Read an Excerpt
Save the Monk Seal
For millions of years, the Keoki Atoll sisters had struggled with a shared inferiority complex. It’s not that they weren’t pretty. They were gorgeous. God just put them in a bad place. In the Hawaiian chain, they were two of the farthest-outlying landmasses, separated from the main islands by over twelve hundred miles of ocean. They weren’t even touched by human feet until 1827, when Captain Stanikowitch of the Russian freighter Moller took a leg-stretch pit stop on Kaikaina, the little sister. For reasons beyond me, he named both islands George. From 1876 to 1932, both George and George (aka Kaikua’ana, the big sister) were courted by the Australian Guano Company, which was just using them for their mineral-rich animal shit.
World War II was a particularly busy time for the sisters. The U.S. Navy commandeered the islands, renamed them Keoki Atoll (Keoki is Hawaiian for “George”), and set up quite an elaborate outpost. After the war ended, the Keoki base was maintained by a skeleton crew for forty-three more years, until the navy shut the place down.
In May 1988, Keoki Atoll was reborn as a national wildlife refuge, housing such endemic but dwindling species as the blue hornbill turtle, the green hornbill turtle, and the Hawaiian monk seal. The sisters were now well protected from human meddlers, who needed a special permit just to come near them. But for all the government’s best intentions, the hornbill turtle—both blue and green—left the islands without explanation.
In November 1997 the U.S. gave up on Keoki and leased the islands to Nomura, a Japanese holding company. Animal activists raised a loud stink in Washington, but that lasted about as long as Divx. Luckily for Nomura, the good people at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts were hot to add a Hawaiian dig to the franchise. The sisters were in for a serious makeover.
They had one last year of peace and quiet before an army of developers swarmed all over them in a swirling frenzy of hammering and sawing. By October 2000 the Fairmont Keoki had risen: a 29-acre re- sort with 450 one-bedroom suites, 55 private beachfront villas, 40,000 square feet of function space, two full-service spas and fitness centers, six restaurants, twelve boutiques, a year-round children’s program, full wedding coordination services, and a 140-foot waterslide. It was like a giant luxury cruise ship that wouldn’t sink or go anywhere. The one remnant from the sisters’ past lives was the navy airport on Kaikua’ana, fully expanded and upgraded to accommodate daily shuttles to and from Honolulu.
The grand opening was set for Friday, February 2, 2001. To ensure that the resort got off to a running start, Fairmont had offered major incentive packages to their Platinum Club members and favored travel agents. Unfortunately, due to internal mismanagement, their promotion coincided with a massive PR blitz for the illustrious Fairmont Plaza in New York. As if stealing their own thunder wasn’t bad enough, media operatives for the Landmark Hotels Group—still bitter that Fairmont didn’t acquire their own Kea Lani Hotel in Maui—launched a covert, preemptive strike against the sisters. On January 12, The New York Times Sunday magazine ran a spoon-fed article on the “troubled” history of Keoki Atoll, focusing on the recent invasion of rats and deadly ants.
As usual, this was painted air. The inexplicable rat epidemic occurred in 1987, while Keoki was still a wildlife refuge, and was permanently solved by a commercial pest-control gestapo. As for the ants, they came with the lumber, but the article failed to mention that they’re only deadly to people who happen to be beetle-sized or smaller.
For Fairmont, this was all bad mojo. Based on advance reservations, the Keoki would open at a paltry 30 percent guest occupancy. That’s the kind of lame start that can haunt a hotel’s reputation, a self-fulfilling omen of doom. Panicked, Fairmont ran to Mertens & Fay, a Los Angeles PR firm that specialized in crisis management. Never too busy to take on a six-figure job, the nice folks at M&F decided to outsource the whole Fairmont mess. To me. My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to bury the bad buzz under a wave of counterhype. They didn’t care how I did it as long as I turned Keoki Atoll into a shiny new star on the map. I had two weeks. Mahalo.
That was January 19th. On February 1st, shortly after dawn, custodial workers left the employee dorm on Kaikaina and took the twelve-minute ferry ride to the main hotel on Kaikua’ana. The 250-person staff had settled in shortly after the new year and had the run of both islands. But that would end tomorrow, when over 400 guests and 300 corporate executives would be arriving to christen the resort. For the crew, morale was low. They had uprooted themselves from their mainland jobs just to be here, and now it seemed the Fairmont Keoki was already destined to go the way of EuroDisney.
So you can imagine their surprise when they arrived at the lagoon dock only to find a crowd of 128 naked young women gathered in front of the hotel. From inside a vast rope cordon, they yelled with excited energy as more than six dozen college boys cheered them on.
