Robert Landau called the other day, asking me for some advice on how to best publicize an event that he imagined would be of some interest to the media. The event is the introduction next week of a stuffed Icelandic ram, named Bjartur, to replace the lost Lindi, the Landau store mascot that had been a sidewalk presence on Nassau Street from 1976 until last July, when it disappeared and never returned — despite a blizzard of stories publicizing the loss.
If the clothing store owner sounded, well, a bit sheepish making the request, it was only because he has been around long enough to know that cynical editors often dismiss such “media opportunities” as mere dog and pony shows (just to knock off some obvious puns).
But, Landau noted, the disappearance of Lindi generated an enormous amount of media interest. So trying to facilitate the press coverage seemed prudent. I quickly confirmed Landau’s instincts, based on some actual experience:
Early in the 1980s I profiled Jessica Savitch, the television anchorwoman (not anchorman, which was the story then), for People Magazine. When she died on October 23, 1983, after the car in which she was riding plunged into the canal on a foggy night outside Odette’s restaurant in New Hope, I was asked to do the follow-up reporting. People’s story documented the gritty as well as glamorous details of Savitch’s life, including drug abuse and several tumultuous failed relationships.
A few weeks later someone at the magazine told me that the story had generated a large volume of letters to the editor. I felt a twinge of pride. Then came the kicker: Most of the letters had nothing to do with Savitch; they were instead expressions of sympathy for her dog, Chewy, who drowned with her.
In 2003, one of the major stories in Princeton was how the township was thinning its herd of deer, which were overpopulated, ravaging expensive plantings, and causing accidents as they tried to cross busy roads. Whether the deer should be shot by sharp shooters, felled by archers, netted and then “bolted” by companies specializing in such work, or just left alone was the subject of vociferous debate.
But then another story grabbed the headlines. On January 23, 2003, an emotionally disturbed young man who had run away from the Tenacre Foundation treatment center entered the home of William Sword Jr. on the Great Road. Appearing disoriented and distraught, the 24-year-old grabbed a kitchen knife and inflicted several wounds on Sword (who later would be killed by a tree that fell during Hurricane Sandy). Sword and his family managed to force the man outdoors and call police. Four armed Princeton officers arrived and quickly surrounded the assailant, who was standing barefoot on the frozen ground. When he lunged at one cop (who had tripped and fallen), the others shot him to death.
I anticipated a considerable amount of second guessing of the Princeton police. Could they have apprehended him alive? Did it make a difference that he was black? Could they have employed a deer-culling technique and netted him (but not bolted him)? But not a peep. A week after that story got its due, the town’s attention was firmly re-focused on deer. Much later the young man’s family filed a civil suit against the police, lost it, appealed it, and then lost the appeal. I never noticed any coverage in the local media.
Sometime in January, 2006, a West Windsor homeowner (and Princeton University professor) got a knock on the door from a uniformed, armed officer for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was investigating reports from neighbors as well as the township’s animal control officer that the professor had mistreated his dog, a German shepherd named Peaches, by allowing him to sleep in the attached garage during the winter months.
The armed officer noted an empty food dish and water bowl in the professor’s house. He issued the dog owner six SPCA summonses for “deprivation of necessary sustenance.” The owner contended that the dishes were empty because the dog had just eaten. Later the homeowner sent a letter to the editor protesting the heavy-handed treatment. The letter prompted a half dozen more letters, all but one of them supporting the animal protection forces.
At the time I was in contact with a field worker for the Adult Protective Services division in Trenton regarding an incapacitated senior citizen I was trying to help. I asked her if she or any of her colleagues ever got to pack a little heat in their attempts to protect vulnerable human clients. No, she noted wryly, they never carried weapons, but many of the people they had to confront did.
It’s a dog’s world. And we in the press are fascinated by animal stories and always sympathetic: When a dog bites a man it’s not a story, etc. I consider the publicity Lindi’s disappearance got, and I think back to missing children cases I have covered, when the parents first had to convince the authorities that the child really was missing. Then they had to drum up publicity.
Landau’s successor mascot will be introduced to the media at the store at 102 Nassau Street on Monday, April 22, at 11 a.m. It’s a tight space, and the ram may have to stand among the racks of Icelandic woolens for which it and the store are justifiably famous. Or perhaps Landau will just put him out at the same sidewalk location that Lindi occupied for 36 years. It probably doesn’t matter. At the risk of sounding a bit sheepish myself, my guess is that everywhere the ram will go, the press is sure to follow.