An Abysmal PR Job: LonCon 3 and Jonathan Ross And How Could You Not Have Seen This Coming?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

In case you missed it, a storm swept through science fiction this morning.  It’s over now.
Basically: the Hugo Awards announced the presenter this year would be Jonathan Ross, who I mostly know for being mean to Manuel.  Jonathan Ross is, apparently, known for saying really offensive things on a regular basis – his Wiki page even has a lengthy list of “Controversies” – and when he hosted the British Comedy Awards, it was such a mess of obscenities and obscene jokes that many viewers called for it to be cancelled.
Within six hours of the announcement, Jonathan Ross had gotten so much negative feedback over this on Twitter that he bowed out.
Now, if I were a con committee member and Jonathan Ross volunteered to host because, as became apparent, Neil Gaiman recommended that he do so, I would be reluctant to say no.  As should you, if you’re sane.  Jonathan Ross has 3.6 million followers on Twitter, most of whom probably don’t tune in to the Hugos, and his audience could be a huge boost to promoting the authors we love. As I said to Mari Ness, even if one in a thousand of his followers tunes in, that’s almost 4,000 new people watching the Hugos.
That kind of influx of fans could be a good thing.  If Jonathan Ross doesn’t turn it into a “mock the nerds” punching bag.  So while Charlie Stross has some valid concerns about the media attention Jonathan would draw, as a con chair, you’d have to think: “Can I keep him from making off-color jokes?  Is there a way to have him hold a respectful ceremony?  Because if he can, then we can really enlarge the audience of good science fiction.”
Now, I don’t know the answer to that question.  I suspect not.  There’s a uniquely British style of comedian who seems to get off on public controversy, and in fact delight in tweaking the rules – Jeremy Geary, Ricky Gervais – and so I suspect telling him, “Okay, keep it respectful, toe the line” would just lead to him shrieking fuck at the first available opportunity.  Even if you can excuse his past history, I’d be leery of the future.
But maybe not.  Maybe Jeremy was genuinely excited to meet the science fiction authors he claims he loves, and would show an unparalleled respect for the medium, thus bringing in fans.  Maybe.  I’m not here to argue that, I don’t know the dude.
What I do know is that just randomly announcing this on Twitter to a group of authors still reeling from the last SFWA battle is complete incompetency.
Look.  Anyone in the crowd should have known that this would be a gigantic controversy.  And by dumbly just going, “Whoo, guess who’s hosting?” without more than a perfunctory public statement, they fucked over both Jonathan Ross and the Hugos.
(If you can’t tell, I don’t mind swearing.)
What should have happened is that they planned this for a Monday morning, and they had a nice press announcement from Jonathan Ross saying, “Oh, wow, I grew up reading science fiction books and I love this medium, and let’s namedrop my love of several books, and I’m really glad to be given this honor to host.”  He has a great love of science fiction, I’m told, so use your initial press push to say Hey, I’m one of you.  And hopefully assure people he won’t make sexist quips at the ceremony.
And then, since he said on Twitter that Neil Gaiman recommended him for the job, have Neil say, “I think Jonathan will be a fine host, and I couldn’t be gladder he’s got the opportunity.”  And whoever else in the zone thinks he’s a good guy.
That would not make your controversy disappear.  You’d still have the issue of, I dunno, one of your committee members resigning.  And you’d still get a lot of people leaving.  But if you’d given us reassurance that he’s not just coming in to mock the nerds, that he loves the medium, that he understands that this isn’t a place to make a quip about unfashionable dresses, maybe you could have gotten science-fiction to go, “I dunno, I think it’s gonna be a train wreck, but let’s give it a shot.”
Now, none of this is to say that Jonathan Ross should be the Hugo host.  That’s a discussion for others to have.
What I am saying is that it is literally unconscionable for Lon Con 3 to just drop Jonathan Ross onto us, and us onto him, without actually doing the barest amount of PR work.
And I don’t know that they could have done all this, honestly.  Maybe Jonathan Ross wasn’t willing to sit down and do the reassurance thing – after all, he’s a big star, and probably thinks he was doing the con a favor.  Maybe they couldn’t get anyone to vouch for him.
But if you can’t get that bare minimum done to calm the waters, then you don’t choose the guy.  Because what will happen is exactly what happened.
Now, some think this was a purposeful shot – Lon Con 3 was angry at the SFWA scandals, and chose to haul in a guy who was guaranteed to be controversial so they could watch us tear him to shreds, thus “proving” that science fiction fans are just niggling idiots who’ll tear down anyone.  Which I doubt.  I don’t attribute to malice what can be attributed to incompetence, and this smacks to me of “Oh, we’ve got a real person interested in us, someone who’s a star, this is all gonna be so good!”  And they were so blind that they allowed this to happen.
I doubt that Jonathan Ross would have done a good job of it, personally.  But maybe he could have.  And certainly it makes everyone look like idiots when someone presents what is guaranteed to be a controversial issue, so controversial it takes all of six hours to get the man to step down, and doesn’t actually seem to have prepared for the inevitable.
I’m saddened, because this was inevitable.  And yet nobody inside the decision-making levels of management seemed to realize that, despite every possible sign.
I understand why they wanted to make “fetch” happen.  But someone should have realized that you had to do a lot of groundwork for that.

