A week in America | 27 May 2021

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In the latest roundup from the U.S. Martin Liptrot discusses the increasingly ugly divorce of Bill & Melinda Gates, Prince Harry's latest media commitments and an imaginative way to overcome America’s disdain for COVID vaccinations.

Many of my clients are in a bit of a pickle.

Of course, that isn’t how they describe it, nor how I acknowledge their situation. After all, the thoroughly northern idiom of being ‘in a pickle’ draws a most curious reaction in America’s boardrooms.

But the challenges of managing reputation are universal.

Whether it is a decision to downsize, close or relocate a facility, the fallout from a poorly handled customer experience or interaction with a regulatory body, or the personal foibles and indiscretion of a former executive, my clients look to me for advice on how to navigate the troublesome waters they find themselves in or approaching.

Currently, the US chattering classes are pouring over three cases of reputation management which are making millions of column inches and broadcast minutes. And while I’m not remotely involved in any of these challenges and don’t know what is really true, I do know that the optics are just as important. It’s interesting to see the approach to managing their reputation these different cases have taken.

The first case involves cash. It is the increasingly ugly divorce of the world’s richest couple Bill and Melinda Gates. Having initially issued a ‘we’re friends but are growing apart’ joint statement the separation appears to become more acrimonious by the day. Whether Melinda’s legal team are behind the daily drip of negative stories is unclear, but Bill Gates’ carefully curated image of the mega-nerd has been reshaped in a matter of weeks to now appear to be just another wealthy serial philanderer and sex pest.

But in the US, money really does talk. So, if you have literally billions and billions of the stuff, it is reasonable to believe that perhaps you can use it to fix your situation. With each new reveal about Bill’s alleged behaviour he shovels more of his fortune to his soon to be ex-wife. So far, the SEC reports, $3billion worth of shares in his various business interests have transferred. Whether enough of the green stuff has crossed over to staunch the flow of lurid headlines we will wait and see.

The second case is one more Brits will have been following, Prince Harry’s latest TV blurts. In the last week he has appeared on our screens twice, and both events have elicited wildly polar reactions here in the US.

His first outpouring was with Oprah about his drug and booze ‘Party Prince’ image. It appears to have been a well calculated attempt to justify and explain what was, by any reckoning, a pretty chaotic – and fun filled – decade for the ginger swordsman.

In this Apple TV special, for which he is rumoured to have received millions in fees, Harry linked his party days to the pressure of being a member of the most privileged family in the world, his father’s up-bringing and the sad loss of his mother. Although he didn’t say the whole of the last 20 years have been a mental health episode, the very woke Hollywood media and California press made the connection for him.

Having delivered a master-stroke in his on-going rehabilitation, carefully scripting his every utterance to Ms. Winfrey, his handlers and advisers were probably quaffing self-congratulatory Bolly with Oprah’s people. Little did they know Harry was off to chuck a grenade under himself by telling podcaster Dax Shepard that the First Amendment – upon which all of U.S. society is constructed – was ‘bonkers’.

Boom. All that good work undone in what was probably a flippant comment. While every gesture, word and inflection will have been practiced and poured over prior to meeting Oprah, it appears Harry was, with catastrophic effect, let off the leash unsupervised to chat with Dax.

The whole of ‘Red’ America – that’s the rightwing over here – condemned him. Choice comment of the day came from TV presenter, Meghan McCain – daughter of former Senator, Presidential candidate and war hero John McCain: “We fought a war in 1776 so we don’t have to care what you say or think” she tweeted.

America largely agreed with her. Fox, ABC, even liberal MSNBC waded in. “None of your business, posh boy.”

And finally, this week we saw the most imaginative way to overcome America’s disdain for COVID vaccinations.

Despite the evident truth that you could die without it, a sizeable staunch and strident minority refuse to be inoculated. Their arguments ranged from a belief that the afore mentioned Bill Gates was implanting a chip in them, strange religious utterances about God’s will, fear of big Government initiatives, or the sheer inconvenience of having to go to the medical clinic, the public health message wasn’t getting through.

But Ohio had a solution. A million-dollar idea. In what is badged “Vax-a-Million” – every Ohioan who gets their jab is entered in a lottery and five adults will get a seven-figure cheque and five teens will get a free ride to Ohio public universities.

The scheme got the thumbs up from The White House: “Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has unlocked a secret: People do care about getting vaccinated, but it turns out they also have other things they care about,” a spokesman said.

The idea has spawned many copycats in other states, my favorite is, of course, in my old stomping ground of New York where city officials have offered a novel twist on the sidecar, a dive bar favourite “beer and a shot” combo: a free drink with every vaccine shot. I wonder if Harry will get in line?

Martin Liptrot is a writer and commentator on public affairs and politics based in Florida.

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