Anatomy of a PR Greasing
Occasionally it seems necessary to peel back the layers of onionlike obfuscation that wrap your daily news feedings and reveal the ugly bed-bounce that is public relations. The plan of attack on your information supply is always the same: PR flackhounds feed a journalist, get him drunk, give him something for free -- whether it's a crappy key chain or a malfunctioning pen -- provide a healthy supply of press release "information," and sit back to reap the rewards, in the form of a shimmering "story" that takes some product or business to heights of media prominence previously thought unreachable.
And when the flackhounds have their way, there is a ritual that usually follows: All the staffers for the victorious PR firm gather around a desk, upon which rests the journalist's article, and gasp with delight at the journalist's inclusion of all the pertinent details about the product, at his prescient appraisal of all that is terrific and unique about it, and, most of all, at his decision to quote all the right people, saying all the right things. The PR firm wins. Its client wins. The masses buy the product. And the writer, despite a college degree and perhaps years of journalism experience, is reduced to the status of a typist -- a typist who might, in his or her reflective moments, begin wondering if it's too late to start teaching or working on that novel, because, hey, George Bernard Shaw was in his 40s when he started writing plays.
We see this media dance every day, and the flackhounds are usually leading, whether the subject is music or gardening or food or computers.
Or, in this case, Chivas Regal.
The voice-mail message from L.A. arrives two days before the event -- a luncheon/tasting of the newest scotch to hit America's shore. The Voice doing the inviting is full of flattery, insisting that only "select people" will be invited, and that I have been personally referred as one of the select. This new product, created by Chivas Regal, is called the Century of Malts. It is an unnecessary blend of 100 single-malt scotches that supposedly will arrive in stores this week. In an ensuing conversation with the Voice, unspoken expectations simmer -- help us out, we'll help you out. Everybody knows the game here. To her credit, the Voice on the phone admits, "At least you'll get a free lunch and some little airline-size bottles to take home."
It's show time. The maitre d' at Rose Pistola in North Beach knows exactly which table will accommodate the scotch tasting, and gestures to a small window booth. Three people there suddenly come alive -- someone showed up! A man wearing a kilt pours carefully measured cups of Evian water into wine glasses of scotch, to dilute the flavors and supposedly allow them to blossom. Tote bags for each of the writers -- they contain propaganda and a free bottle of the new scotch concoction -- are clumped together to one side of the booth. There will be five of us, making this an intimate PR grease that won't cost the company much at all. Let's meet the cast of characters:
* Jennifer Billings, the PR person from L.A., in a tasteful yet noncommittal white suit that suggests an evening news broadcast, smiles frequently and has perfect teeth. She drops subtle questions like "So, do you like it? Is it -- do you like it, then?" Obviously a professional.
* Jim Cryle, the ringer Chivas has flown over from Scotland for this product launch, the factor of authenticity, the man who has worked in the scotch business for 30 years, and whose face -- a robust jungle of tiny capillaries that flare and roll over the creases of skin like ivy crawling up a building -- is testament to such experience. He is meant to represent the intriguing nature of a rich and varied Scottish culture, to be informative and pleasant, to provide the antithesis of Trainspotting heroin scuz.
* Richard Sterling soon arrives; he is a food-and-beverage writer with a shaved head and an internal CD-ROM of memorized witty expressions. Sterling's bons mots range from an assessment of the scotch's bouquet ("It's my cologne") to the timing and effects of the tasting ("I only drink professionally during the day, never recreationally"). He is currently working on another book, a guide to 52 places to wear a tuxedo in San Francisco.
* And Fred Dodsworth, resilient editor/publisher of the epicurean aujuice magazine, who has started or worked with 419 magazines in the Bay Area, has been asked to leave 403 of them, and is currently suing another for an amount in the high six figures.
Everyone is friendly, tentative, and dull. The tasting commences, the Scot lecturing on the many properties of single malt, the regions of origin, the distilleries. We nod appropriately at the correct moments, and taste the two single-malt samples provided for contrast with the Century of Malts: Longmorn and Glenkinchie. By God, that's scotch all right. Exactly why we're here.
Then the Scot turns to the bottle of Century before him, the inexplicable yet apparently masterful culmination of the blending of 100 single-malt scotches, the flagship of the Chivas fleet that is expected to single-handedly sail scotch into the millennium. He compares the complexities of its blends to the pleasing result when a conductor tames an orchestra. It's true that at the end of a symphony one feels pleasingly exhausted from the emotional journey. But the comparison doesn't really hold up; at the end of a bottle of scotch, one feels shit-faced and accusatory, as if trapped in a bad high school production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We sip our glasses of Century, and the reactions of everyone at the table are startling in their depth of critical faculty:
"Smooth, isn't it?"
"Mmm, yes, it's quite smooth."
Adjectives move on to include "creamy," "buttery," and "fruity." Tourists and homeless bums walk past the picture windows of Rose Pistola, enjoying the early afternoon sun, oblivious to the fact that someone inside the restaurant will soon, without irony, say a bottle of scotch contains the flavors of "pineapple and bananas." (Let's try to imagine those acres of pineapple fields and banana forests indigenous to Scotland, the monkeys with kilts chattering in the trees, the luaus on the beaches of Islay, with shirtless bagpipers roasting sheep and tossing cabers into the surf ....)
Sterling smacks his lips and announces, "I could cook with this. It would be good to deglaze a pan with."
A waitress samples a glass, as does the maitre d'. I suggest that we might get the entire staff of the restaurant in on the deal. The Scot suddenly whips around with a wide grin on his face, and exclaims in a thick brogue: "That would be good fun!"
Actually, it probably would not be a good idea to get the entire restaurant crew pink-faced in the middle of the day, dancing in the center of Columbus to some weird jig inside their heads, waitresses alternately making out with busboys and arguing with chefs, dead-drunk tourists peeing against trees, cops on motorbikes knifing through the unruly mob, news choppers thup-thupping over the melee, Jim Cryle and Jennifer Billings swaying from the roof of the Rose Pistola building, singing Willie Nelson's "Whiskey River, Take My Mind!" and swilling from bottles of Century, their chins and clothing glistening with vomit, while, standing across the street, Alan Black of the Edinburgh Castle Scottish pub in the Tenderloin, organizer of the Scottish Cultural and Arts Foundation events, watches through his fingers in horror as a silly, marketing-driven product from his homeland turns the neighborhood into a cheap spectacle.
But maybe Cryle had the right idea. A hideous afternoon binge would be a lot more interesting than the slew of gushingly positive "news" reports we'll soon be seeing about the scotch of a hundred scotches.
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