The Book Club

So, How Would You Spin This One?

“The Ether of Theory … Have You Driven a Ford, Nazi? … Gerbils Shot From Cannons”

Dear Randall,

Considering how firmly Marchand anchored Creating the Corporate Soul in historical fact, I’m surprised at how quickly you abandoned his bedrock for the ether of theory. In the process, you make PR sound like a self-referential exercise in social cohesion and portray the corporation as some sort of complicated bonding mechanism. I can’t wait to share these insights with my rapacious corporate masters here at Microsoft (“Where do you want to go today?”), who have chosen hammer and tongs to battle the public relations nightmare emanating from Judge Jackson’s courtroom, and who are forever lecturing their employees about doing their part to slay the “cost beast” that causes us to use too many paper clips.

So back to Marchand’s book. Devoted as he is to the history and methods of corporate image-building, he spends a good chunk of the book on how AT&T’s spinner, Ivy Lee, transformed the company’s reputation from despised monopoly to public servant. Like Edward L. Bernays and Bruce Barton, Lee was adept at constructing images and patterns that put his benefactor in a good light. So, my question to you this morning is this: How would Lee, Bernays, or Barton have handled the current public relations beating that General Motors and Ford are taking for their cooperation with the Nazis?

As reported by Michael Dobbs in yesterday’s Washington Post,

a civil case has been filed against Ford Motor Co. by Holocaust victims who worked as slave laborers in the company’s German subsidiaries during World War II. On the GM front, a forthcoming book reports that GM and Ford willingly stocked the arsenal of fascism while ignoring FDR’s pleas (prior to Pearl Harbor Day) for help in arming Britain and preparing the U.S. for the coming conflict.

The charges against Ford and GM aren’t new, but the Swiss banks’ $1.25 billion settlement with Holocaust survivors has changed the corporate responsibility climate: The more you wiggle the more stuck you are. In the Post story, both automakers deny culpability for their German subsidiaries’ actions and duck the substantive questions posed by Dobbs. Ford says in a court brief that restitution should be “a government-to-government concern.”

If public relations theory instructs its practioners to “engineer consent,” should GM and Ford stay the course, saying little in hopes that the furor blows over? Should they give the controversy more publicity by mounting a counterattack? Settle with the victims? Sponsor a World’s Fair exhibition? Donate money to the Holocaust Museum?



P.S. Have you seen the other commercial in which they shoot live gerbils from a cannon through the “O” in the Outpost logo?