Public relations has always been the wild, uncontrollable step-sibling in brand management. The larger ad agencies usually have a PR department so they can offer one-stop shopping for clients, but the smaller ones eschew it; compared to running a normal ad campaign, with its focus-grouped creative and increasingly precise media-buying strategies, managing public opinion and the press is like herding cats in the most unruly anarchic badlands, and the Internet has only made those badlands even badder.
Take for instance the dissemination this week of a photograph of two female Russian athletes kissing on the medal stand. Never mind that the athletes themselves insist it wasn’t a protest of their country’s abhorrent LGBT-suppression laws; Russian culture abounds in same-sex public displays of affection, especially kissing on the lips, so they are probably being truthful. Still, gay-rights supporters worldwide were quick to claim them as ours, bolstering Putin & Co.’s assertions that our agenda is out of control. Never mind. The point is that Russia’s attempts to suppress “gay propaganda” have now turned on them and become the most effective agents of propaganda themselves, focusing world attention on gay rights beyond the limits of the Western world.
As any PR person will tell you, it’s all about timing and momentum when trying to influence public opinion. My feeling is institutionalized Russian intolerance towards LGBTs won’t go away, and nor will resistance to it; rather, it will gain force in these few months leading up to the Olympics. We Gheys have learned two important lessons from the fight for equality: that we are squarely in the right; that if we persist we will eventually prove that right. We are unlikely to back down on this issue, and we have no better focus for our righteous fury than the nefarious image of Putin himself.
I firmly believe a culture gets the government it deserves, unless it is occupied by force by another country. I do not weep for Iranians or mainland Chinese; true, they have their sophisticated and vocal elite, but their governments reflect the will of the majority of the people. The only way to change their minds and therefore their governments is to influence their culture.
Most of us who grew up during the Cold War failed to realize that it was merely an extension of the Great Game played between British and Russian empires for centuries. The U.S. inherited the dynamic from our progenitors across the Atlantic after British control of the world was shattered post-World War II and we assumed the imperial mantle. The U.S. controlled things differently and didn’t occupy countries physically (or not for very long) but rather through the dissemination of our culture, our ideals, our products — America’s cultural hegemony is hands down the most effective large-scale PR coup in history.
The difference between Western and Russian/Chinese attitudes towards government has often been summarized as being that we expect our governments to serve the people whereas they expect people to serve the government. I find that to be true, but also rather simplistic. I look to a more fundamental question that arose in recent weeks when the West reacted to Russia’s LGBT laws by reaching for what can be an effective weapon in influencing policy — boycotts — and discovering that Russia doesn’t actually make anything worth boycotting. Even Stolichnaya vodka is made in Latvia, a fact that was made abundantly clear when the City of West Hollywood, where I live, had a Stoli-dumping ceremony outside a prominent gay bar on Santa Monica Boulevard attended only by members of the local press and, well, me because I happened to be walking by on my way to the supermarket. (What a PR debacle that was. But as I pointed out when the LGBT community quickly lashed back at its leaders and stood up for the poor vodka-factory workers in Latvia, Stoli in this instance is a metonym for Russian products. Sorry for the collateral damage, guys, but when you own a brand you own its image, too — have you taken a look at what the label depicts and says?)
So, wait, the largest country in the world doesn’t manufacture anything that we use daily? It would seem that most of Russia’s oil goes to Europe or other countries. Imagine if the world boycotted American products. We’d have to shut down the Internet, for a start. As for boycotting Chinese goods… My point is that Russia, like certain portions of rural America, is predominantly a nation of ignorant, impoverished, alcoholic rubes whose government reflects more who they are rather than their attitude towards government.
In fairness, the world should boycott us for any number of reasons — capital punishment and immigration issues are gross human rights violations. There are daily posts and articles about right-wing Russian lawmakers or personalities spewing hatred about LGBTs, but we should know better than to heed them; we’ve got plenty of the same in our own backyards. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be used in the Great PR Game we are playing, and playing very well.
