[This column is adapted and condensed from remarks to the
SC Public Relations Society of America’s Columbia chapter
in June 2011.]
PR, AS IN …
I’m going to ask you to do something extremely daring
in today’s media marketplace … engage in only
one medium at a time. How novel.
This is a Powerpoint free zone. Look, no screens. No laser
wand. No bullet points. Tweet at your own risk.
Our single medium is dialogue. Why? Because a dialogue is
what you want to have with your clients, your markets and your
audiences. That dialogue may, of course, take place over a
wide range of media of your choosing. And it will likely occur
concurrently or sequentially on multiple media. But the essence
of what we do in communications is to engage an audience (of
one or more or many).
The primary reason we want a dialogue or conversation is
to reduce the cacophony.
On a recent trip to New York, my wife and I endured the ear
assault of airports. Announcements — often unintelligible
in the first place, CNN’s Airport Channel, people shouting
on cell phones and crying babies drowned each other out. Walking
in New York’s Times Square and on Broadway was a sensory
overload of sights, sounds, smells, smut, souvenirs and souvlaki.
If you can cut through the clutter, more power to you. You
don’t want to desensitize your receiver.
Much the same can be said for too loud TV car pitchmen. We
hit the mute button. For autodial phone solicitors. We dropped
our landline home phone. For mass mail marketings. How much
Beyond civility and relevance, I would not impose many ground
rules on how the dialogue is conducted. It depends on the parties
involved and your creativity and flexibility. So on with our
In an egregious exercise of alliterative excess, we titled
these remarks PR: as in PRess, PRoduct, PResident and PRedicament.
I’ve added a few more…PRecision, PRice, and PRopaganda.
SALES. So let’s start with PR as in “sales.” Sales?
We are all in sales. Might we say that together? “We
are all in sales.”
Those words are anathema to a journalist. You can’t imagine
how difficult it is for me, after decades as a hard-boiled
journalist, to say that. But the reality is that we sell ideas,
stories, shows, products, politicians, corporations, whole
countries and, sometimes, principles.
As a journalist, I had to first sell my editor on the idea
that a story was worth researching and reporting. Then, sell
readers, viewers or listeners on the notion that the story
was worth two minutes of their time. Journalists, too, have
to be good pitchmen and women, perceptive and persuasive.
PRODUCT. It’s what we sell. Ideas and concepts, things,
people, ideologies, ideosyncracies. Hot stuff. Cool stuff.
Sometimes, not so cool stuff. Even wars. Of course, we only
sell good wars, righteous wars, right?
To be effective, though, you have to believe in the product
you are promoting, marketing, selling or shilling for. Or at
least not have disbelief in it.
PRESS. The best way for PR professionals to deal with the
press is proactively. Note the “PR” in “proactive.” There’s
a challenge to this in today’s shrunken newsroom. Is
there anyone you can reach regularly? Reporters are exceedingly
thinly spread. The beat system is eroded. But you still need
to know with whom you are dealing.
Don’t assume that reporters know who you are, what you
do or why it matters. Be an educator. Teach them. Most are
willing to learn. Invest in a cup of coffee.
You don’t necessarily have to deal with the press. But
you can’t count on everyone coming to your web site,
Facebook or Twitter feeds. There is still merit in reaching
the masses through mass media. The multiplier, though, is your
ability to leverage one medium against another, eg Twitter
as a headline service: 140 characters and a link. You want
to expand the dialog, draw your audience into the conversation,
make your audience want to know more.
It should go without saying, that to be an effective communicator,
you need to be an effective writer. Period.
PRESIDENT. President Obama, President Pastides, President
Pro Tem McConnell. President, in this case, is synonymous with “principal.” Two
takes for dealing with principal players: 1) if you work for
one of them, you have to get inside their heads, think like
them, write like them, talk like them, capture their voice.
2) If, as a journalist, you are covering a president or, in
a PR role, you are in opposition to some president, have a
level of respect but forego the awe.
Ronald Reagan delighted in telling how Congressional leaders
would fuss and fume on the floor of the Senate, declaiming
how they would go to the White House and confront the President.
But walking into the Oval Office seemed to have a beneficially
deflating effect on the self important.
But awestruck also works against you. You become the sycophant,
the shill, the suck up. Reagan also liked “trust, but
verify,” which he repeated whenever he saw his Soviet
counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev.
PREDICAMENT. I could have said scandal, though that would
have blown the alliteration. And if you can get yourself out
of a predicament, you may avoid escalation to the scandal stage.
It’s hardly restricted to politicians, but frequently
associated with them, perhaps because politicians — probably
more than any other officials with the recent examples of world
bankers and brokers — inflict situations upon themselves.
Here’s a rule to remember in the era of You Tube and
Facebook: never hand a camera to a narcissist.
But the bigger rule is the one encapsulated by one of Bill
Clinton’s counselors during the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Lanny Davis, an attorney, was tasked with addressing the questions
about Lewinsky, her blue dress, Clinton’s deposition
and what “the meaning of ‘is’ is.” Wisely,
the White House put a firewall between Davis and the day-to-day
spokesman Mike McCurry. McCurry did not answer Lewinsky and
impeachment questions. Davis had to.
Davis subsequently wrote a book whose title puts the essentials
of dealing with a scandal this way: Truth To Tell: Tell
It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself: Notes from My White
House Education. Clinton did not quite do that. Nor have more recently
embroiled politicians. It’s good advice.
I added three other alliterative bits to the title when we
started: precision, price and propaganda. So, the bonus points:
PRECISION: Get it right. Look it up. Don’t trust Google.
Or Wikipedia. Call. Ask. The worst thing you can do is misspell
or mispronounce someone’s name. Try mine, for example.
PRICE: Everything has a price. But some things are priceless.
Integrity and reputation are among the latter.
PROPAGANDA: If your work is branded as “propaganda,” you
have a problem. It’s a pejorative, even though that’s
what you do. I do it, too.
But the Nazis’ chief propagandist, Josef Goebbels, gave
propaganda a bad name. Goebbels is a bad name. So, don’t
let anyone call you a “propagandist.” Think up
a euphemism, quickly. “I’m in sales.”