Thursday, 30 October 2003

Idiot's guide to combating satire & criticism

If there were a rule #1 in public relations for responding to satire, it would be: "If someone satirizes you, don't give him free advertising." Fortunately, most American corporations and political entities have yet to learn this lesson. This gives the rest of us endless entertainment as they add to the "who's who" list of good satire that comes from their PR blunders.

My first exposure to this maxim came in the 2000 U.S. Presidential campaign, when then-governor Bush excoriated the plucky web site GWBush.com in front of a large crowd and television cameras. His staff had registered all the Internet domains it could think of that contained variations of the candidate's name, but this one slipped through the cracks and was registered by a gadfly. The site satirized Bush and all the silly things he said.

Instead of ignoring this relatively unknown crank, Bush stood atop his soapbox and uttered the phrase that will live longer than his children's children: "There ought to be limits on this kind of freedom." The site enjoyed an instant (and long-lived) boost in popularity, growing from 1,000 visitors per day to over 1 million visitors per day for the rest of the campaign, with somewhat lower levels thereafter. The t-shirts it introduced the next day (with the "There ought to be limits on…freedom" speech bubble) were its hottest item for the rest of the campaign.

A group near and dear to Bush's heart, the Republican Party of Texas (RPT) is not outdone by its leader. Last March, the RPT threatened to sue the operators of a web site, EnronownstheGOP.com. The parody site mimics the RPT's site and "contains a banner which reads 'Republican Party of Texas…brought to you by Enron.' The letter 'e' in the word 'Republican' is in the form of the crooked 'e' symbol for Enron. The Web site contains 'humorous takes on the GOP's ties to Enron'" and parodic representations of its elephant logo. (Source) The site promptly displayed RPT's "cease and desist" letters, and the story was picked up by the national media. That same week, my Trademarks professor, David Byer, brought it to the attention of our law school class. "I had three or four associates ask if we could represent this site pro bono," he said. "That is not the reaction you want people to have when they read about your lawsuit."

The most recent bonehead example comes from Fox. (I am not trying to paint this as a right-wing problem (honest!) the best recent examples just happen to come from "right field.") On Tuesday Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," reported during an interview on NPR that Fox News nearly sued the network's entertainment division over a Simpsons episode that parodied "the Fox News rolling news ticker" by highlighting what is widely-perceived as "the channel's anti-Democrat stance, with headlines like 'Do Democrats Cause Cancer?'" (Source) If Fox News had the self-control to ignore its sister channel's show, only those who saw the show would have seen it, and only a few Simpsons devotees would remember it an hour later. Now, however, over a dozen news outlets have picked up the story.

Posted at 4:58:16 PM | Permalink

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Topics: Civil Liberties, Cyberlaw, Politics
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