It had been quite a week. On Monday one of our clients, the leader of a major Eastern European country, was accused of poisoning his opponent in the presidential election. While it may be true that I take on clients that some PR firms avoid, we at Renard Strategic Communications do not, as a rule, seek those who invite their political opponents to dinner and serve them borscht à la dioxin.
On Tuesday the Professional Curling Association of Northwestern Wisconsin—not a marquee name, I grant, but a client—admitted that its top curler was not only a Canadian national but was also wanted by the Mounties for dynamite fishing. Personally, I think dynamite fishing is a more efficient way of catching fish than standing in cold water for hours, but I acknowledge that local laws were broken.
Then, on Thursday, we learned that another client, whose Senate confirmation hearing I was managing—he'd been nominated to be ambassador to a country in Central America—had fifteen years before served as a paid adviser to that country's government while it was solving a local native problem in a way certain not to impress the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A tribe of Indians had been harassing the employees of a multinational strip-mining company with blowguns, owing to the fact that the company was strip-mining the tribe's ancestral lands. Apparently my client had advised the government to resolve the situation by lowering nets from helicopters, scooping up the troublesome Indians, and depositing them on a barren, guano-covered island miles offshore. I like a challenge as much as the next PR person, and it's not my job to pass moral judgment on clients, but it's helpful when they at least alert you to the fact that they've been involved in ethnic cleansing.
At any rate, I was not having a particularly good stretch when my assistant, LaMoyne, buzzed to say that the head of something called spout was on the line.
"Society for the Protection of Our Undersea Titans."
"LaMoyne," I said, "what is Rule No. 1 here at Renard Strategic Communications?"
"Which Rule No. 1?"
LaMoyne is capable of attitude, but I tolerate it because he is so efficient. He more or less runs the day-to-day operation, leaving me free to concentrate on the philosophical aspects.
"No whales," I said.
It's nothing personal. I understand that they are wonderful and warm-blooded. Further, that all those squeaking noises they make are indicative of an impressive vocabulary. I enjoy listening to them while I'm having a massage. But what they are saying translates in my profession to "nonbillable hours."
"I explained our policy vis-à-vis cetaceans to the gentleman," LaMoyne said. "And doubled the quote on our retainer."
"You have a four o'clock with him."
I Googled "whales." You want to sound up to speed with a client. I learned that a sixty-ton sperm whale that was being transported on a flatbed truck through a city in Taiwan had exploded. (I didn't know that whales exploded.) And that several dozen whales had recently driven themselves up on a beach in North Carolina and expired. Pro-whale groups said that this act of mass suicide was the fault of the U.S. Navy, which apparently bombards area waters with low-frequency sonar waves to detect foreign submarines. I didn't know if this was true, but if that was the price of keeping the enemy from launching a sneak attack, I wasn't going to blubber about it.
LaMoyne ushered Mr. Spout into my office promptly at four. He was crisply dressed in a blue suit and black shoes so highly polished I could see my reflection. He had gray buzz-cut hair and a trim moustache. When he grinned, his teeth appeared capable of biting through steel cable. He didn't look like an environmentalist. I don't go in for stereotypes, but in my experience environmentalists don't smile much. They have this default expression, like they're expecting to hear any minute that a tanker has gone aground and spilled a half million tons of crude oil into a penguin rookery.
"Anders Gansevoort," he said, giving my hand a squeeze that would have dejuiced a grapefruit.
"Rick Renard," I whimpered.
"Are you familiar with our organization, Mr. Renard?"
"Of course. spout is in the vanguard of cetacean conservation throughout the world. Vital work."
"Mr. Renard, are you aware of the current situation in Grimland?"
"Yes. But I'd be interested to hear your take on it."
Grimland … the mind raced. I vaguely remembered not being able to locate it during a high school geography test. It's a place of interest primarily to a) Grimlanders, b) geologists, c) volcano scientists, and d) planes flying across the North Atlantic and running low on fuel.
Gansevoort informed me that the country had just doubled its quota of whales to be harpooned in the coming year. I shook my head.
"How can I help?" I asked, quickly adding, "On a professional basis." This was to deflect the dreaded words "pro bono." If you hear that phrase around the offices of Renard Strategic Communications, it's probably someone expressing a positive opinion of an Irish rock musician.
"We'd like you to undertake an anti-whaling campaign in Grimland," he said. "An aggressive campaign."
I silently counted to ten. This gives a client the impression you're weighing the matter rather than his wallet.
"Whatever it takes."
"And what sort of budget did you have in mind?"
He scribbled a figure on a piece of paper and slid it across the desk. I said, "Hmmnnn." In fact I felt like ripping off my shirt the way those Olympic women soccer players do after scoring the winning goal.
He stood. "You'll undertake this personally, I assume?"
"Personally, Mr. Renard. You'll go to Grimland yourself."
"I have a terrific team of people who—"
"Yourself, Mr. Renard."
"I always wanted to see Grimland," I said.
"Good." His face softened, though you could still see the granite under the topsoil. "Excellent salmon fishing. Do you fish?"
It struck me as strange that someone who wanted me to save whales was urging me to hook salmon. I was going to say, "Only with dynamite." But Renard's Second Rule No.1 is "When a client is dispensing cash, keep your hands out and your mouth shut."