Monday, January 30, 2006

Shock and Awe

And speaking of former Undersecretary Charlotte Beers, I have to say something about her former employer Ogilvy & Mather. Although Ogilvy still maintains its bread-and-butter business marketing products and corporate images from American Express to Volvo, it has moved into the ever-expanding "risk communication" industry.

Unfortunately, much of the information about the content development and testing of Olgivy's "Virtual News Network" of the Department of Homeland Security is classified, but critics can gain a sense of the program's alliances with the "virtual state," to use Jane Fountain's term, from the company's website.

"VNN coverage included live reports from across the country and interviews with both government officials and outside experts. The VNN team took painstaking measures to create as real a media experience as possible for all participants. They solicited, booked, and interviewed 45 actual public officials, physicians, first responders, and many others the media would call upon during an actual crisis, including such dignitaries as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding."

The team produced stories and sent satellite feeds to the White House, U.S. Capitol, and emergency responders nationwide. As each virtual crisis progressed, "Ogilvy PR worked with public information officers and officials to provide them the opportunity to access VNN to communicate vital safety messages."

In the bioterrorism analysis community, the general program, TOPOFF, because it is designed with top officials in mind, actually got some good reviews for revealing vulnerabilities in our potential federal response, but the idea of creating a model pre-packaged media campaign is still disturbing to me, especially given unstated agreements between certain media outlets and U.S. policy makers. Furthermore, this program shows that the potential to reinforce oligarchical tendencies in disaster response remains a troubling possibility.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Olgivy & Mather has also worked with the Chinese government helping the country's Communist Youth League refine their pitches. Thanks to Olgivy, their group "Red Force" has even performed as storytellers at Hong Kong Disneyland. Perhaps they could also dazzle and distract American viewers watching VNN.

(The image above of the Olgivy VNN campaign comes from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or SAMHSA in the public domain and shouldn't compromise either national security or intellectual property.)



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