How to Turn a Cruddy Movie Into a PR Opportunity, the Steely Dan Way

steelydan.jpgWendy McCaw, Mayor Villaraigosa, you may now bow down to your PR masters: The venerable bards of Henry Mancini-esque rock, Steely Dan. All morning, I’ve been trying to get on the Steely Dan website to read the now-famous “Open Letter to the Great Comic Actor, Luke Wilson,” and couldn’t get through for all the traffic. This goof has gotten the Dan more mainstream publicity than anything they’ve done since the band’s inception in 1972.

Perfect timing: Steely Dan is on a summer tour with Michael McDonald, and without a new CD to generate reviews and other clips.

The letter’s conceit is that Luke’s brother Owen Wilson has “gotten himself mixed up with some pretty bad Hollywood schlockmeisters,” who, they say, stole the idea for the flop “You, Me and Dupree” from Steely Dan’s song about a lustful loser, “Cousin Dupree,” “and then,” according to the letter, “when it came time to change the character’s name or whatever so people wouldn’t know what a rip the whole thing was, THEY DIDN’T EVEN BOTHER TO THINK UP A NEW FUCKING NAME FOR THE GUY.”

The letter is hard to quote because it’s a graphic object that you can’t copy and paste from (which will force everyone to go onto the group’s website and read about the tour, another good PR maneuver!). What makes it priceless is how they adopt the shambling, stoned blather that Owen Wilson has foisted upon the American public through innumerable talk-show appearances, and that writers for Owen Wilson’s movies have now learned to ape.

But underneath the sunny, “it’s all good” patter lurks the trademark Steely Dan menace their fans have grown to know and love through songs like “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” and “Gaslighting Abbie”:

Anyway, they got your little brother on the hook for this summer stinkbomb of a movie — I mean, check the reviews — and he’s using all his heaviest Owen C. licks to try and get this pathetic way-unfunny debacle off the ground and, in the end, no matter what he does or what happens at the box office, in the short run, he’s gonna go down hard for selling out like this and for trashing the work of some pretty heavy artists like us in the process. You know yourself, man, that what goes around comes around — that’s like the first fucking thing you learn, right? Instant karma is a fact, Jack. So your spaced-out little bro is generating some MAJOR harsh-ass karma for himself by fucking us over like this — I mean, we’re like totally out in the cold on this one — no ASCAP, no soundtrack, no consultant gig…. No phone call, no muffin basket, no flowers, nothing.

luke-and-owen.jpgThe threats mount until finally they offer Luke an opportunity to help Owen avoid tangling with “this guy who works for us sometimes…you know what a Navy Seal is, right? Well, this dude’s like that, only he’s Russian”: Send him to appear at Steely Dan’s Irvine concert to apologize, “and then he can get back to his life and his family and his beautiful moviestar-style pad or whatever, none the worse for wear….” Oh, they’ll throw in some Steely Dan “merch” and “if he wants to sit in” he can “bring his bongos.”

Hilarious, and it did the job. America now knows that Steely Dan is on tour. The Irvine show was actually last week, and I didn’t hear whether Owen Wilson showed up or not. In fact, I haven’t heard much of anything from the Owe-ster in a couple weeks…


How Not To Handle a Mildly Embarassing Story: The Mayor’s Rock Star Memo

fish-supper.jpgI would love it, frankly, if I had a staff of people who showed up everywhere I was going 30 minutes in advance to make sure I would be served lean chicken or fish, no starches or sweets, and green tea (hold the four packages of Splenda, thanks), who made sure my breath smelled minty, secured me a parking spot and a place to sit and always, always remained in my line of sight in case I wanted to shoot them a meaningful look, a look that says, “I need you. I want you. Bring a Sharpie.”

Apparently Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa feels just the same way I do. So much so that he had someone memorialize his wish list in a memo. Good idea. Since it’s so easily available on the web, I just might copy it for my own use. In case I get a staff, so I’ll be all set.

What I wouldn’t do, if I were the mayor, is tell my staff to deny what anyone can see with their own two eyes.

Deputy Communications Director Joe Ramallo downplayed the significance of the instructions, calling them “suggested guidelines” that carried over from the mayor’s two years on the City Council.

“Give me a break,” Ramallo said. “This is a mayor who is more engaged and active around the city than any other in L.A.’s history. By the standards of most officeholders who have much larger staffs, he is not tightly choreographed. You’ve seen him in action.”

Villaraigosa’s exacting attention to detail can include impatience at those who foul him up. He grew visibly frustrated last week when a translation system failed to work adequately during a town hall meeting in South Los Angeles. “Fix it,” he barked.

Not only are the mayor’s specifications spelled out in the kind of detail usually reserved for Martha Stewart’s recipes or plans to build a stealth bomber, but the reporter provides examples of Villaraigosa losing his temper if his needs aren’t met. The outbursts happened right in front of him.

So why, why, would Ramallo try to sell the idea that the mayor’s instructions are just “suggested guidelines?”

He wasn’t going to stop the story. It was too good to pass up, and if Times reporter Duke Helfand didn’t run with it, someone else would. As he wrote, the memo was reminiscent of those icky memos from rock stars that show up on websites like The Smoking Gun:

Some date the current wave of celebrity pampering to a mischievous act by a hard-rock band.

The group Van Halen once placed a clause in its contract requiring bowls of M&M candy, with the brown ones plucked out. The Rolling Stones responded a year later by demanding candy bowls filled only with brown M&Ms. From there, the practice took hold — Britney Spears, for one, demanded full-length mirrors and Pop Tarts in her dressing room — and has eventually crept into politics as well.

Vice President Dick Cheney asks that his hotel room TVs be tuned to Fox News, while Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) crafted similarly picayune requests of hosts during his presidential campaign — right down to his preference for noncarbonated bottled water.

Hey, it could have been worse. He could have compared Villaraigosa’s list to Jennifer Lopez’ demand that her extra-large trailer be filled with white flowers, white candles and white sofas.

listerine-paks-strips.jpgSo why is Ramallo so defensive? What is the point of denying what is plainly true? The mayor is particular. He’s busy, and he’s on the move all day. He doesn’t like surprises. He needs a certain comfort level in order to govern the second biggest, second most-complicated city in America. The city is paying his staff to take care of details so he can do his job, which doesn’t include tracking down Sharpies. What would be so damaging about just saying that?

You make any story worse, from a PR perspective, if you act like the truth is Kryptonite. You’re better off explaining the truth in ways people will understand. Villaraigosa is not the part-time mayor of a small township in Rhode Island. But by trying to re-cast his staffing specs as “guidelines,” Ramallo is telling us, via subtext, that the mayor wants to be seen as something he’s not. That ends up leaving a more troubling impression than the mayor’s passion for Listerine strips.