Does history forget a crisis?

Correction FluidRemember Toyota? Didn’t they do something, like, not good? It’s hard to remember what with BP doing something so incredibly not good it makes Toyota look like they deserve an Oscar for Best Company Ever.

History is full of stories like this; in our short-sighted momentary grasp of facts, we think that something is going to be vilified for all time on account of a massive screw-up, only to realize much later that something else got in the way of carving that in stone. Take Wagner, for example. When we think of Wagner we probably think of Ride of the Valkyries playing during the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now. His music endures as a cultural touchstone and the annual performance of his works at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is sold out for years to come. This, despite his awful anti-semetic views and definite ties to the Nazi party.

Can you imagine someone in modern times having such a tarnish on their reputation, yet be remembered in a mostly positive light? No? How about Michael Jackson, who died a little over a year ago, prompting a massive worldwide demonstration of nostalgia and heartbreak for his death, despite the allegations of child molestation and general bizarre behavior that marred his career?

I’m bringing this up because as a PR professional, I have to wonder if the forgetfulness of history is engineered in some way by the people responsible for a person or brand’s reputation. Or is it just that great flack Time (not the magazine), who heals all public relations crises? It’s difficult to say.

Cog and I have fought over who is cooler, Edison or Telsa, for a long, long time. He’s wrong, of course, but I will be the first to admit Telsa was not the better businessman. And for that, his genius and his discoveries are largely lost to history (or stolen by that d-bag, Edison). As a nerd, I feel pity for Tesla because I know in my heart he was right. But as a pro, I have to wonder why he never hired a manager for all those moneymaking ideas. Does the fact he didn’t mean history should forget him?

The BP oil spill, by all measures, is supposed to be the worst ecological crisis ever recorded. Will we look back on it in ten years and remember what the letters BP stood for? Will we still hate BP for what happened, or will BP have disappeared, renamed or reformed or perhaps renegotiated into something we don’t recognize? Maybe some other gigantic crisis (and there always seems to be a gigantic crisis) will have captured our limited attention by then, and the anniversary of this spill will pass without anyone noticing. Or maybe the BP spill will become the Benedict Arnold of modern times, a name so blackened that we hate the sound of it deep in our gut, even if we don’t remember why.

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  • Great post, TJ. I watched a Toyota commercial last night and thought, “What happened to that whole situation?”

    History has a funny way of being written. It's interesting to see what gets left out. Henry Ford was an innovative, American genius – but don't remember learning in grade school about how he was Anti-Semitic and a Nazi sympathizer. Walt Disney created some of the most beloved cartoon characters, but he also had a reputation for being Anti-Semitic. What parts does history tend to focus on the most? The Ford and Disney behemoths are still around regardless of their founders' disgraceful personal beliefs.

    It seems that if a sum of all the integers still ends up to be positive, than the negative characteristics tend to be hidden away down the road. But if all you have is negative, after negative, after negative…then it is going to be extremely difficult to get back into the positive. I can see Toyota getting back on peoples' good side, while I think BP has an extremely long road ahead of them in order to avoid being remembered negatively.

    Technology also plays a key role. Guaranteed, if Ford and Disney were just getting their start today and news reports broke on how they were both Anti-Semitic, they would be forced to resign in a second.

    P.S. I agree with you 110% on Tesla – he had the brilliant mind, but Edison had the businessman demeanor. So happy you mentioned Tesla in this post!

  • OnlinePRNews

    As a resident of the Gulf Coast, I hate to think that anything will overshadow the oil spill crisis — but in my heart I know that you are right. The same thing happens with natural disasters. Five years and more after Katrina, people were still trying to get their feet back on the ground but many supporters had already moved on to the next crisis. I already feel the same is happening with Haiti. Once the images stop flashing on our television screens, we tend to push the memories away. Because they are scary and depressing and make us feel helpless. — Tara

  • Pat Smith

    The litmus test is our individual and collective reactions to these names: Columbine, Tylenol, Bhopal, Exxon/Valdez, and now BP. 'Nuff said.

  • Let's give some credit to more than Father Time.

    Companies that demonstrate “here's what we're going to do to prevent this from happening again” get regulators off their backs and become a harder target for the plantiffs' bar…so that helps dissipate ongoing negative headlines.

    What also contributes to a “fade” is that some real substantial news sometimes happens long after all the hyperbolic and intense media go elsewhere. Consider yesterday's news that “pedal application errors” (foot's on the gas and NOT the brake) is being found in many of the Toyota accidents, according to government research. Did you miss that announcement? You may have — it was far from the front page.

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