Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 17, 2018

Bad Day in the PR Biz: Retail Meets Politics

Former U. S. President George H. W. Bush died on November 30. In his distinguished career, Mr. Bush also served as vice president, congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Innumerable obituaries and tributes recalled him as a thoughtful, humane individual, although not without failings All humans have faults.

One of Mr. Bush’s quirks was that he was prone to make gaffes when delivering off-the-cuff remarks. Bush had an extremely wealthy, privileged background and was educated at prestigious private schools. Many of his off-kilter remarks were taken as evidence that he was a Brahmin — out of touch with the daily lives of the citizens he governed, insulated from the reality of day-to-day existence. To his credit, Bush himself seemed to accept his occasional fluffs with good humor.

One public appearance at which Mr. Bush appeared to demonstrate that gap between the insular world of privilege and that of regular people haunted his legacy, and was even recalled in a number of obituaries.

During his 1992 presidential campaign, Mr. Bush made an appearance at a trade show for the retail grocery industry. It’s not unusual for campaigning politicians to ally themselves with good ol’ American businesses of all sorts. Bush’s visit to the show included a demonstration by a manufacturer showing Mr. Bush some new barcode scanning technology.

Exactly what happened next has been variously reported.

Behind the Scenes

At the time, I worked in the headquarters of that manufacturer. The company, in fact, introduced the first barcode scanner to the retail grocery business in 1974.

The photo below shows Mr. Bush posing for the classic photo-op with my company’s hardware. The article describes some of the furor surrounding what happened. You’re welcome to read it, but I’ll summarize.

PR Gold!

My company’s representative demonstrated the latest, most advanced laser barcode scanning technology for the president of the United States. If there were ever a public relations coup, that is it, friends — as good as it gets in the PR biz. It’s an absolute guarantee your product will appear in umpteen newspapers — this was before the Internet was the prime news source — when it’s the gosh-darned president trying it out.

After watching the demo, Mr. Bush responded with something like awe when he saw the barcode scanning capabilities of the latest, most advanced laser scanner produced by this leading manufacturer.

Out of Touch?

Given that the ordinary U.S. householder had seen bar code scanning at the grocery for the past dozen years or so, a reporter made the assumption that the president was agog about the mere fact that a machine could read a barcode. It’s possible. It’s likely George rarely — if ever — drove his wife, Barbara, to the local store and wheeled the cart around while she picked out things for that night’s dinner. Any fine points regarding the nature of the technology being demonstrated got lost.

Suddenly, that gilt-edged moment of PR bliss was tainted; our company’s product was now associated with a foolish display of ignorance by THE PRESIDENT! Yes, our product was in every newspaper, but as an object of ridicule. A PR nightmare!

My job was not in public relations at that time. My cubicle was just down the aisle from the company’s PR team, though, and all hell broke loose. What do you do to shovel yourself out from beneath a pile like that?

The small public relations staff were pros with years of experience. The technology and business reporters at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post knew them, and would take their calls. From long association, they’d chat about the latest doings of their families and say, “Oh, X, I just wanted to mention, President Bush will be at the retail grocers conference next week to get a demo of our new laser scanning system I’ve been telling you about.”

The Facts?

What actually happened — according to my colleagues — was that Mr. Bush was shown a barcode label that had been torn into pieces, mangled, and then watched as the pieces were run across the laser scanner. The software in the system reassembled the barcode and made sense of it, correctly identifying the item and its price. In 1992, that was an extremely sophisticated bit of computing.

That was how the PR team (and the White House) pitched it, but the newspaper didn’t amend its story. I wasn’t present to watch the demonstration, but the event stands as a cautionary tale regarding assumptions.

Caveat Venditor!

Public relations veterans will tell you: Securing a photo-op for your product with a politician or celebrity is an ironclad guarantee of publicity … but not necessarily good publicity. A hundred things can go wrong. The product might fail to work as advertised, the marquee individual might intentionally or accidentally do or say something silly. The celeb might simply forget why they’re there and wander off-script. Maybe they didn’t get the briefing. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Or a reporter might not know the details of what’s happening.

The more visible the celebrity, the greater the risk.

That’s how I saw it from World Headquarters that day: an advanced technology upstaged by an individual commonly perceived to be out of touch with any sort of technology. It’s never good when you have to construct an excuse for the President. Who will believe you? You’re chasing a runaway train that’s rolling downhill, and you just can’t catch up.

Mr. Bush lost the 1992 election, too.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Photograph © Barry Thumma/Associated Press. Article © The New York Times and Linda Qiu, Dec. 4, 2018.

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Responses

  1. Wow, the inside story!
    I well remember this, Georgie looked like a totally out if touch with regular people chump.
    This partially lets him off the hook, but am glad to know the hidden story!

    Like

  2. Surprising that no one thought of doing a trial run before the cameras started rolling.

    Of course, such advance work wouldn’t have insulated him from subsequent gaffes that occurred in his televised debates with Clinton. He could not be saved from himself when he had to respond extemporaneously.

    Like

  3. That’s an interesting “rest of the story,” as the good Mr. Harvey would say. President Bush certainly was gaffe-prone from the beginning; some of us still remember Ann Richards’s classic about him being born with a silver foot in his mouth.

    (More rest of the story: “Over two decades earlier the same observation was made about Newbold Morris, New York’s patrician Commissioner of Parks who once recommended Central Park as a good place for homeless people to spend the night. The New York Times’ 1966 obituary of Morris credited its own reporter Paul Crowell with observing, ‘Newbold was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”)

    Of course, all that gaffiness was part of the man’s charm: at least, in retirement, when it didn’t make any real difference. Part of the reason the grief at his passing was a little different in Houston is that they were part of the city’s life: eating out at their favorite pizza joint, attending baseball games, showing up at the zoo. Some say that Houston’s the world’s biggest small town, and in some sense that’s right. I’ve stood in line at the grocery store with an astronaut, and once ended up singing Christmas carols with James Baker III in a friend’s living room. Amazing, really.

    Liked by 1 person


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