Kate Nicholas: Insult gives ‘PR stunt’ a new meaning

I could almost hear the collective intake of breath throughout the PR industry last Sunday, when a US official described three suicides at the Guantanamo prison camp in Cuba as a PR stunt.

It was, ironically, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, Colleen Graffy, who told the BBC World Service that the suicides were ‘a good PR move to draw attention’.

In fact, she may have been right, in that the move may well draw attention to the plight of the long-term residents of Guantanamo, but what was so utterly distasteful about the statement was the way in which it tried to dismiss the tragic deaths by referring to an activity seen by Graffy as underhand, manipulative and shoddy – ie, PR.

Before the letters flood in, I should make clear that in the circumstance I couldn’t give a fig about the bruised egos of PR professionals who may feel that the reference to their craft somehow demeans them.  I am far more concerned about the cynicism of an administration that will seek to offset the blame for the deaths of three young men in this manner.

So let’s just have a look at exactly what Graffy was accusing these men of. The OED defines a stunt as:

  1. an action displaying spectacular skill and daring; 
  2. something unusual done to attract attention. 

Public relations is defined by the CIPR as the discipline that looks after reputation, ie the result of what you do and say, and what others say about you, with the aim of earning understanding and support, and influencing opinion and behaviour.

Put the two together and you have an action displaying what could be considered considerable daring or courage. Certainly an unusual move, even in the hell hole of Guantanamo. 

Suicide as protest does not fit with Western or Christian thinking, and should never be condoned. And as Graffy was at pains to point out, they did not need to take their lives to protest their situation, having access as they did to lawyers. But perhaps like Quang Doc – the monk who began the series of self-immolations by Buddhist monks in protest at the Vietnam war – they could simply find no other way to be heard.

We will never know whether it was simply despair that drove these men to take their lives or whether, as Graffy suggests, they did so to attract attention, with the aim of earning understanding and influencing opinion. But I believe that when you look at the real meaning of the term ‘PR stunt’, its application to this sad act should be seen as one of respect rather than denigration.


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