Getting a grip on the PR industry has been a pretty steep learning curve. While at the most basic level PR is just journalism for a private company there are layers and layers of complexity occurring behind the scenes. PR can involve paid advertising campaigns, crisis management, positive media coverage, sponsorship deals, and any number of interactions with the “public” (and by public we mean the customer). The basic premise behind the industry is that free advertising is better than paid advertising – and PR is a way to make your advertising dollar stretch a little bit further. The reason I bring this up now is because I’m currently witnessing the best PR campaign ever, and the worst, simultaneously. In the red corner, weighing in at around 80kgs is Borat, in the blue corner weighing in at a whopping 1,217,416,000kg* are the people of Kazakhstan.
Borat is a reporter from the country who gets up to all sorts of politically incorrect hijinks.** Borat has a new movie coming out. A movie that has the government of Kazakhstan so worried that in the ultimate PR exercise they’ve forked out $50 million to make their own movie.
Round one of the long running sparring match began when Borat hosted Europe’s MTV music awards and depicted Kazakhstan as a less than desirable country. Kazakhstan responded by deregistering his website www.borat.kz on the basis that he was bringing the country into disrepute. They threatened a law suit against Borat’s alter ego, Sacha Baron Cohen, the Jewish UK comedian behind Ali G and Borat. Borat responded with a video supporting his country’s decision to “sue this Jew” citing Kazakhstan’s progressive attitude towards women and homosexuals who are now apparently allowed to ride on the inside of a bus – and not forced to wear funny hats. Most judges scored round one comprehensively to Borat.
The Kazakh government hired two Western public relations firms to counter Borat’s claims, and ran a four-page advertisement in the New York Times pushing the nation’s democracy, education system and the power and influence enjoyed by women. Borat responded to official Kazakh complaints by issuing his own “press release”, which consisted of arbitrarily arranged Cyrillic characters.
Kazakhstan tried to rally in the third round by going to the top – a Kazak diplomat was predicted to use a meeting with US President George W. Bush to lobby for a ban on the US release of Borat’s movie. Borat staged a media conference outside the Whitehouse gates inviting president George Walter Bush to a free screening of his movie. More free publicity for the movie, more body blows for the Kazak government.
Kazakhstan tried changing tact a little too late in preceedings – deciding to play by the mantra if you can’t beat them, join them. The daughter of the President of Kazakhstan acknowledged in an interview that the country had “damaged our image much less than its closure, which was covered by all global news agencies,” and said “We should not be afraid of humour and we shouldn’t try to control everything, I think.” The country invited Borat to come for a visit to see what the nation had to offer. And the ambassador to Britain admitted that he’d had a good ol’ belly laugh when he watched a private screening of the movie.
The strategic shift was a case of too little too late with Borat a clear winner on points. The Kazakhs tried adopting Borat’s methodology by sending a TV reporter to the British premiere pretending to be Borat’s brother. Unfortunately the reporter got lost on route while Borat attended the premiere in a ramshackle limosuine towed by mules.
The adage that all publicity is good publicity will probably ring true in this case – I’m itching to see the new movie when it’s released in Australia in November. Google’s news search engine has a number of news articles covering the tit for tat spin battle – the heights of which resembled an Ashes showdown between Shane Warne and the English cricket team – also hotly anticipated.
*calculated by multiplying the population of Kazakhstan by 80kg (estimated average weight of Kazakh citizen based on sample size of 1)
** see below