PAUL HOLMES: Mayor's questionable PR move uncovered the difference between good and bad activism

For those raised on a philosophy of PR that says you never offend anyone, never stick your neck out, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to invite two stars of The Sopranos to the Columbus Day parade - and then withdraw from the parade himself when the organizers objected - must have broken every rule of good PR.

For those raised on a philosophy of PR that says you never offend anyone, never stick your neck out, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to invite two stars of The Sopranos to the Columbus Day parade - and then withdraw from the parade himself when the organizers objected - must have broken every rule of good PR.

The move probably angered a few Italian Americans concerned about the stereotyping of their people as participants in organized crime, and determined to replace it with a new stereotype of their people as over-sensitive whiners. And it probably didn't win him any new votes, since even the most ardent Sopranos fan is unlikely to change his political preference as a result. But isn't it refreshing to see courage and character from a public leader, rather than cringing capitulation? Let's be clear. Dominic Chianese and Lorraine Bracco are actors. But even if they were real-life gangsters, they'd still be better role models than the man the Columbus Day parade was designed to honor, who was responsible for more deaths than Capone, Gotti, and every character in The Godfather films put together. Most PR people would probably have advised Bloomberg to avoid the controversy, to play nice. But PR is not a popularity contest; it's about communicating character, and Bloomberg showed he had plenty of it by showing the inanity of the parade organizers' protest. We have entered an era in which there is a protest group for every cause, no matter how obscure, in which someone will take offense at every action, no matter how harmless. Several years ago, an activist group representing witches threatened to boycott Aetna after the insurance company produced an ad depicting a witch with green skin and a chin wart. Members of the religious right raised a stink when ITT set one of its ads to Handel's Messiah, claiming the use of religious music was blasphemous. The National Stuttering Project objected when Nike ads used Porky Pig for comic relief. More recently, an animal-rights group complained about Aflac ads that show a duck falling from a great height, thus encouraging violence against fowl. This is not to deny that activist groups have a vital role to play in our society. If either Ford or Bridgestone/Firestone had listened to consumer advocates who claimed the Explorer's tires were unsafe, fewer people would have died in auto accidents. But isn't it the role of PR people to help their clients distinguish between those groups that have a legitimate grievance and those who use high-profile companies (or politicians) to draw attention to their causes, or trivialize important issues by claiming injury at every imagined insult?
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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