French's, and Fatalism
March 29, 2003
By David Swanson
Two quotations first.
Special interest organizations of every stripe
are having trouble pushing their messages through the fog
of war. It has been especially tough for the liberal activist
nonprofits touting environmentalism and other causes unrelated
to the dominant story. Thus the Washington-based public
relations firm Fenton Communications, which has been flacking
for left-leaning outfits and cause celebs such as Susan
Sarandon and Martin Sheen for the past two decades, recently
issued a PR primer to harried clients. It's titled "Fenton
Fundamentals: Navigating Media in Wartime." The e-mailed
version begins: "DON'T bash Bush. 2 out of 3 Americans approve
of Bush's handling of the confrontation with Saddam Hussein.
In times of war - especially the early stages - the public's
instinct is to stand behind its leader. You won't win any
allies by alienating yourself with harsh attacks." But that
"Fenton Fundamental" is missing from the list of dos and
don't on the firm's Website, fenton.com. When we asked CEO
David Fenton to resolve this mystery, he initially claimed
ignorance. "I don't even know about that," he told us. But
after several testy exchanges, he finally acknowledged yesterday:
"I didn't write it. We have a very able staff. But I did
not agree with the proposition that people shouldn't feel
free to criticize the president. That seemed anti-Jeffersonian.
I objected to it, so they took it off the Web site." We
hope Fenton feels fundamentally better for having told the
truth. - Washington Post, March 27, 2003
Then there is French's Mustard. A news release
this week proclaimed, "The only thing French about French's
Mustard is the name! Robert T. French's All-American Dream
Lives On." The release waved the United States flag as vigorously
as it could, proclaiming that since 1915 French's pennant
emblem has symbolized "French's affiliation with baseball
and American celebration." The news release said French's
was produced by "New Jersey-based Reckitt Benckiser Inc."…Reckitt
Benckiser P.L.C., which does more business in Western Europe
than in the United States, chose not to post its French's
"All-American" news release on its Web site, where it might
be seen by the French. "We issued the press release in response
to some confusion that was going on," said Ellyn Small,
the spokeswoman who put out the release. "We are not anti-French.
We're not anti-anybody." - New York Times, March
Both of these marketers are trying to say different things
to different audiences, whatever it takes to either sell mustard
or sell the political left. Ultimately, if the mustard won't
sell, the company will try to sell ketchup or mayonnaise instead.
Ultimately, if the left won't sell, Fenton will try to sell
right-wing proposals instead.
This works for condiment sales. It does not work for politics.
It's both bad political PR and bad analysis of what the left
I didn't read the Fenton Email until some days after it
arrived in my In box, because I was too busy working on an
anti-Bush Tax Cuts rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol,
which received a lot of positive media attention, including
The left will never win the PR campaign by imitating right-wing
Democrats. We will win by speaking our minds and creating
a real left, so that a moderate left, rather than an extreme
right, becomes the middle ground. We've cut the latest round
of tax cuts for billionaires in half, because we haven't become
utter cowards. We have not eliminated the tax cuts, because
no proposal to INCREASE taxes on billionaires has been sufficiently
promoted (so the middle ground is not where we need it) and
because we have not gone after our so-called president aggressively
enough. This is a time to fight, not to self-censor.
But that's not what "messaging experts" like Fenton are
preaching. The left has recently learned the importance of
media skills, in part because the right is so good at it,
and in part because the media is so much a part of the right
that the left has to be more skilled to have any chance at
But a left-wing message doesn't derive from what will sell.
Guidance can be offered in how to sell a left-wing message,
but the message cannot be altered beyond recognition and the
sales job still be considered a success.
Where does a left-wing message come from? It comes from
asking people what is important to them, what they care about,
what they want their country to look like. Most people want
value restored to the minimum wage. Most people would rather
have good schools than more tax cuts for billionaires. Most
people would like to see universal health insurance. Most
people have no particular desire to go kill Iraqis. Most people
are much wiser and kinder than what the media suggests and
than what a lot of polls suggest. Their thinking is much more
left-wing than Congress's.
If you ask people if they "support the president," many
who also oppose most of his policies will say yes. Many who
condemn the U.S. aggression in Iraq will tell you they "support
our troops." This can mean anything from concern for the lives
of U.S. soldiers despite the crimes they are committing (a
concern I share), to simply a habit of respect for authority
or a newly increased fear deriving from the government's new
If you ask people if they would raise taxes on billionaires
in order to support schools, health care, and social security,
many who will also say that they "support the President" will
say yes. On what basis should one of these answers be given
dominance over the other? Fenton's choice is to go with patriotic
fervor. Don't attack the President on tax cuts because people
"support" him. Another choice would be to go with the message
we care about. Don't support the President, because he's gutting
our schools, health care, housing, and Social Security in
order to pay for more tax cuts for billionaires.
I don't mean to suggest that PR people can't serve some
useful purpose. There is always a need for eloquence, a need
for training in the basics of media communications, a need
for creativity in choice of spokespeople and props. There
is also an important place for strategizing about what campaigns
are winnable in the short term.
However, we need a long term strategy just as badly. Notions
that used to belong on the extreme right wing are now middle
of the road because people have pushed them loudly and unapologetically
for decades. Had they censored themselves, they would not
It's useful to strategize about the best soundbites and
how to reach the broadest possible audience, but transforming
your message into a simple parroting of what people already
think would serve no purpose even if you could do it, except
to make people more comfortable in those views.
It's important to keep in mind that we are putting out messages
in order to change people's thinking, not in order to match
it. So we need messages that nudge them in a good direction
from where they are, and we also need messages that paint
a radically different picture, allowing our moderate proposals
to be considered middle of the road. We need a left, in other
words, if we are ever going to have a middle.
To have a left, we need positive and creative and radical
proposals. French's and Fenton don't have these. They know
what they don't want. They don't hate the French; they only
pretend to. They don't want to censor attacks on the President,
they only pretend to. But they do not know what they do want.
As long as we are just for opposing tax cuts for billionaires,
just for opposing the latest bombings, just for opposing the
latest cut to school funding, just for blocking the latest
relaxation of pollution regulations, we will not be able to
even hold our ground. To so much as maintain the status quo,
we must have an unapologetic push for higher taxes on billionaires
and corporations, the creation of a Peace Department, a proposal
to drastically increase money for schools, and a plan for
alternative energy sources.
If we refuse to bash Bush, we are bashing ourselves.
David Swanson's website is at www.davidswanson.org