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Fenton, 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, 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 28, 2003

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 is.

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 these clips:

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 all.

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 surveillance powers.

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 have succeeded.

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

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