Markson Sparks, an Australian PR firm that handles corporate and entertainment PR, is unapologetic after a joke in a press release for a client said anthrax killed Oprah Winfrey’s staff of assistants. The firm defended the quip in the Australian press leaving open the possibility that the headline-grabbing episode was merely a PR stunt for the firm and its outraged client. But is anthrax fair game?
The anthrax “scare” of 2001 was a media sensation, sparking some thoughtful consideration of how easily the U.S. Postal Service could be manipulated as a terror courier, along with plenty of sensationalized paranoia and overreaction. [The Onion carried the headline: “Woman with Sore Throat Thinks It Might Be Anthrax” and man-on-the-street interviews about the “Fear of Mail.”]
A New York supermarket manager who, a month after 9/11, poured baby powder into an envelope with an employee’s paycheck (he said it was a joke) was quickly arrested by the FBI. Around the same time, an Iowa news reporter poured powder around his newsroom (with people watching) as an anthrax joke. He was canned. Rutgers University’s student newspaper, The Daily Targum, put out what was clearly a mock edition in December of 2001 with a fake news story about anthrax in the school’s mailroom. It ran under the name The Mugrat alongside stories about the school’s president playing beer pong and an “anti-peace” rally. The edition did no go over well [The New York Timesran a brief about it in its “A Nation Challenged” section.]
The timing of Markson’s anthrax joke is interesting as the PR-savvy agency is making headlines the day before it changes its name to Markson Communications.
MS added the joke to the end of a release for recruitment company PKL that touted the lavish lifestyle of a personal assistant career. The joke, which said 45 of O’s staffers were killed, was meant to illustrate the only downside of working for a famous boss. It read:
“A story sadly underreported is the number of celebrity personal assistants who die from opening their bosses’ anthrax-filled mail. Oprah Winfrey’s entire staff of 45 personal assitants was wiped out by the dangerous spores.”
Rolene Markson defended the quip, telling Australia’s News Ltd: "The final paragraph in the media release in question was supposed to be a tongue in cheek way of highlighting the mental and physical dangers of being a celebrity personal assistant."
The client, PKL, was apparently horrified (or were they in on it?!). Founder and managing director Phoebe Lane said that she would be having in-depth” discussions with the firm. That doesn’t sound too good, but her agency certainly got her company some press.
Maybe Markson will find some comfort in the Iowa State Daily editorial that ran the week the anthrax-joking reporter was let go in 2001: “Over-sensitivity to the anthrax scare shouldn’t be justification for firing someone who made a poor judgment call.”