A human not a highlight

I’ve come to the realization that some advertisements were not created with me in mind. I thought of this when I saw the DDB Group Düsseldorf’s “Highlight the Remarkable” campaign for the Stabilo Boss highlighter pen.

Rather than an affirming message of distinction, I saw a ham-fisted effort at inclusion. It made me think of white-knuckle fear and flesh-colored pantyhose—the constant awareness that “you’re different” when no one in the room looks like you.

Some advertisements were not created with me in mind.

This is one of those ads that was destined to win all of the awards—as those having to do with diversity are wont to do. But what it, ahem, highlights to me is how far we have yet to go in terms of inclusivity.

Look, even though this advertisement was not created with me in mind, I am the consumer for this product. The highlighter pen doesn’t hold the nostalgic appeal of, say, a Trapper Keeper, but it does hold some meaning. And now, instead of thinking about what text to highlight to remember a particular point—a rather benign affair—I’m thinking about how far we have yet to go.

These are the thoughts I’ll be carrying into the store when I purchase my highlighters this semester.

I’m guessing that’s not the message the ad team intended?

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.


E.J. Baxter, PR Pro: 12 Men of Christmas

PR Depictions

At the beginning of the film “12 Men of Christmas,” E.J. Baxter (portrayed by Kristen Chenoweth) is a public relations executive living the perfect life. Gendered public relations stereotypes notwithstanding—E.J. is a 30-something single at a high-powered New York City agency who simultaneously loses her job and fiancee—the movie contains compelling representations of the field.

Below are four lessons viewers can learn from this fictional public relations character:

1) She knows her worth

The film suggests E.J. Baxter has a well-earned reputation as a stellar public relations professional. She provides research-driven counsel to attract new clients; in fact, she is responsible for nearly 20 percent of new business at her former agency. E.J. nurtures her networks throughout the film, and is portrayed benefiting from those networks as well. Although she is unable to find work for several months after leaving New York City, she is unwilling to accept a…

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The Fog: Special Event Planning

The Fog (1980) is one of the last roles of Janet Leigh’s film career. Best known for her iconic role in Psycho, she plays understated event planner Kathy Williams in The Fog.

Kathy is planning the centennial celebration for the fictional coastal town of Antonio Bay, California. Her event-planning duties include scheduling speeches by town luminaries, prepping photo-ops with the Mayor, and unveiling of a statue for the 100-year anniversary.

Preparations are well underway when Father Malone declines Kathy’s request to deliver a prayer as part of the day’s events. She does not press the issue, however. She has other activities to finalize before celebrations begin. Unbeknownst to Kathy, Father Malone has discovered that Antonio Bay would not exist were it not for a deadly conspiracy in which its founders took part.

In an effort to improve a Leper Colony’s living conditions back in 1880, a wealthy man with leprosy purchased the Elizabeth Dane ship with plans to relocate. He asked one of the town founders, Father Malone’s grandfather who was also a priest, for permission to settle his colony one mile north of Antonio Bay. The elder Father Malone accepted the request but conspired with others to ensure the move never happened.

While the Elizabeth Dane was in route, the town founders lit a fire on the beach. The crew, believing the fire was a beacon, crashed. All six people on board perished. Worse, the conspirators recovered gold from the Elizabeth Dane the following day. Antonio Bay founded their settlement with gold plundered from the ship.

As Antonio Bay begins celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 1980, Father Malone voices his strong objections: “The celebration tonight is a travesty—we’re honoring murderers!”

His objections come too late, however. An otherworldly fog begins moving inland disrupting the lives of current city residents. In the fog are the ghosts of the doomed Elizabeth Dane. They have returned to avenge their deaths.

The meaning of a special day might be lost on those who are not directly affected. For Antonio Bay, the centennial hold special significance. How can city residents celebrate its founding and simultaneously honor that lost crew? Should they even try?

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

Circus S(p)in: P.T. Barnum

After 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its last show on Sunday, May 21. True to its promotional expertise, the circus streamed its final performance live on Facebook and YouTube. The circus dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth” succumbed to declining attendance, high operating costs, and prolonged battles with animal rights groups.

