Spin Report: Should Babs have stayed home?

Spin Report: Should Babs have stayed home?

The composite character of Conrad and Barbara Black, which is really what is on trial in Chicago, poses immense problems for their handlers and would be an almost insurmountable challenge for anyone in the image or PR business.

Barbara’s appetite for luxury has been cited as one of the reasons for the alleged misuse of Hollinger funds. Whether accusations that the monies in question were used to “satisfy the liquidity needs arising for the personal lifestyle Black and his wife had chosen to lead” are proven or not, the perception is firmly rooted in the minds of journalists covering the trial and surfaces regularly in reporting.

The question for someone in my area of expertise is, through a change of behaviour or presentation, can Barbara ever atone for (or at least mitigate) her sins of concupiscence for the trappings of the super-rich? A similar, if far less serious, image challenge faced Hilary Weston when she became lieutenant-governor in Ontario against a background of media criticism about her wealth and style. She turned this around by donating her salary as L-G to charity and focusing her attention on Ontario’s disadvantaged and needy.

No such perception change is available to Her Blackness. Her apparent conspicuous consumption is a long way from her humble beginnings, charted in her autobiography, Confessions. While she is dressing down and avoiding extravagant jewellery, it would be almost impossible for her to have a reverse makeover and regain the common touch she possessed when I first met her as a rather shy secretary at the CBC. Barbara’s baggage is too heavy, too well documented for that.

The time is long past when they could have improved their reputations via philanthropy. They never set up a foundation like the Jackmans or Westons. And even what the Blacks did give has been suspect. The New York Times quoted a report by former Hollinger International executives alleging that Black used company money to smooth and solidify his and his wife’s position in New York society. For $15,000, the Blacks became part of the benefit committee for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Benefit in 2003, and for $20,000 they were invited to join the board of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation 2001 gala.

One assumes that their recent pledge of $500,000 to Toronto’s opera house campaign was from their own funds. It did bring them acceptance in Toronto society, if only briefly.

The bottom line given the irreversible perception of Barbara is simple. Should she be sitting daily in the courtroom reminding journalists and jury members alike of who she has become? I would say definitely not. There may be a psychological benefit for Conrad to have his loyal spouse by his side—the “stand by your man” position—but I feel his daughter better fulfills the role of family support. Barbara’s absence would be seen for what it was. After all, in the courtroom we are dealing with the jury’s perceptions, not the media’s.