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Minding Our Business


  [This column is adapted and condensed from remarks to the SC Public Relations Society of America’s Columbia chapter in June 2011.]


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 goes unopened?

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 dialogue.

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.

And lastly…

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.”

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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