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Republican Automatons by George Grosz

Here's a thought for Christmas - is official rejoicing really an effective way of promoting science?  December 2001

You'd need less brains than Tiny Tim’s crutch to believe that Christmas isn’t humbug. But Dickens was not alone in making cynical appeals to mass sentimentality, nor - when it comes to forced public rejoicing - do Christmas (or despots) have the monopoly.

A week hardly passes that has not been appropriated by someone or other to the celebration of their peculiar virtues. I am pleased to see that, at the time of writing (10 October) it is World Mental Health Day, but it could just as well be National Environment Day, Welsh Science Afternoon, or National Fish and Chips Week.

Picture: republican Automatons by the German Neuesachlichkeit painter, George Grosz

Some of these, like Science Week, are state-sponsored; some are charitably inspired, some commercial. State sponsorships bring big budgets, web sites, merchandising, and dish out cash to enthusiasts to put on events. Their usual function is to coerce the young into doing something uncool, thereby making it even more uncool than it already is.

Charity events are smaller in scale, and may pool the resources of several organisations. Industry ones are usually the bright idea of some trade association and may be backed by the Confederation of British Industry and a Department of State into the bargain.

What they all have in common is the employment of commercial PR consultants (who have as much right to live as anyone else) and almost total uselessness. All most achieve is the notion (among those who pay for it all) that they have "done something". That traditional phrase of the concerned but clueless - "getting the message across" - usually comes in here too. Of course it has usually done nothing of the kind. In fact, it is madness. So why doesn't it stop?

The only events of this sort that make any sense are the wackier commercial ones. If well timed, the National Association of Fish and Chip Shops could easily arrange a photo call for a minister to tuck into a piece of battered cod by the roadside (I see John Prescott carrying this off very well), just when he wants to emphasize how much a man of the people he is. The event satisfies the first rule of good PR - that it should be useful to everyone. Fish and chips are promoted, members of the National Association feel good and renew their subscriptions, and the Mouth of the Humber enjoys his moment in The Sun.

But for the rest the prospect is less rosy. Imagine a fictitious National Awareness of Gravel (NAG) Week sponsored by an industry collective and - let us say - the CBI. Picture a ruinously expensive display at the crossing of the committee corridor in the Palace of Westminster. TV monitors glumly play a promotional video for whose budget you could have employed Steven Spielberg. Two suits anxiously patrol their expensively hired area, surveying the face of every passing lobbyist and researcher, while the real MPs sweep by at high velocity. Should you attempt to buttonhole one, she will freeze you with her lawyer's eyes, tell you that impeding a Member on her way to a Division is an offence, and threaten to have you thrown out by the Sergeant-at-Arms.

Later that night, the exhibit is moved to a desultory reception in a marquee on the Terrace. Five Company suits and ten hired PROs - together with 28 in-house catering staff, all compulsory, and all on your bill - eagerly await the arrival of one MP so drunk he thinks you are the National Association of Buffalo Mozzarella Manufacturers - a powerful influence in his East Midlands constituency's Regional Development Area. If he ever finds out who you really are, he won't remember; while your swanky, spot-varnished pack of NAG week information will be left behind in whatever wheelie-bin said MP decides to set up home for the night.

The people who launch themselves into these orgies of self-promotion are usually suckered into it because nobody tells them what a waste of time it all is. They either have no in-house PR expertise, or (as frequently happens) they ignore it. They then find themselves at the mercy of consultants who are there to do business and are never asked the right question. Clients say - "Can you arrange NAG Week?" You can easily guess the answer. If it involves getting their hands on large wads of your cash, they can do anything.

If they were approached with the same cash and the question "Tell us if it is worth arranging a NAG Week", the result would cost the same - but perhaps everyone else would be saved a load of pointless work, and our cupboards might remain unburdened by yet more chipped promotional mugs with ghastly logos to remind us all of the sad fiasco.

Is there anyone for whom such timetabled rejoicing is good PR? Well yes, and the whole tactic can be seen as a misapplication of something that embattled minorities do rather well. It is in fact part of the problem with such events that the public recognises the preferred tactic of the soi-disant unloved. It takes a leaf out of liberation movements, for whom the tactic works because liberation is about raising internal political awareness. The promoters of NAG Week, alas, think they are looking outward.

Gay Pride, which graced the streets of London on 30 June this year, is about assertion of identity and spreading confidence among the similarly oriented. It is the PR of defiance. But it is extremely unlikely that Gay Pride ever convinced a heterosexual person to be gay. Indeed, in many the sight of Gay Pride induces rage and hatred. But being out and proud means, in part, not giving a damn for what people think. That's hardly on-message for NAG Week.

However, despite the expense (and perhaps because of it), the aggregates lobby ends NAG week exhausted, with warm feelings of solidarity and a sensation of having done something and "got the message across". But the rest of humanity (if it has registered the event at all) may well be left with the nagging impression that here is yet another militant minority to whose special interests and sensitivities they must now pretend to be sympathetic and considerate. The medium carries an implied message that is out of kilter with the explicit one. It says "We are out and proud, digging holes in your back yard and we don't care what you think." Good PR tries to avoid such things.

So, MM wishes all his readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Do enjoy the company of your relations and of the other turkey. Have as many warm feelings as such events permit, and, to make a present of some free advice - think twice before agreeing to another bout of sponsored hurrahing, and if you do, remember you’re doing it for yourself.