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March 2015

Department of what to do with lemons

LemondaeRudy Giuliani may have hijacked Scott Walker's fundraiser with his reflections on President Obama's love life (at least as it applies to the country and its occupants), but the governor's staff has found a way to use it as a springboard for what really matters to them. Here's an email they sent to potential supporters:

"Governor Scott Walker ... refuses to be distracted by the small, petty, and pale ideas that the 'gotcha' headline writers for the Liberal Media want to talk about. ... Now is the time to stand up against the publicity hounds and the journalistic pack, and help Governor Walker fight back with a 'Friends of Scott Walker' contribution ... Your support will show the clueless and mindless journalistic herd that you know what matters most and that it is not the pointless minutiae that they are pushing.”

They may be making fund-raising lemonade out of lemons, but they also have a valid point. From the Sunday talk shows to the evening news campaign coverage and the left- and right-wing blather on MSNBC and Fox, political reporting seems fixated on what historian Daniel Boorstin called pseudo-events.  

Boorstin coined the term to describe events like photo-ops that exist only to generate publicity. Candidates created such events to further their own purposes without the distraction and risk of discussing actual issues. TV journalists went along because it played to their bias for pictures and the illusion of drama.

Now it seems all the media have so thoroughly embraced the concept they are creating their own pseudo-events, posing questions designed to create headlines rather than understanding, fanning controversy when it fails to ignite, and focusing on the embarrassing more than on the enlightening. Online and off, click-bait rules. 

The ethical question for media and PR people alike: do this pseudo-communication respect the electorate's right to make rational choices? Or does it lead to pseudo-candidates and, worse, decisions based on pseudo-qualifications? Are we condemned to live in a social and political hyperreality?


Steampunk PR

Steampunk computerIf public relations were numbered like new software releases, we'd probably be in double-digits now, with lots of numbers to the right of the decimal.

But if its mechanics have changed, the practice itself is still decidedly Victorian. 

When I retired 12 years ago, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube had not yet emerged from the fevered brows of their 20-something founders.

Back then, blogs were the shiny new thing and companies like mine were still trying to figure out how to use them. Shoveling content online was the usual standard. But it turned out consumers had shovels too. User-generated content became a threat for those who ignored it, an opportunity for those who joined the converation. 

These days, according to PR Week, a PR organization might be responsible for: "corporate communications and reputation, media relations, marquee event support, brand publishing, corporate social media engagement and content syndication, corporate sponsored and promoted content, branded media content partnerships, data insights, and analysis." 

Here's what I find instructive about this job description:

"Reputation" is still at the top of the list.  But too few brands realize reputation depends on more than "communications."

"Media relations" follows closely. It's traditionally been the one function no other organization tried to claim for itself, but lobbying and marketing have lately set up their own shadow operations. Smart companies guard its independence and report it to a level that has easy access to the CEO.

"Marquee event support" is a fancy way of saying "publicity" or worse, "party planning." PR may have outgrown those tasks, but it has not outlived them. Done intelligently, they're useful functions but they shouldn't define the practice. In too many places, they do.

The last listed functions -- "data insights and analysis" -- are arguably foundational. PR counsel must be based on more than political correctness and risk avoidance. It requires deep stakeholder understanding. The good news: every company is awash in stakeholder data. The bad news: PR people aren't very good swimmers, let alone pearl divers. The most valuable stakeholder data is numerical; many PR people wear innumeracy like a badge. 

All the other functions -- "brand publishing, corporate social media engagement and content syndication, corporate sponsored and promoted content, branded media content partnerships" -- are variations on a theme that began with the aforementioned blogs. And they have the same self-reverential pitfall. 

As long as "content" or "engagement" is useful to consumers, they will consider it a welcome service. But when the brand itself is primary beneficiary, it's as intrusive as someone taking selfies in the middle of an intimate conversation. And even less welcome. Worse, when it's a promotional message disguised as editorial content, it's akin to fraud, a form of lying tantamount to theft.

PR's shiny new tools may have changed more in the last 12 years than in the last 120, but the principle of respecting and serving stakeholders endures.


You know you're in trouble when...

Post cover williams

You kind of apologize that you "mis-remembered" what happened, sending thousands to their dictionaries.

The New York Post's cover shows you with a Pinnochio nose and capitalizes on your name's alliteration with "lyin'."

The New York Times puts its Day Two story about your problems on its front page, above the fold, with nearly a full-page after the jump.  Then it produces a video detailing exactly how your "story has changed."

Rumors force your predecessor in the job to issue a statement that he has not called for you to be fired.

A PR trade publication starts an online survey asking if your apology worked. (The answer is two-to one that it didn't.) Uninvited PR advice is sure to follow.  See below.

Your employer leaks word that it has started "an investigation," practically guaranteeing there will be Day Three and Four stories.

At this point, all you need to do to tighten the lid on your coffin is hire some high-priced PR counsel. Sadly, the best advice you'll get is the hardest to follow because it doesn't guarantee a soft landing and it may even be too late -- tell the truth, apologize, and give something back to demonstrate your contrition.  

You can try something like: "I exaggerated what happened to make it sound more exciting and myself more brave. I'm sorry. I'm making a sizable donation to Wounded Warrior Family Support. It serves the men and women who really faced the kinds of dangers I lied about.  It won't change or excuse what I did, but it's the least I can do to express my profound regret."