Today’s Great Moment in public relations

I suspect public and/or media relations is one of those jobs that’s way more glamorous in fiction than in fact.  In film, being a master of public relations seems like one of those cool jobs a young hotshot possesses right before meeting Mila Kunis and having the epiphany that Love and Truth and Beauty are ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

I suspect public and/or media relations is one of those jobs that's way more glamorous in fiction than in fact.  In film, being a master of public relations seems like one of those cool jobs a young hotshot possesses right before meeting Mila Kunis and having the epiphany that Love and Truth and Beauty are the only things worth a damn.  In reality, however, there's the drudgery of sending endless e-mails, faxes, and voicemail messages to market one's clients.  Rarely do the twain meet. 

I bring this up because every once in a while, even a PR flack can scale the heights of greatness.  Today's New York Times story by Julie Creswell, Louise Story and Edward Wyatt -- ostensibly an attempt to find out about the inner workings of Standard & Poor's sovereign debt committee contains one such moment: 

When asked whether the company’s raters were hiding behind the secretive committee, Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for S.& P., said, “We do this to maintain our analytical independence in much the same way that the editorial board of The New York Times does not discuss its deliberations.” Ms. Mathis was a spokeswoman for The Times until two years ago.

I suspect public and/or media relations is one of those jobs that’s way more glamorous in fiction than in fact.  In film, being a master of public relations seems like one of those cool jobs a young hotshot possesses right before meeting Mila Kunis and having the epiphany that Love and Truth and Beauty are the only things worth a damn.  In reality, however, there’s the drudgery of sending endless e-mails, faxes, and voicemail messages to market one’s clients.  Rarely do the twain meet. 

I bring this up because every once in a while, even a PR flack can scale the heights of greatness.  Today’s New York Times story by Julie Creswell, Louise Story and Edward Wyatt — ostensibly an attempt to find out about the inner workings of Standard & Poor’s sovereign debt committee contains one such moment: 

When asked whether the company’s raters were hiding behind the secretive committee, Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for S.& P., said, “We do this to maintain our analytical independence in much the same way that the editorial board of The New York Times does not discuss its deliberations.” Ms. Mathis was a spokeswoman for The Times until two years ago.

To which I must say: 

I mean this seriously and not facetiously.  By implicitly linking S&P’s practices to those of  the New York Times, Mathis sells the elite credentials of  her institution.  It’s a brilliant gambit because it leaves the Times’ reporters with unpalatable options.  Either they try to detail the precise differences between the Gray Lady and S&P, which would have seemed like total hair-splitting — or they just move on to the rest of the story. 

If Mathis was the S&P person handling the Times reporters, she earned her money’s worth with this article.  Despite myriad qualms with S&P’s methodology, and despite that whole $2 trillion math error, the story has nary a critical or investigative word to say of Standard & Poor’s. 

Instead, first half of the story story consists of anodyne biographic material of the ratings committee leadership.  The second half of the story focuses solely on an IMF report that provides a partial endorsement of S&P’s sovereign debt ratings — including this nugget:

One chapter of the report said that all nations that had defaulted on their sovereign debt since 1975 had been placed in a noninvestment-grade category at least one year before the default.

So, in other words, S&P hasn’t missed a single basket case in the past 35 years.  Is it just me, or is that setting the bar pretty low? 

Regardless of how one feels about Standard & Poor’s contribution to the decline and fall of western civilization decisions, however, one must step back and respect the yoeman efforts of an outstanding public relations team.  The hard-working staff here at ForeignPolicy.com therefore toasts Catherine Mathis and her team for some quality PR work.  One can only hope that, in the near future, Ms. Mathis stumbles across Justin Timberlake at a New York bar and finds the True Meaning of Life.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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