If one seeks to hoodwink others, he shouldn't use tragedy as cover

January 20, 2002|By JAY HANCOCK

IT'S THE bad-news bootleg, one of the slickest moves in the public relations playbook. To pull it off, announce negative developments for your company or politician just as the world is preoccupied by a major, breaking story - impeachments, wars, Katie Couric's love life.

The bigger the distraction, the better.

You, the public relations flack, can feign candor while comfortable in the knowledge that your embarrassing disclosure will appear in the back of the newspaper or after the baby-goat feature on the 11 p.m. newscast. If it appears at all.

Sometimes the dominant news story lasts awhile, furnishing days or weeks of camouflage for your boss' screw-ups.

And sometimes, when the stars of spin and deception are in exact alignment, you get a rare chance to pull off the double buffalo, in which both smokescreen and scapegoat come packaged in the same news event.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were shocking, grievous and challenging, but in certain offices a special breed of public relations operative found a way to cope.

Overlooking their own needs, fighting off fear, these crack flacks thought first not of the poor attack victims, the stunned families of the dead or the grim military campaign to come.

The first idea that came to these elite professionals was: How can we use this really big story to bamboozle the public?

On Sept. 11 Jo Moore, a special aide to the British secretary of state for transport, knew what she had to do. Within an hour of the second attack on New York's World Trade Center, Moore sent an e-mail to her public relations colleagues that said, "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury."

As in "bury" in the back news pages. Unfortunately for Moore, somebody leaked her e-mail to a reporter. Instead of being buried, the story of Moore's scheming became almost as big in Britain as that of the Sept. 11 attack itself.

A quick review of U.S. business disclosures on Sept. 11 and the next two days turns up several bad-news announcements that had nothing to do with terrorist attacks. The timing could have been coincidence; there's no evidence that the companies were intentionally hiding behind the bigger story, but presumably they were happy to be ignored in the hubbub.

A paper company in Washington announced a layoff. In California, a telecommunications firm said it needed more new capital than it had previously calculated; and an energy firm announced the resignation of its chief executive.

A major semiconductor concern, a software company and a construction equipment maker all said their revenue would be lower than expected. And so forth.

The bigger opportunity for corporate obfuscation offered by the terrorists comes in the category of responsibility. Many companies have used the tragedy and its aftermath to excuse or obscure their own missteps.

The U.S. economy was sinking before Sept. 11, but the attacks became an obvious source of blame for floundering firms.

The disaster was so terrible, the economic aftershocks so widely forecast, that it was a no-brainer to use it as an excuse. The dog didn't just eat your homework; he ate the school district.

Internet advertising firm DoubleClick, grocer Winn-Dixie Stores, medical claims processor WebMD, drug firm Cor Therapeutics, alternative-energy concern AES, shoe retailer Footstar, media firm AOL Time Warner and lens seller 1-800 Contacts have all been criticized by analysts for allegedly overplaying Sept. 11 as a factor in business downturns.

In Canada, a microbrewer named Sleeman Breweries blamed a disappointing quarter on "a significant and unexpected" decline in beer sales after Sept. 11, which prompted a Toronto Star letter writer to wonder, "Did terror drive the beer drinkers to the Temperance Union, or to hard liquor?"

When challenged, companies blaming Sept. 11 for poor results note that the attacks stunned the entire economy, so of course the disaster was a factor.

True, but it is important to draw distinctions. Behavioral psychologists and junk epidemiologists have so corrupted the notion of cause and effect that Americans are willing to accept almost anything as an excuse or threat, and flacks know this.

Not every corporation has been equally affected by Sept. 11. Airlines have a right to whip the Osama boy, although some contend that even they overstated the damage. Grocers and homebuilders don't.

The attacks came less than three weeks before the end of a fiscal quarter. Companies implying that poor results for the whole three months stemmed from the tragedy deserve criticism. Companies that mention the disaster in year-end reports as one factor in a faltering economy don't.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board suggested as much when it banned firms from treating the attacks as an extraordinary event separate from core business.

Despite impressive sleights of hand from investor-relations offices in recent weeks, however, it is clear that modern advances in public relations science have not spread everywhere. In October, Baltimore County spice purveyor McCormick & Co. included this statement in its earnings disclosure:

"The company does not anticipate that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States will have any material effect on its results of operations."

What honesty. What integrity. What a waste of a good hoodwinking opportunity.

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