on is that you don't, or that you're not engaged enough (or critical enough) to question his frothy answers. Ultimately his goal is control... first of the message, then of you... your perceptions, understanding, emotional commitment to the President, and ultimately your money and your votes.

On issue after issue, this is the way the game is played. The story line is dominated by tactical PR "experts" and the institutions that pay them - whether those are big companies vying for control of the legislative/regulatory agenda, or local town halls just trying to control the message.

We are fast getting to the point where you can't ever hear from a real "expert" on anything unless he or she is pre-packaged, pre-approved and edited by some flack, whose only expertise is in flackery.

When we can't even trust that blogs are authentic any more... Oh what kind of world are we living in?

An ARMY of Flacks

But this PR skill set is increasingly valued and well-compensated. And when I say an "army" of flacks, I mean it: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are about 300,000 of us in the U.S. today... the equivalent of about 300 battalions... a bit less than three times as many troops now serving in Iraq.

As the profession grows, PR "experts" are infiltrating every nook and cranny of every kind of public and private outfit. You can't so much as pick up a local community newspaper without suffering a flack attack... assaulted by "messages" and "talking points" attached only to nameless, faceless institutions.

It's getting so that you can't leave your house without a thick shield of skepticism... because wading into any kind of public arena without heavy-duty intellectual armor really is likely to end up just like that "Bay of Pigs thing."

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