Well before Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came under fire for alleged animal rights abuses—owner Feld Entertainment retired its touring elephants in May 2016—company founders violated the most fundamental of human rights. Both Ringling Brothers and Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum, who operated separate circuses years prior to merging, have historical ties to slavery.

Starting in 1899, the Ringling Brothers exhibited George and Willie Muse, six- and nine-year old Black albino brothers. They were promoted as Eko and Iko, so-called “ambassadors from Mars.” It is unknown whether the circus kidnapped them or they were sold for a short-term arrangement, but their mother successfully negotiated their release in 1927. Sadly, the sons returned to the circus the following year to support their impoverished family. They wouldn’t retire until 1965.

In 1835, P.T. Barnum purchased Joice Heth, an elderly, blind, slave, to exhibit her as the 161-year-old former nurse of U.S. President George Washington. He displayed her for seven months across the Northeastern United States. When ticket sales dropped off, Barnum planted the even more preposterous news story that Heth was not alive, but controlled by ventriloquist. He continued the denigrating spectacle post-mortem. Barnum charged for admission to a public autopsy to verify her age. The doctor of course concluded that Heth was likely no older than 80 at death. Remarkably, Barnum convinced a news editor that the real Heth remained alive elsewhere, a claim he perpetuated in serialized articles for several months.

In the sanitized version of U.S. history, the circus transitioned seamlessly from human “freak shows” to exotic zoos, and then high-flying acrobatics. But a comprehensive narrative necessitates sociocultural context. Historians have rightfully explored the greater meaning of the circus in the American historical imagination and contemporary popular culture.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

Bad Publicity Is Bad Publicity: Top Five

The saying “there is no such thing as bad publicity” should die in the hottest of fires. Real publicists know that all good publicity is good publicity and all bad publicity is bad publicity.

Case in point: Three days before reality-star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) is set to marry comedian-turned-actor Andre Allen (Chris Rock) in the movie “Top Five,” Andre is arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. His arrest comes midway through a promotional tour for his first dramatic film role and ends four years of sobriety.

The publicity that follows is decidedly bad for Andre and Erica.

Erica’s publicist Benny Barnes (Romany Malco), justifiably concerned about the potential impact on her public image, delivers a scathing ultimatum to get Andre in check:

“Here’s what you are going to do. You are going to attend your bachelor party. And then you’re going to climb up on that jet and you, my man, are going to get married. And then, and only then, I will make sure that your little incident plays into the press like it was part of the show. I will tell the media, the cops, your parole officer, that we all thought the alcohol was fake. Everybody knows that these shows aren’t real. But if you decide to do something drastic, you’re on your own. Your own.”

This speech is rare for a publicist-character. Most of the time, they dole out pithy words of wisdom in between staging glitzy media events for their celebrity-clients. Think Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) in Sex and the City the television show, and the film and sequel or Ashley Albright (Lindsey Lohan) in Just My Luck). Fictional publicists lead glamorous lives, embodying the work hard play hard lifestyle.

According to Noreen Heron and Kate Hughes, real-life publicists research industry trends to identify those of relevance to their clients. They look for new communication channels to convey messages, particularly those with public  appeal. Publicists interact regularly with media professionals, sometimes serving as client intermediaries. They are superb writers, capable multi-taskers, and exceptional problem-solvers.

Hollywood publicists at the top of their game might helm million-dollar movie campaigns. They schedule media tours and press junkets, and viewers see both events in “Top Five.” The other place where fictional and real-world publicists intersect? They are on-call 24/7 for their clients.

What else would you expect from someone tasked with getting good publicity?

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

Who You Gonna Call? Ghostbusters!

If you saw the 2016 revival of Ghostbusters, you witnessed an all-female lead that captured the popular culture imagination. In addition to rebooting the team of supernatural crime-fighters, the film introduces a new Mayor’s Assistant who functions the way a chief of public affairs might in the off-screen world.

In the reboot, Jennifer Lynch (Cecily Strong) is the Mayor’s Assistant. When viewers first meet her, she is chastising the Ghostbusters for, er, busting ghosts in public. Turns out Homeland Security has been studying the uptick in unexplained phenomena. In order to avoid mass hysteria, Jennifer will publicly denounce—but privately support—the Ghostbusters. She stages an on-camera arrest of the Ghostbusters (a stunt for visual effect) and calls them frauds. By the time the film concludes, though, Jennifer congratulates them for protecting the city and extends funding from the Mayor for their continued work.

