Compassionate Consumerism

Better check what a gallon of gas costs next time you have a press conference

By M. Dylan Mathieu

As a trainer who often meets with executives just ahead of an engagement they’ve scheduled with the media, a personal parlor game I’ve long toyed with and tried to hone involved trying to decipher what exact useful information goes into the briefing books of leaders. What information makes the cut when preparing leaders to brace the podium separating them, under white hot lights, from the Fourth Estate? I often consider the efficacy or even what intentions are behind the stuff that’s placed to survive just a glance from the “talent” postured behind the podium. What resonates? What pierces though the media’s filtering pens (the “bounce” all public relations professionals take personal credit for, no matter how vicarious their role was)?

If you’re lucky when watching our president visit with reporters, the camera may pan across his press agents, usually standing against a wall. Their copies of the briefing book are held closer (one among other oddly parent-like behaviors) than a fluffy, coifed Persian at a cat show during awards time. Playing my parlor game is their full-time job.

I’m trusting you can guess our president will have one specific fact added to his briefing book starting this month through the end of his term. Can you? The Fed’s latest discount rate? The Associated Press’ accounting of our war dead and wounded? The wait-times our injured Iraq veterans face at the Army’s Walter Reed Hospital? Vice President Cheney’s resting heart rate? How about the last cash-bar tab for a summer White House wedding? Close guesses, all prescient and, I’m sure, well-enough watched by some. But all wrong. I’m talking about the cost these days borne by you for a gallon of gas.

The president recently admitted getting caught off-guard about the latest spike in gas prices was a moment that surely will have bounce. I’m considering the Flubber-esque bounce that lands right into late-night show monologues and then somehow bounces Pachinko-like endlessly through the rest of his administration.

Attention deputy press secretaries! Gas prices will rise again. Maybe you’re too preoccupied trying to find out whether or not it’ll be a dry White House wedding reception? Tracking down rumors of a no-bid catering contract from Halliburton? Sure, that’s understandable – and not a problem because I’ve thought this through all while filling up my Ford F-150 this week. First, since you’re so swamped, we have to talk about what not to do: take the easiest path. It promises to save energy, grief and screams, but, trust me, often leads to disastrous results.

Do not, do not compare gas prices to what European are paying. O.K., yes, we get it. And expecting us to convert from liters may be a tempting diversion tactic, but don’t. So what if our friends in Amsterdam (of which I have none) pay close to $6.50 a gallon? This approach is patronizing, will fall flat (i.e. no bounce) and possibly damage our hydro-carbon loving sensitivities. Didn’t then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld once explain away the escalating number of deaths in Baghdad by saying it was still less than one our own U.S. cities? How’d that work out for him? Thud! At least his press secretaries had the good sense to keep their message defibrillator securely on the wall behind them in the Pentagon’s briefing room. The “Just-be-glad-your-not-in-insert worse-off-place- here” approach lacks one crucial requirement never really associated with Mr. Rumsfeld: sympathy.

Being a compassionate conservative implies sympathy, so it shouldn’t be a stretch to pull off by our President. Just the same, here’s one more tempting “just don’t go there” when explaining away gas prices. Avoid one approach I usually recommend to the talent I advise: personal testimony. A vignette about personal sacrifices and dealing with the increasing cost to fuel up your pick-up truck or chainsaws at the ranch in Crawford may attest to good listening skills by using sincere, thoughtful feedback. But at the end of the press conference, no one cares. Worse than that, some who have sacrificed their most near and dear creature comforts such as toiletries aiding personal hygiene, dreams of home ownership or even a child’s college tuition savings in order to keep driving whenever and wherever they please, might go so far as too think it contemptuous.

My advice then is too just grab some bright-pink Post-its, get to your favorite (bipartisan) news search engine and type in “Trilby Lundberg”. She’s the media’s and my most trusted and accepted price-scanner of the gas pumps. Right down the price of a gallon of gas you just derived on the Post-it, place it on the briefing book’s inside binder and you’re done…almost. Back to Trilby. You know this lady or ought to. News junkies hear Ms. Lundberg’s forecasts replayed just about weekly and, give or take a few cents based on where you live, she’s always on the money with her average retail gas prices. Whether its acts of God or refinery issues, it’s an honest, candid approach she relies on when explaining away the new prices, which usually by her best estimation are just plain higher. Although, I’ve never heard her use the words greed or sloth, she does talk about the consumption side. That’s us, the enablers. And since my favorite “explainerer”, unlicensed therapist, Stuart “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” Smalley, is off running for the senate in Minnesota, Trilby will have to do. Besides, she always seems to make listening to the horror of it all almost seem as tempting and palatable as listening to those ladies who pass out free snacks at the supermarket.

Americans favoring bold solutions for its more formidable problems as they do, try this advice and you can send me a thank you note later. Isn’t it high time then that we make Ms. Lundberg our new Secretary of Energy. By replacing Secretary…uh, wait, uh, I think I got it…he’s a guy, a Texan, right? A governor, yes? No?, it’s not coming then, and it’s not going to either. Anyway, whomever she replaces, her re-assuring “it is what it is” tone could calm the most put-off of our fellow petro-consumers. Have “Secretary Lundberg” come down the steps of the Department of Energy building once a week. Is there even a Department of Energy building? With steps? If no steps, but there is a real building, I’m sure they have a podium inside, probably with that blue oval with building rendering behind it that everybody seems to have these days.

It gets better. Secretary Lundberg could provide tips on how to conserve gas (maybe think about strictly getting your movie rentals in the mail, thus saving trips to the store or wearing loose cotton clothing and turn off your car’s air conditioning). Wouldn’t they best come from Ms. Lundberg and not the president? Without patronizing, Ms. Lundberg could mention that towels on the seats and those seat-covers made of wooden-beads would be ideal during summer months.

Just one more, no-no. If you don’t reference Ms. Lundberg’s gas prices, the media and even the Democrats will – and not in a nice way. If you ignore all my advice above, don’t feel scooped or trumped. And above all, don’t try a dismissive approach placing her into the same category as if she were Joe Wilson or Richard Clarke. Either nominate Trilby or leave her alone.

M. Dylan Mathieu, is a pseudonym for an author whose job in the federal government prevents him from disclosing his identity. His background and professional experience is in the area of media and as a communications strategist who. You may e-mail him c/o the publisher.

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