Colin Delany August 10, 2006

Practice Safe Satire Online: Think Before You Click


Guest article! My colleaugue Burt Edwards sees the Lieberman/Lamont blog controversy as a cautionary tale for political commentators and communicators — bloggers and media relations folks alike.

A wise man once commented that, “Any jackass can kick down a barn but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” That man? None other than Sam Rayburn, the legendary Texas politician who not only mentored a young Lyndon B. Johnson but served as speaker of the U.S. of House of Representatives from 1940-61. And while a lot of things have changed since then, Rayburn’s words of wisdom are something that today’s public affairs professionals would do well to heed.

For public affairs professionals today, there’s a premium on being able to master the art of rapid response. And the Internet and email provide a powerful tool to get your message out far and fast. But this only increases the importance that you think before you click.

Recently a blogger created a mini-controversy in the Lieberman-Lamont race by a posting picture of Lieberman in blackface. However, while this may have been perfectly acceptable action by a blogger exercising her right to free speech, it’s a horrible example of how to effectively utilize satire as a political tool, and a worse example of how to use the Internet to create a buzz — or “constructive controversy” — in either the media or political circles.

While the Internet and email can be extremely effective in reaching a broad audience and providing interactivity, one thing that the medium does poorly is conveying tone [Editor’s note: and people aren’t nearly as good at interpreting an email’s tone as they think]. And with humor, and particularly political satire, tone is everything. Thereby, a witty bit that seems like a great idea while you’re typing at a keyboard, without some prudent vetting and a reality check, could turn into a virtual nightmare after you post or send.

Let’s look at an example: Jonah Goldberg, editor at large for the National Review Online, started a recent article lampooning the Gore documentary on global warming with the line:

“The No. 1 movie in America today is a fun, family-friendly romp of a cartoon about sending Jews to the gas chamber. … Just kidding.”

Now, does the fact that he said “Just kidding” make it less repugnant? No. Does the fact that he was trying to use satire to underscore a broader point make this statement less offensive? No. Was this an effective way to hook an audience, create “constructive controversy” or bring greater attention to his underlying message? Not at all.

Indeed, to the contrary, this misguided application of satire had the exact opposite effect in that many found the statement so off-putting that they either wouldn’t bother to read the rest of the article or were so offended they were then hostile to the message. And the Lieberman blackface graphic worked in the same way.

It created sympathy for Lieberman, raised questions about Lamont’s links to the net-roots, buried questions about Lieberman’s minority outreach efforts and turned the tool into the story — a set of accomplishments that most in the trade would call a rather bad press day.

As a professional communicator, there’s no excuse for not recognizing that there are certain issues and images — such as gas chambers and blackface — that are extremely divisive in American public dialogue today. These issues have very deep roots within our society — making them so controversial and emotional that they can’t be discussed lightly, quickly, or often quietly. And understanding the difference between stirring up controversy, for controversy’s sake, and starting a provocative conversation to communicate a specific message is what we as public affairs professionals get paid to know.

Burt Edwards is a communications specialist for a Washington-based advocacy group and a firm believer in trying to build barns whenever possible. [Editor’s note — and he’s an all-around good guy.]

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