Did you see what China just did? Amidst cries of outrage and scads of adverse attention, they managed to shift the negative news they’ve been receiving away from their cultural and politically significant aggression and toward fuzzy pandas. After all, everyone loves pandas.
It was reported that the pandas were expected to call matches by “either picking food from bowls marked with the national colors of competing teams, or by scaling trees flying certain flags.” What’s more, the South China Morning Post suggested that the pandas “would take part in races wearing the vests of different nations to predict winning teams.”
Remember all the press China was receiving for completely obliterating coverage of June 4th’s 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest? The New York Times wrote that “even by the standards of the clampdowns that routinely mark politically sensitive dates in China… the anniversary of the day in 1989 when soldiers brutally ended student-led protests in Tiananmen Square has been particularly severe.”
How about China’s amusing shenanigans in the South China Sea? According to Reuters, Vietnam is protesting Chinese oilrigs and drilling in waters traditionally claimed by the smaller country. The conflict began when a Chinese rig was installed 150 miles off the coast of Vietnam. Hanoi says that the platform is within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and on its continental shelf. China has said the rig is operating completely within its waters. But then China claims dominance over the entire South China Sea, including areas that the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan all claim are within their territorial waters as well.
So which do you think creates more newsworthy photo-ops?
Taciturn Chinese soldiers or fuzzy pandas? How about energy workers in oil-stained slickers or giant puffball bears? Clearly the old magician’s sleight of hand works exceedingly well in public relations (PR).
And it’s not just China. Which do you prefer?
Brazil’s teeming favela slums and Amazon deforestation or exciting World Cup soccer action?
Cable companies push for monopolistic net neutrality or new seasons of Game of Thrones and House of Cards?
Misdirection is a classic PR strategy – used whenever seasoned practitioners need to distract their audiences’ attention away from what matters to what titillates.
Just like a catastrophic weather event can push a political scandal off the front page, manufactured events—planned or not—can do the same thing.
Remember rancher Cliven Bundy’s anti-government rebellion and racist screeds? They were mercifully supplanted by Donald Sterling’s not so sterling tongue, which was in turn pushed off of the front pages by the Washington Redskins’ baseless defense of their unfortunate name that all but disappeared in the wake the basketball championships.
Pay attention the next time the media starts foaming at the mouth over a “storm of the century” flood, earthquake or hurricane. If you carefully peruse the financial news, you’ll see announcements of reduced earnings, massive layoffs or automotive recalls. Companies actually wait for these unfortunate events to slip their bad news out to an otherwise distracted audience.
And when there’s no storm, celebrity divorce or other scandal to provide an appropriate smokescreen, the creative PR practitioner can always count on pandas.