This was new. On first glance, one might think it was nothing more than a shameless promotional stunt. However, if one were inclined to look up from all the naughty bits, one would notice the many placards the women brandished with righteous pride. They spelled out their cause in large, marker-drawn letters: save the monk seal!
Masking corporate propaganda as social activism is one of the trade’s earliest tricks. In February 1929 the American Tobacco Company hired legendary PR pioneer Edward Bernays to help break the taboo against female smoking. Back then it was considered unladylike, a habit of whores. Two months later, spectators at Macy’s New York Easter Day Parade gaped in succession as a battalion of beautiful debutantes proudly puffed their way down Fifth Avenue. They were heralded worldwide as the Torches of Liberty brigade. Another stigma bit the dust. After that, even the most demure femmes were free to wave their Lucky Strikes around. Ah, Edward Bernays. He was Sigmund Freud’s nephew and never let anyone forget it. To this day, the tobacco companies still target women by drawing a two-way arrow between smoking and independence. We’ve come a long way, baby.
For my purpose, I knew the Monachus schauinslandi—the monk seal—would be the Trojan horse. But it was currently a cause without a rebel. A quick scan through the Nexis news database pointed me to the University of Maine at Orono, where a formidable all-girl squad of student upstarts made headlines by picketing a local mink farm in raw-meat bikinis. That may sound like no big deal, but this was mid-Maine in mid-November. Wow. Now that’s activism. It’s also a good way to get freezer burn. I figured these young ladies could use a change of climate.
Two days later, I was sitting in an Orono campus dining hall with Deb Isham, the buxom Robespierre of the pro-critter protest. On behalf of a philanthropic party who wished to remain anonymous, I offered her and 130 of her sisters two thousand dollars each, plus airfare, to stage an eye-catching demonstration on the other side of the country. I told her my employer was most displeased with the Fairmont’s eviction of the endangered monk seal. The least we could do was send a loud and clear message on behalf of those persecuted pinnipeds.
Deb was easy to gauge. From her faded sweatshirt, which hid her Massachusetts money and California body, I could tell she wasn’t just a self-satisfied poser. She was a true and modest do-gooder, emphasis on “modest.” She was all for the cause but, despite her stint in a tenderloin two-piece, had some grave concerns about the nudity. Do we really have to go, you know, the full monty?
Sadly, yes. This wasn’t just for my gratification. If you want to know what it’s like to be a journalist reading the newswires, try standing in a room with a thousand people yelling “Over here! Over here!” It’s maddening, especially since so much of it is blatant promotional crap from amateur agents. All the press has time to do is race through headlines. In this day and age, Bikini-Clad isn’t even a speed bump. Changing it to Topless would certainly get some hits, but not enough to justify the expense. naked young women protest beach resort: Now that would stop the presses.
Fortunately, Deb’s cohorts were a much easier sell. They were poor. Maine was cold. And their second semester didn’t start until February 7. That gave them almost a week to bum around Hawaii, with cash, all for one day’s rage against the corporate machine. Screw modesty. In one afternoon, Deb managed to fill every slot on the roster. Half the girls opted to bring along their highly supportive boyfriends, who I later enlisted to serve as crowd control. In record time, I had my army.
Right after Deb dropped me off at the Portland airport, she rolled down the window of her beat-up Tercel and eyed me uncomfortably.
“Scott, do you know why I organized that rally against the mink farm?”
“Because they’re killing minks.”
“It’s not the killing itself that bothers me. I’m not a vegetarian. If minks tasted good, I might even try one. But we don’t kill minks for nourishment. We kill them for luxury. In the end, they’re being exploited for their skins by people who just want more luxuries. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
It wasn’t exactly a rebus. “What would you like to know?”
“Just promise me this is the real thing,” she said. “That this isn’t all just some big smear campaign by Marriott or something.”
See, there’s a difference between being smart and being wise. Deb was smart. I swore to her from the bottom of my heart that I wasn’t working for any of Fairmont’s competitors. After she drove off, I sighed steamy air and quietly hoped she wouldn’t get wise.
February 1 was a perfect day for mass nudity. Thursday was a big TV night in itself, but this was also the first day of sweeps. The reruns were gone. Survivor: Australia was premiering in its regular time slot, followed by surprise hit CSI in its new choice location. You had Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? on ABC, WWF Smackdown! on UPN, and, of course, the eternal Must See lineup on the Peacock. The ten and eleven o’clock newscasts would have over ninety million viewers to tease.
