Putting off the Ritz

There’s a Canadian federal election in full swing. Or should I say in full baby swing – as in fun if you’re in it, but other than that quite dull.

It’s the same old posturing, spinning and name calling we remember in the past – only this time the ties are off. I guess our political leaders want to appear ‘political casual’. Me, I miss the formality.

One thing for certain, elections help take our generally full dose of political correctness to a higher level.

This past week there was a brouhaha over Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s private remarks. Why? He did something no politician should ever do: he made a funny joke.

I’m not talking about a pre-written ice breaker, I mean two one-liners of relatively high comedic calibre, in my humble opinion.

Now, were the jokes in question tasteless and mean? Absolutely. But where I come from, some of the best humour is rarely in the best of taste. It’s often crass and edgy. It says things that we may not want to admit or hear, but does so in such a way that enables us to laugh at them; and then, when the joke is over, shake our heads at the horror.

That’s why so many people have walked out of Yuk Yuk’s over the years. It’s also why Yuk Yuk’s is one of the funniest, most unpredictable and entertaining places in the country. (Disclosure: Yuk Yuk’s is a client and Mark Breslin is a close friend).

Have a look at Christie Blatchford’s Saturday column in the Globe and Mail. She’s written what many of us have been thinking about one-liner-gate and she did it in her usual acerbic, honest and stylish way.

Did this slip of the tongue warrant all the news coverage? I don’t think so. But I’m sure many of the country’s comedians wish their jokes would get this kind of attention.

It’s just another example of a country that’s taken politeness to a sad, new extreme.

And, Christie, I happen to be one of those people who’s allergic to nuts. But I want to tell you that I have no problem if airlines serve them. I just wish they’d provide an alternative to those of us who can’t enjoy the good taste.

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Put that in your pipe and smoke it

In a recent Inside PR podcast, I was taken to task for my statement (and I’m paraphrasing) that in Canada, tobacco companies are legal entities and, while most of us would say that smoking is bad for you, tobacco companies, like other Canadian corporations, are entitled to PR. To me, this is similar to the right of legal representation.

I still believe that. In much the same way that I believe in free speech though I may not always like or agree with what’s being said (or written).

And for that reason I don’t think our industry should get into a position where we become the arbiters of what’s ‘right’ and dictate what work others should or should not do. That smacks of censorship; small-minded political correctness. We are not holier than thou ‘Big Brothers’ (and I don’t mean the TV show); we are communicators.

In any case, the decision as to whether or not you’re going to take on a company’s work is (or should be) yours. This can be tough if you’re employed by an organization that chooses a direction you don’t support. If that happens, I would urge you to think long and hard and do what YOU think is right (even if that means having to leave a job).

As for me, I consider myself an ethical PR practitioner and adhere to the CPRS code of professional standards*. I believe we should never lie for a client or break the law. But our industry is not the country’s judge and jury. Nor should it be. We don’t have an inside track on a so-called moral high ground.

In my books, there’s nothing wrong with trying to help facilitate an honest, transparent, two-way conversation between an organization and its publics. Isn’t that what the profession is all about?

When I was a kid and had a ‘talking to’ for something I did, my dad used to say, ‘put that in your pipe and smoke it’. Which meant he wanted me to consider his perspective and hopefully learn something.

But I guess in these days and times that expression would be considered politically wrong.

*Disclosure: I am the CPRS Toronto accreditation committee co-chair.

Stop being used

There’s an interesting post by Josh Bernoff about the way tech companies refer to their customers as users.

And it dawned on me that if I’m a user then I’m probably being used.

I guess that’s somewhat implicit in the symbiotic producer/customer relationship. However, if we, the users, can fully understand the situation then presumably we can stop being so used (upsold) and make more informed choices.

On the other hand I also agree with the Elephant Man who so eloquently proclaimed, ‘I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am…a man!’

No more fake IDs

I tuned into episode two of the CBC Radio documentary, ‘Spin Cycles’, a six-part series focusing on the often uneasy relationship between journalism and PR. I wasn’t crazy about the show concept when I first heard about it. For one thing I had my doubts about whether public relations would be portrayed in a fair light. And something else: as a PR person I like to work quietly behind the scenes and all of a sudden my profession is being given centre stage. (OK, maybe a milk crate on a street corner is a more apt metaphor.)

But I was pleasantly surprised. In a segment that talked about video news releases (VNRs) and TV’s insatiable appetite to fill dead air, the producer said that both PR and media should come clean and identify the source material. I’m all for that. It’s time for both sides to stop hiding. It could be as simple as a super that says where a visual came from. Or maybe a reporter discloses that a quote is from a news release.

About five years ago I had an argument with a senior colleague over this very topic. When she contracted a third-party spokesperson to promote a brand, she believed the media pitch should be sent out on blank paper, rather than company letterhead. The spokesperson would then have to slip in a brand reference whenever they could. I disagreed. I’ve always felt that ethical PR people should say who we are and what we represent up front. Then, it’s up to us to tell the best story we can and either sell it or not.

I feel the same about anonymous blog postings. If you don’t have the guts to say who you are why should I be interested in reading or believing your snipe, swipe, gripe or tripe? Put away those fake (or nonexistent) IDs and expose yourself (…but maybe not like that).

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