Actually, it’s over this Olympic boycotting issue that I’ve finally grown a bit irritated with Obama, and become aware of his image getting more than a little tarnished with the country in general. What if Russian laws targeted blacks rather than LGBTs? Would he still sit on the sidelines and call for diplomacy? I agree that it is too late to change the IOC’s bylaws because that would trigger an instant withdrawal from Sochi, which is almost impossible even if Vancouver is the emergency fallback venue for the Winter Games. Still, the fact remains those bylaws need to be revisited, and pressure must be kept on the IOC to ensure that the world’s greatest celebration of human spirit isn’t held in countries that so flagrantly violate the rights of at least one-tenth of its participants.
Most of all we need to keep in mind that Olympic athletes who work so hard for their achievements should not be made the casualties of political discourse. Our president only recently “evolved” his stance on gay marriage and open service in the military, when it should always have been absolutely clear to a black man, no evolution necessary. One minute he’s sitting on the fence about it and a few months later he’s on the cover of Newsweek with a rainbow halo. That’s PR for you, baby.
The PR image problem Gheys have always faced is basic: We’re all about sex, and not the kind of sex most people have — sexual orientation is what defines us primarily. As a character on this week’s episode of The Newsroom noted, most people love sex and are sexual beings to one degree or other, but we are bullied and shamed by the overly vocal moral minority who don’t like sex and want it suppressed. And yet everyone walking the planet, even test-tube children, is the product of an x-rated act.
It was only once the public image of the gay struggle was slowly, convincingly moved diverted the right to have sex with each other to the right to stand on equal footing with heterosexuals that we finally made some headway. But we still have a long way to go in changing the perception of Gheys being exclusively hedonistic sodomites because, let’s face it, many of us are just that. True, there should be nothing wrong with hedonism or sodomy, but it isn’t all we are about, and that’s something the world is only beginning to understand.
Despite what paranoid right-wingers might say about his tyrannical aspirations and his subversion of our fundamental rights to privacy, Obama is nowhere near as despicable as Putin, who is akin to a capricious twentieth-century Latin American dictator. Still, the President is having terrible PR issues of his own these days with this Snowden/NSA problem. Putin scored some points there by granting the whistleblower temporary asylum while he awaits safe passage to South America, and I hope he gets it — frankly, this is all much ado about very little, so au revoir Eddie, have fun for the rest of your life on the beaches with the babes and the piña coladas. What Snowden has accomplished is akin to what the guy who hacked Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook account did, but on a massive scale: he exposed the bugs and glitches in our security system. Yeah, so we’re all being watched, and we’ll be watched even more efficiently going forward. Do I have anything to hide? No. And if you do have something to hide then you’ve brought it on yourself. I am much more concerned with us being able to effectively monitor those medieval psychos who would do us harm in as big a way possible than I am about whether the NSA is reading a text to my roommate that he should help himself to the quinoa risotto on the stove, which is great with a dollop of sour cream. In fact, a great side effect of this whole surveillance debate is how it has highlighted how ridiculous and old-fashioned this paranoia about privacy is in the first place.
Above all, what the Snowden episode underscored, once again, is that America isn’t all-powerful. Not all countries do our bidding, although many do have strong alliances with us and share intel because we have common security interests. So ideology and heroism be damned: that intel was stolen, and it was theft because it was proprietary to an organization, a very big organization. Every country in the world has laws against theft and has the right to prosecute. But that fact does nothing to improve Obama’s image. Day by day he’s being painted as this increasingly Orwellian character who invades the sovereign airspace of embattled developing nations with drones, slaughtering innocents everywhere, and spies on his own people with intent to harm them in some unspecified manner with illicitly gained information about their quinoa risottos.
Again, as we have seen from the futile attempt to boycott their non-existent products, Russia is a developing nation. LGBTs have long struggled there, here, in Africa, you name it. There are only small patches in major cities where we can feel completely safe, and even then there are occasional burst of hate-based violence towards us, like the gay couple that was attacked coming out of a movie theater in New York’s Chelsea district the other night, of all places. (Note how almost every news report about the incident refers to it as “Chelsea… of all places.”)
Eventually we will prevail as the world becomes more unified in its support of human rights, in their acceptance of us as inevitable, as an integral part of every society. The most effective way to change our image and win the battle is by turning the actions of those who would do us harm against them. So, let’s not talk about boycotting Sochi any more. Rather, let’s take the fight to the slopes and make that PR message loud and clear, for seldom have we had such an opportunity to get the world’s attention as a whole. In fact, my only regret is Russia isn’t hosing the Summer Games.