It was also my thirty-fifth birthday. That only mattered to me, of course, especially since I didn’t tell anyone. But what a way to celebrate. My work wasn’t always this much fun. And my fun wasn’t always this much work. I had to play shepherd for a flock of two hundred coeds. They had all arrived in Honolulu in scattered shifts on January 30. The next day I loaded them all onto a chartered booze cruise, which certainly lived up to its name. By the third hour, every stretch of railing was occupied by a heaving undergrad. The rest of the trip, thankfully, was dead quiet. It was an eighteen-hour ride from Oahu to Keoki. We wouldn’t get there until dawn.
One of the few other noncollegiates on the boat was David Green, a staff writer at Maxim. I owed him a favor so I gave him a heads-up exclusive on the before-and-after of this noble endeavor.
For a man who wrote pieces like “How to Ogle Her Breasts and Get Away with It,” David was the furthest thing from a regressed frat boy. He was a soft-spoken, agreeable fellow with a cardiologist wife, two teenage daughters, and one serious midlife crisis. Every time I saw him, he had done something different to his head. First it was the long hair/mustache retro thing, which should have died with Sonny Bono. Then it was the shaved head/goatee combo, which has yet to work on a white man. Now it was a buzz cut and stubble beard, which made him look like an A-list screenwriter. This was progress.
No stranger to PR machinations, David was able to see straight through my seat-of-the-pants operation, all the way to my ulterior. That was fine. I knew he had no intention of tipping the hand that fed him. Honestly, it wouldn’t have bothered me if he hinted at the truth in his article. Just not here. Not in front of the girls. It wasn’t the boat ride that was making me queasy. If even half of these women backed out, this would be the Heaven’s Gate of promotional stunts. It would maim my career.
After the students had passed out, David and I enjoyed the quiet night breeze from the bow. Even when standing on the first rung of the railing, he was still shorter than me. Men often did strange, unconscious things to try to match my height.
“So how much has this whole thing cost so far?”
“About the same as two thirty-second spots on Law and Order,” I bragged. “Or four on Special Victims Unit.”
He whistled. “That’s quite a bargain.”
My cautious attitude was echoed—loudly—by my clients at Mertens & Fay. In high-turnover industries like advertising and PR, most account executives (read: accountable executives) tend to be risk-averse. I certainly don’t blame them. But you have to keep evolving the craft or the audience will catch on to your methods. Even Sprite’s anti-marketing marketing campaign (Image Is Nothing, Thirst Is Everything.) soon became transparent to the savvy teen market. A sledgehammer approach like mine would be a great trick, but you could only get away with it once.
At 6:00 a.m. the boat reached the Kaikua’ana port. By then everyone was happy to be back on terra firma. One of the many ironies of the day was that the girls, who had traveled five thousand miles to protest the evils of upscale development, were all mesmerized by the sheer beauty of this place. So was I. It was heavenly. Fairmont had spared no expense to get the world’s most talented landscape and structural designers. I had expected a Vegas-like artificiality, or at best San Jose, but it was more like airbrushed nature. Every brick, every fountain, was strategically placed to enhance the native environment. We stood under a pink dawn sky in a majestic stone courtyard that would make Zeus jealous. And we had the whole damn place to ourselves. It occurred to me that the sisters might actually be happy with their new look. Who were we to say?
I joined Deb as she watched the men set up the rope cordon. Unlike her friends, she seemed nervous and bothered. I could already smell the issue, but I played it simple.
She tied her hair back tight. “Yeah. I just . . . I’m just wondering if we’re doing the right thing. I mean, what if this just brings more people here?”
“It probably will.”
“Probably,” I said. “Look, I’m a realist. I never expected to shut this place down. What we’re doing is slapping a scarlet ‘A’ on the whole franchise. Corporations are really vain. They hate controversy, even if it doesn’t hurt their bottom line. My guess is that in three weeks Fairmont will make some big announcement about a new seal-friendly initiative.”
I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. But it was a good excuse to send out another video news release in three weeks.
“We’ll see,” I told her. “The important thing is that the next company to develop a luxury resort is going to go out of its way to do something decent for the animals, just to avoid the kind of noise you guys are about to make here today.”
Admittedly, that was crap. This story had the shelf life of raw scrod. But Deb took it on faith. My words didn’t inspire her, but they at least gagged that quiet, nagging voice that was bothering both of us.
By then the cordon was all done. Symbolically, it was David, the Maxim guy, who spoke for all the men. “So, you gals getting naked or what?”
From the Hardcover edition.