Scaling new heights in crisis management

Columnist

“Northern snakeheads in the Potomac River have apparently contracted a virus that is known to cause massive kills among largemouth bass, the U.S. Geological Survey announced Tuesday.”

— The Washington Post, Aug. 13

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The two lobbyists had reserved their favorite booth in the tony Georgetown restaurant: in the corner at the back, away from prying eyes and curious ears. They were nervous but excited, as they always were when they were about to meet with a potential new client.

Their eponymous firm — Furlong & Underman — specialized in buffing tarnished images. Some called it “crisis management,” others “reputation enhancement.” By whatever name, both Furling and Underman had become quite wealthy representing some of the most distasteful entities on the planet: Third World dictators, polluting factory owners, disgraced politicians, philandering clergymen, self-medicating athletes.

And now they were on the brink of adding a most curious client to that list.

“Ah, there you are,” said Furlong, as a slimy, scaly, mottled, razor-toothed and projectile-shaped aquatic creature hoisted itself into its seat. “I’m always amazed you’re able to stay out of water as long as you can.”

The snakehead fish shrugged what passed for its shoulders and said, “My kind hasss many talentsss.”

“Exactly,” said Underman. “That is exactly what we were just saying. If people only knew the real northern snakehead — not the caricature created by the media — they would come to love and respect you. And that’s precisely what we would do if you chose Furlong & Underman.”

“Pleassse,” said the snakehead, crushing an olive — pit and all — in its jaws. “Go on.”

Furlong cleared his throat and went into his pitch: “The first rule of crisis management is this: Control the conversation. You’ve allowed others to paint you as an invasive species, some sort of otherworldly alien, a ‘frankenfish.’ Really, what you are is an amazing immigrant success story. From just a small toehold, um, finhold, in a drainage pond, you’ve spread throughout the East Coast. You’re hardy, you’re scrappy . . .

“You’re the Irish with gills,” Underman said.

“Yesss,” said the snakehead. “I like how you sssay that.”

“But, frankly, there are negatives,” said Furlong. “And they start with your name. It’s problematic on many levels. Many people in the South hear ‘northern,’ and they think of Sherman burning Atlanta or New Yorkers making fun of their NASCAR T-shirts. But the real problem is ‘snakehead.’ It conjures up unpleasant images: fangs, venom, the devil in the garden of Eden, babies strangled in their cribs, Chinese organized crime. We recommend that you be rebranded, like Chilean sea bass or the Kiwi fruit.”

“Yesss?”

“We would focus-group all of these, of course,” Underman said, “but our preliminary list includes American freedom fish, American javelin fish, American honeybug, American mock salmon, American dwarfacuda . . .

“And we need you out in the community,” interrupted Furlong. “We need you doing more than infecting largemouth bass with a deadly virus. We would get you on the red carpet at movie premieres. We would get you on talk shows — Fox is already interested. We would raise your profile in the charity world.”

“Imagine this,” said Furlong, raising his hands like a circus ringmaster: “‘The American Freedom Fish Charity Walk to End Childhood Obesity.’ And there you are, photographed with Michelle Obama and Carly Rae Jepsen.”

The snakehead narrowed its eyes. “Would there be fat children at thisss charity walk?” it asked. “Fat, tasssty children?”

“Well, obviously there would be children, but I wouldn’t . . .

“Becaussse you sssee, my kind — we American freedom fish — we isss tired of our current diet. We have great plansss for the citizensss of thisss country. We love thisss country and find it quite to our tassste.”

“Ah,” said Furlong. “I see.”

He had been in the crisis management biz long enough to recognize when a conversation had taken a dangerous turn into legally — not to mention ethically and morally — murky territory.

“I think I get what you’re driving at,” said Furlong. “I don’t know whether you saw the news recently about the researchers who transformed cobia fish from carnivores into vegetarians? That’s something we could explore. No longer would you be seen as ravenous meat eaters, laying waste to entire fisheries. Now you would be friendly vegetarians, Alicia Silverstone with a tail.”

The snakehead drew back, curling its vestigial lips with disgust. “Never,” it hissed. “That isss unacceptable.”

“Are you saying that the only way we’ll get your business is if we agree to help you enslave and consume our fellow Americans?” Furlong asked.

“Yesss.”

Furlong cast a quick glance at his fellow lobbyist. “We don’t have a problem with that,” he said.

“Excssselent. . . .

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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