Dear Consent Factory: I’m a fairly new associate at a global media relations firm. One of our firm’s clients, a private non-profit university located in a developing country and primarily funded by the U.S. Department of State, has got a bit of a situation that we were hoping you could help us make go away. It seems the University has recently appointed as its Chairman a distinguished former U.S. Navy Seal, former Governor and U.S. Senator, who, before he began his distinguished career in politics, was awarded a Medal of Honor citation for leading his U.S. Navy SEAL team (I don’t recall the number of the SEAL team) into a village in this very same developing country and murdering men, women and children in sort of a stomach-turning “Manson Family” manner. Pregnant women were among the victims. Some disembowelment may have been involved. In any event, the client is catching some flack from the press for appointing this guy, mostly from the usual left-wing sources. The New York Times is helping us out, but our client is worried that this story might have legs. What do you think is best approach here? — Struggling to Get This Stubborn Stain Out
Dear Struggling to Get This Stubborn Stain Out: First off, this problem is entirely manageable. We deal with this type of thing all the time. Many powerful and important public figures have, at one time or another, murdered a few people … or in some cases quite a number of people, although usually not with their own hands, which is probably your biggest challenge here — the last thing you want is for people to start forming vivid mental images of your client’s Chairman and his Navy Seal buddies stabbing pregnant women in the belly and shooting little kids in the head, and so on.
What we normally recommend in situations like this is the wait-it-out (or “zen”) approach. While, admittedly, this doesn’t sound too sexy, if the client can be patient, it usually works. People these days are increasingly inured to whole “atrocity” and “war crime” thing. Also, it sounds like whatever gruesome mass murder your client’s new Chairman committed took place several decades ago. People’s memories don’t go back that far. Most people don’t even remember that it was The New York Times that sold them the “Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction” story back in 2002-2003, or that Hill+Knowlton invented the whole “Iraqis Pulling Kuwaiti Babies Out of Their Incubators” story back in 1990, before the first U.S. invasion of Iraq. The details about all that came out later, but by that time nobody gave a hoot. The point is, people still think of The New York Times as “the paper of record,” and Hill+Knowlton is doing just fine. And these are just a couple of examples.
If the zen approach doesn’t work, we recommend advising your client to: (a) get out in front of the story, i.e. re-publicize and re-refute the original accusations however your client’s mass murdering Chairman did that the first time, which we assume was effective, or he wouldn’t have gone on to enjoy that distinguished career in politics (it looks like the NYT is already working on this); (b) dig up and/or invent any and all dirt on whomever it was that made the original allegations against your client’s Chairman, or published the original story — as we’re sure you’re aware, almost everybody has something dirty or shameful in their backgrounds somewhere; and (c) get some rumors going about how your client’s baby-murdering Chairman is the victim of some dark conspiracy to ruin his reputation — astroturfing is the way to go here (i.e. posting on Twitter and other social media), the goal being simply to muddy the waters, rather than to actually refute the facts.
At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to have some of your media contacts publish and/or broadcast the following: (a) inspiring lifestyle-type features on the Navy Seals — but any such features need to be totally unrelated to your client’s guy; (b) negative retrospective pieces on whichever ethic group or nationality your client’s Chairman’s victims belonged to, especially if they highlight any despicable and/or barbarous tactics the enemy may have been using at the time; and (c) any other pro-military or war-glorifying content you can think of, but again, nothing directly related to your client’s mass murdering Chairman!
However, we’d strongly recommend the wait-it-out approach first. Give it a week or so. Given the volume of nonsense people are barraged with on a moment-by-moment basis these days, odds are this little stink will blow over, and soon enough no one will even remember it ever happened.
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