No more PR spin; it's World Cup time
SAO PAULO -- If not for the motorbikes slaloming between cars, jolting me awake amid an hours-long encounter with the traffic plaguing this metropolis, I would have completely missed the e-mail from the president of Brazil.
It had been sitting in my inbox for a week now, buried among the detritus every journalist receives from marketers before a long-awaited sporting event. There was the Samsung ad wherein Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney "attempt to save the planet from alien domination, led by team manager Franz Beckenbauer" (actual quote). There was the survey from a social network for "attached people looking for an affair" that was, honestly, so dumbly related to the actual World Cup that it is hard for me to summarize. And there was the pitch, mass-emailed by a public relations firm based in New York, bearing a subject line reading "Available Now" -- signals of yet another company pushing product.
Which it was. But the brand in question -- SECOM -- was peculiar, seeing as how it stood for the Secretariat for Social Communication of the Presidency of Brazil.
"In case you're looking for story ideas in relation to the 2014 FIFA World Cup," the e-mail kindly began, "thought you might be interested in a Pitch Database developed by the Brazilian government which is a list of suggested topics and corresponding sources."
As I sat there, half-consciously flicking through the Gmail app on my iPhone, car unmoving, two thoughts occurred to me: 1. So this is how an embattled World Cup host country attempts to shape the global perception of itself in the year 2014; and 2. So this is, without exaggeration, the most exhaustive attempt at image control that I've ever seen.
The link to the English edition -- SECOM had also produced versions in Portuguese and Spanish -- yielded a staggering, 8,398-word, 21-page PDF subdivided into no less than five categories: National Topics (e.g. "1. The dynamism of the Brazilian job market"); National Stories Related to the World Cup ("11. Organic and Sustainable Brazil"); Federal Government Story Ideas ("21. Revitalization of the Brazilian naval industry"); Regional Stories ("41. Sea turtles"); and Specific Pitches for Certain Countries ("69. HOLLAND/Art collection").
Each entry came with a paragraph of glowing description and the Brazilian phone number for, as promised, one recommended source at minimum.
But that wasn't even half of the entire campaign. In fact, looking back further through my inbox, I'd also previously overlooked SECOM's multi-color, graphic-intensive, 14-page "Booklet Detailing 2014 World Cup Investments." (Sample headlines: "The truth about World Cup spending" and "Brazilian stadiums cost less.") And the e-mail about how this nation "will offset almost double the amount of direct emissions from greenhouse gases anticipated from hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup." And the note about how "the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (Apex-Brasil) is expected to bring 2,300 international business leaders to Brazil." And the supplementary "Media Guide to Assist Journalists Covering the 2014 FIFA World Cup."
None of the assignments advocated by SECOM may even be indefensible, mind you. But to spend time on the ground in Brazil this week is to recognize, at the very least, that this much spin starts to feel like a Potemkin village powered by Adobe Acrobat.
As of yesterday afternoon in Sao Paulo, for example, I could still hear the distinct sound of hammering from within the famed, $370-million Arena de Sao Paulo -- some 24 hours before the place would welcome more than 60,000 people to Brazil's opening game against Croatia. The building was scheduled for completion in December. Three people have already perished while constructing it.
I could see the arena's vast edifice of temporary seats at one end, its metal skeleton draped in black tarp, granting it the vague sense of structural integrity. Approximately 20,000 fans are supposed to sit in those rows today, vibrating and cheering and generally losing their damn mind. While the fire department has apparently granted the section safety clearance, the thing has never been used in, you know, an actual game. Much less this particularly singular one.
Even the insane swamp of traffic that gave me the time to read through SECOM's e-mails in the first place was exacerbated by the fact that, until last night, transit workers were threatening to strike for the second time this week. Although the subways are up and running again, the city's gridlock remained so brutal yesterday that Belgium and the United States opted to cancel their scheduled, closed-door scrimmage in Sao Pãulo at the last minute. As Belgium coach Marc Wilmots explained to the media: "I don't want to sit in a bus for five hours."
Which is all to say that I have no idea how effective this vast P.R. campaign from the office of Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, has ultimately been. Maybe there'll be a story about sea turtles placed in a Cameroonian newspaper. Maybe a Dutch website has just posted a photo gallery of the 320 "paintings, drawings, engravings, utensils and sundry objects" that are allegedly located inside the Pernambuco State Museum. Maybe one of my colleagues inside the sprawling media center beneath the Arena de Sao Pãulo is announcing, right now, that this is indeed -- as the aforementioned Media Guide declared -- the "#CupOfCups."
But there really is only one story that everyone in Sao Paulo will definitely write about, is looking forward to writing about and is probably specifically in town to scrutinize. Today, at long last, the dominant global image of this country will be soccer: Brazil versus Croatia; Brazil versus the world.
All that's left is for the government to get out of the way.