Anyone who has worked in the graphic arts, as I have, knows that using the wrong photo is an easy one to make. I’ve seen it happen more than once, usually because a piece of royalty-free stock photography is used to demonstrate a concept, then is forgotten when it’s time to replace it with a custom shot.
When a journalist discovered the day before yesterday that someone working for Alberta’s controversial $25-million branding campaign had used a picture of a British beach with the English Channel in the background, it should have been a tempest in a teapot, if that.
OK, it was mildly embarrassing that the words atop the picture said: “Alberta, Freedom to Create, Spirit to Achieve.” But the appropriate response was as follows: “We screwed up. We’re sorry. We’ll fix it immediately.”
Everyone would have gone right back to sleep.
But that was before Premier Ed Stelmach’s communications brain trust got to work.
Make like Ralph Klein and tell the obvious truth? Not these brainiacs! “This slide represents Albertans’ concern for the future of the world,” said one senior manager in the government’s public affairs bureau in a letter quoted by the Edmonton Journal.
“There’s no attempt to make people think that this is Alberta,” Tom Olsen, the premier’s press secretary, told the Journal. “That picture just fit the mood and tone of what we were trying to do.”
Hours after the premier’s communications A-Team had become the laughing stock of Alberta for these transparent howlers, officials in the Propaganda Bureau were saying, in effect, that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.
Everyone else, it seems, was thinking up hilarious alternatives to the expensive branding campaign’s lame slogan. (My favourite: “Alberta. Spirit to Achieve. Freedom to Deceive.”) The whole thing was taking on the tone of a Pathological Liars Anonymous skit on Saturday Night Live. (“Yeah, that’s it!”)
Hours after the Journal hit the streets, a senior propaganda official of my aquaintance, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, was having none of my helpful PR hints: “Thanks for the advice, but the truth is the truth – we knew the origins of the pic and thought it worked with the voice over.”
The trouble with this, of course, is that it’s not only hard to believe, it reveals a much deeper level of incompetence and stupidity than a mere misplaced photo.
Put yourself in their shoes: whether or not you thought it was a good idea, if the province’s principal daily newspaper has an expose on the front page calling your effort at branding a blunder and a fraud, then it was a mistake!
You wouldn’t be lying – even as you ground your teeth at the injustice of it all – if you called it an error and promised to fix it in jig time. While you were at it, you might want to check if there were any more scenes of dubious provenance in there.
Not these guys.
I don’t know if it worries you that these are the same clowns who are telling us they’ve got all the answers to fix our health care system – a slightly more complex enterprise than an advertising campaign – but it sure as hell frightens me.