Political pranksters turn up heat, cunning

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 14, 2011 - 6:55 AM

The embarrassing stunt that ousted NPR's chief is just one skirmish in an increasing guerrilla war.

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GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer was the recipient of a sack of pennies as part of a political prank.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Politicians and corporate leaders: Prepare to be punk'd.

Last week, National Public Radio's chief executive and senior fundraiser resigned after off-the-cuff remarks were made to conservative activists posing as potential donors. Two weeks ago a left-leaning blogger made the ultimate prank call when he mimicked the voice of an influential billionaire and connected with an all-too-informal Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Pranksters and public-relations experts agree the antics are just getting started.

"It's a good, creative way to hold people accountable," said activist Nick Espinosa, who dumped a load of pennies in front of gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer last summer and disrupted a 2009 Tea Party rally in St. Paul when he somehow managed to get on a speakers' list. "I think people are bombarded by political messages in the media and can get sick of it, but if it's humorous, or you can put a new spin on it, they'll pay attention."

The subversive approach has become so popular that the Yes Men, anti-corporate jokers who have made two critically acclaimed movies, recently opened the Yes Lab, which trains others in the art of dirty work. In October, they advised the Rainforest Action Network on a fake campaign designed to humiliate Chevron.

"These methods have been around for a long time, but they're increasing," said Yes Men co-founder Mike Bonanno. "With mainstream media being de-funded, there is less real reporting out there and more people are resorting to these kind of tactics to get the word out on stuff that should be obvious."

Pranksters say it's surprisingly easy to trick their victims. Espinosa said he was on a Tea Party mailing list for years and when organizers called for speakers, he merely signed up, saying he wanted to rail against immigrants. What he didn't tell them was that the speech would be targeting European immigrants, concluding with the chant: "Columbus, go home!"

Self-defense tactics

"When someone approaches you, why not Google them or have an assistant do some verifying?" said Scott Cottington, a Minnesota-based consultant whose clients have included former Gov. Arne Carlson and former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz. "When you don't do that, you kind of have it coming."

Former Northwest Airlines spokesperson Jon Austin said he wasn't shocked when a Canadian radio station tricked Sarah Palin into thinking she was talking to the president of France.

"If you're conversant enough in protocol, if you know the right words and have the right phone numbers and the right references, it's surprising how far you can get into the inner circle," said Austin, now a communications consultant who specializes in crisis management.

New, inexpensive equipment also provides a big assist. Anyone with a cell phone camera can record a stunt -- and get it out on the social network. Five years ago, pranks might take 24 hours to make the news, Bonanno said. Now, it's a matter of hours.

"The cost of technology has dropped so low, there's no barrier to executing stuff like this," Austin said. "If you can think of it, you can do it."

Roshini Rajkumar, a former Twin Cities TV reporter who now advises up-and-coming executives, said the best way to avoid being pranked is to watch what you say.

"In this day and age, you can't consider anything off the record," she said. "You have to be cautious. If you're going to say ridiculous things like Governor Walker did, you better not say it on the phone. You'd better be looking straight at that person."

Austin echoed those thoughts, predicting that leaders will become completely transparent -- or closed off.

"Parts of people's lives that you might reasonably think are private, like having lunch with somebody, aren't private anymore, unless you're having lunch naked in a sealed room lined with lead," he said. "Even then, you might be a little concerned."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin

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