The original iteration of the Mayor’s Assistant appears in Ghostbusters 2, the 1989 sequel to the first film. Like Jennifer, Jack Hardemeyer (Kurt Fuller) calls the Ghostbusters frauds and publicity hounds. Unlike Jennifer; however, he is not faking animosity. He files a restraining order against the Ghostbusters to block their access to the Mayor. His reason? Protecting the Mayor’s reputation while he is running for Governor. Jack panics when he overhears the Ghostbusters discuss contacting the press about a surge in paranormal activity. Unbeknownst to the Mayor, Jack has the team committed to a psychiatric hospital. Later, his inability to contain citywide panic necessitates a call to the supernatural crime-fighters. Once the Mayor finds out Jack had the Ghostbusters falsely committed, he fires him.

As public relations characters, Jennifer Lynch and Jack Hardemeyer perform their respective roles in vastly different ways. Below are three functions viewers see:

Client Relations: Client Relations involves establishing and maintaining client trust through ongoing communication, understanding the mission of the client, and selecting appropriate audience to achieve their goals, according to Joan Daly. Public relations professionals must adequately evaluate client needs in order to manage their expectations. Thanks to behind-the-scenes support from the Mayor’s office, the Ghostbusters become a de facto client for Jennifer. Garnering their trust will likely take a while, though. (She calls them “sad and lonely women” during an on-air interview.)

Impression Management: Lynn Sallot defined Impression Management as regulating or controlling information and behavior to ensure consistency between public perceptions and constructed identity. It is essential to the work of public relations professionals. Jennifer seeks to maintain the impression that the city is functioning well. Jack seeks to maintain the impression that the Mayor is governing well. Unfortunately, Jack’s heavy-handed approach puts millions of lives in jeopardy.

Media Relations: Media Relations encompasses researching topics for complete understanding, seeking out media who haven’t covered the topic, and tailoring pitches accordingly, says Andrew Grossman. Public relations professionals must foster connections with the media in order to facilitate client coverage. The cameras and microphones recording Jennifer’s public statements suggest she has established some valuable media connections. The same can’t be said for Jack, though. His outsized reaction to a potential news story suggests deep-seated media mistrust.

These fictional public relations characters offer an important reminder about the multiple publics that real-life industry professionals serve. They also reveal the interrelationship between those publics—and the dangers of neglecting one for the sake of another.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

Black Images

If you were to look at the images used to portray newly freed slaves in the United States and the images that White supremacists use to denigrate African-Americans in the 21st century, you would scarcely be able to tell them apart.

What is it about these stereotypes that have withstood the test of time? They were, undoubtedly, part of a years-long propaganda campaign designed to shape the image of Black citizens.

Kent State University student and faculty learn about historical images every semester thanks to the Black Images trip, a visit to three different African-American-themed museums co-hosted by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Pan-African Studies. The trip includes a visit to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which uses “objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and to promote social justice.”

By perpetuating negative imagery, campaign messages sought to justify the second-class societal status of Black people. Non-Black people who saw the images could then alleviate guilt they might have felt for their ancestors’ enslaving a race of people. Black people would internalize the messages, perhaps believing limitations to their capabilities.

These stereotypical visuals are embedded in the collective sociocultural imagination of the United States. No wonder trolls exchange them online.

Thankfully, activists and authors alike have chipped away at derogatory labels. Adam Hochschild’s “Bury the Chains: Prophets and rebels in the fight to free an empire’s slaves highlights the effectiveness of messaging to free the slaves in the U.K. during the late 1700s. In the U.S., Black editor and activist William Trotter helped launch a nationwide protest in 1915 to stop the Ku Klux Klan propaganda film “Birth of a Nation.” Although Trotter was unsuccessful with his efforts, they were indeed worthwhile.

Given that the same persuasive tactics can be deployed to convey positive and negative images, public relations professionals must stay vigilant to avoid perpetuating unfair stereotypes.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.