8 Comments

  1. Marc
    Mar 3, 2014

    I understand and even agree with your comments on PR but still, this new insularity of the community is appalling.
    A general nerd rage because a mainstream celebrity wanted to host the hugos?!? And all because the first page of google showed a joke that they didn’t like and didn’t reveal enough geek credentials…
    This is the “fake nerd girl” disaster all over again, how depressing…

    • TheFerrett
      Mar 3, 2014

      Actually, if it was a joke they didn’t like, that might have gone over. It was literally pages of jokes they didn’t like, along with a recent (in the past year) scandal over a bad hosting job that did it.

      • Marc
        Mar 3, 2014

        I honestly think that with very little effort you could find pages of questionable stuff on every comedian and most celebrities tout court.
        Out there there are even people trying to slander Neil Gaiman, the nearest thing that the fandom has to a living patron saint.

        • TheFerrett
          Mar 3, 2014

          You could, but some are easier to find. Neil’s sins are small, and usually apologized for afterwards.
          There is definitely a segment of fandom that gets power from tearing people down from pedestals, but I’m confident in saying they’re small enough that they only really hit fairly grievous consistent errors. And man, Ross has a history.

          • Marc
            Mar 3, 2014

            This is were we dissent. We got Ross on TV on this side of the pond, I even watched him a couple of times and honestly I didn’t find him controversial in the least. Maybe is a cultural attitude, I honestly don’t know…
            And also regarding the nasty fandom I agree that they are a fairly small segment, but they are also the most vocal minority, nerdraging every week for something new and trying to ruin the party for the rest of us.
            Having said that I want to add that, although I like him, I’m not saying that Ross is the best possible host, is the manner of its dismissal that I find appalling.

    • GeekGirlsRule
      Mar 3, 2014

      This isn’t a case of SFF fans being insular. It’s a case of authors who could well be nominated for Hugos (again) being terrified that he’d make a fat joke at their expense, or slut shame, or just in general be an ass, that seems to be his schtick.
      As The Ferret said, the concom should have foreseen this and could have taken steps to prep everyone for damage control. “Yes, we know he’s problematic, but he sincerely loves the genre and has promised to behave.” “Yes, he’s been guilty of rampant sexism and lad culture, but we really do think that he can do this without being an ass.”
      This isn’t about, “He isn’t a nerd like us.”
      This is about, “We don’t want someone who is going to make awful jokes at the expense of us.”
      There is a HUGE fucking difference.

      • Marc
        Mar 3, 2014

        I’m sorry if I misinterpreted things.
        I don’t want to tread lightly on people fear. Maybe I didn’t examine this controversy with enough attention.
        From what I could honestly see most comments where about why they didn’t call his wife as a presenter or an author, so somebody with more “credentials”.
        Of course if somebody compile a list of all the stupid things that he said in all his career instead of a list of all the nice things that he said about the fandom… As the Ferret said PR problem, I got it and I agree with it.
        I’m not on twitter and I don’t like it because in my view it lead to a very dangerous confirmation bias. For me it would have been nice if the community opened a little bit and had him come and do the gig. He is a fan, just a basic googling would have revealed that, and I don’t think he would have made any joke at the expenses of one of his idols. Which is not to say the he would not have done some bad taste jokes of course….
        Just my opinion, again, I respect people fears and he did the right thing stepping down.

    • AJ Hall
      Mar 3, 2014

      This business about people looking at the first page of Google and making their minds up is self-serving rubbish. Ross is sufficiently well-known in the UK (and not in a good way – he had to step down from being one of the best-paid stars at the BBC after a highly sexist and intrusive “prank” but there have been a lot of others before and since – the business about Nicole Kidman’s pubic hair, Heather Mills’ leg and the UK comedy awards last year) that UK fans didn’t have to Google him to be horrified at the prospect.

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