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The Disappointing Intention Behind Tuesday's Most Colorfully Dressed Speaker

Tuesday’s commission meeting was a relatively quiet affair even with that one thing that happened. Yes, I’m talking about the man dressed in drag in the photo that accompanies this piece.

That is Rhonda Santis, now stop and take a moment to say it outloud if you’re speed reading, and he also made an appearance at the Chronicle forum. It was at the forum that someone told me there are several Rhonda Santises (Rhonda Santi?) around the state but I haven’t been able to verify that. All that I found was a couple of Twitter parody accounts and a St. Pete-based shop that sells Rhonda Santis bumper stickers.

What was most curious about the public input was not how the man was dressed but rather about the message that was being delivered. He claimed that in 2003 when he moved to Citrus to look for land “to build our big mansion” and US 19 was beginning the widening. Now, almost 20 years later, it still wasn’t done. “You’re showing the world that obviously Republicans can’t get anything done,” he concluded.

Part of me regretted leading with this because on the video feed I noticed Mike Wright walk by while Rhonda was talking undoubtedly to get a better photo so that he can mention it as well. This type of attention is undeserved but it does play into the theme of the day.

I teach in the ADPR program. ADPR of course is short for advertising and public relations. Most of my classes inevitably come to a point where it is important to make the distinction between the two disciplines. Many students have some vague ideas but it’s ill-defined.

One guess is PR is earned media that you don’t have to pay for while advertising is the paid spots. Advertising is corporate while PR is for nonprofits is a popular one as well. Neither of these definitions are all encompassing.

I teach my students to look for intent. Here’s an example. Take an anti-texting and driving ad that is sponsored by AT&T. The message is a public service but the branding raises the question if it is to increase the chances people might switch to AT&T because of the sponsorship. Is it an ad or PR? Hard to say in a hypothetical.

I use AT&T in this hypothetical, though, because the telecom giant experienced a very real nightmare when it mixed the intent of messaging about a decade ago on 9/11. The company tweeted a graphic of lights coming up from where the twin towers stood and a phone being used to capture the scene. This was problematic because the company thought the intent was to memorialize 9/11 (a PR message) and the public took it as using 9/11 to promote phone sales.

These mixed intents feel avoidable but they happen more than you might think.

In 2015, Dodge drove head first into controversy when it compared the service of Ram Truck drivers to that of Dr. Martin Luther King…in a Super Bowl ad no less.

You see how the two are similar. The intent as the company sees it is to interact with stakeholders through a shared honor of history. The intent the public sees is to hawk overpriced, underperforming consumerist goods by any means necessary.

And therein lies the problem with Rhonda Santis and the merry group of disruptors who have taken a more active interest in local politics. It’s not the crossdressing that is bothersome to me although Rhonda’s taste is usually far more shabby-chic than I would go with, but if that’s your thing, roll with it.

However, if you’re going to show up dressed against social convention at a government hearing, you should at least let your words compensate for the prejudgements that will happen about the clothes.

Everything Rhonda said failed to meet this standard. He complained about a state-managed federal road to a county commission and then took a political swipe at a public podium.

It’s not the clothes that create an eyeroll or a justification that he is hurting the process but rather the blatant ignorance of decorum in public affairs. The intent is clearly just to be disruptive.

Apply this standard of intent to candidates who are running for office and it’s amazing how quickly you can cut through the context of political platitudes and see who is actually in a race for the right reasons.


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