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Could honesty be the new policy in PR?

Telling the truth is a novel concept in a game of cat and Mouse

EVERYONE MONITORING the Disney shareholder lawsuit surely has their own favorite slice of testimony, but mine came when Disney chairman Michael Eisner explained why a press release made Michael Ovitz’s exit from the company appear so amicable.

In business and politics, he said, “You say nice things. Nobody believes them but you say them.”

Damned if he isn’t right. Nobody does believe them. Which raises the question, why bother going through the motions?

Here’s a novel thought: Tell the truth — that someone was elbowed out, left for a better job, or quit because they didn’t get the promotion they wanted. Because more often than not, anyone who matters knows what happened, despite reams of press releases using familiar terms like “thrilled,” “couldn’t be happier” and “wanted to spend more time with my family.”

We know it. You know it. More than a few maitre d’s know it.

NOW, BEFORE ANYONE says common courtesy dictates this can’t be done, there was an actual demonstration of the “Honesty is the best policy” approach last week coming, of all places, from a PR firm. PMK/HBH bluntly stated that longtime publicist Leslee Dart had been fired, without the usual embroidery and perfume that normally adorn such announcements. After getting off the floor, I was pleased to see the Earth was still spinning on its axis.

What’s the harm, you might ask, in softening the blow? On those rare instances when somebody actually does amicably depart of their own volition, everybody assumes the worst. Remember the boy who cried “wolf”? At this point the playground is rife with boys and girls who cried “chosen to pursue independent production.”

My feeling is if PMK/HBH can come clean, it’s at least worth others trying to do the same. The next time a studio chief gets booted, just say, “Mr. Smith is leaving the company, because when you greenlight three $150 million movies in a row that open to $7 million, frankly, somebody has to take the fall. But we’re going to let him stay on the lot for awhile so we don’t have to pay out his contract all at once.”

Most people can handle the truth. They understand it’s just business. You could even loosen up a bit with the announcements: “The XYZ network has decided to replace its top programming executive because last week we drew fewer people on Wednesday than a PBS pledge drive. If that was the audience we wanted to reach, we’d hire Pavarotti.”

Or: “Ms. Jones is leaving the network because we botched a major story right before an election. And by the way, last Friday we were nearly beaten by a test pattern. When that happens, to paraphrase ‘The Sopranos,’ someone’s got to go.”

The rationale behind favorable spin in addressing the industry, press and stockholders is obvious. Yet if the Disney trial teaches us anything, it’s that saying something that’s not entirely true — say, on “Larry King” or its equivalent — can boomerang back at you, and those efforts to put on a happy face occasionally just bite you in the behind.

THE FOUR QUESTIONS: A Thanksgiving variation on a Passover favorite:

  • Why must “Saving Private Ryan” air unedited, other than that Steven Spielberg negotiated as much in his broadcast deal?

Much as I love bashing cowardly affiliates, unlike “Schindler’s List” — which requires an unexpurgated view, especially of its nudity, to convey the dehumanizing aspects of the Holocaust — a nip or tuck to “Ryan,” mostly for language, wouldn’t substantially diminish its impact.

  • Would ESPN and TV’s punditocracy be quite so enamored with the Indiana-Detroit basketbrawl story if they didn’t have dazzling video that they could show over and over?

  • Why can many people name no more than three neighbors but identify the entire “CSI” cast?

Nielsen reported this week there are now 287 million TV sets in the U.S., slightly more than one for every resident age 2 and older. Coincidence? Don’t think so.

  • Do NFL owners expect to be taken seriously in their indignant response to “Monday Night Football’s” stupid “Desperate Housewives” tease?

Yes, the stunt was oafish and unnecessary. Still, ABC officials would have to lie on their bellies in a ditch to cede moral high ground to the NFL, which has held up financially ailing cities for lucrative stadium deals and priced families about which they profess to care so much out of attending games.

Are ya ready for some hypocrisy? OK, cue the cheerleaders.

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