A Cynical World Could Use a Little PR


Let me give you a little history lesson. In decades past, if you had an important message to get out to consumers, voters or the community at large, you advertised—either on TV or in newspapers or on the radio.

There are two problems with that approach today. First, fewer and fewer people pay attention to traditional media. One major ad agency shared a statistic with me that says it all: In 1985, it took five television commercials to get 85% penetration of the TV-viewing households. In 2008, it takes 1,292 commercials to achieve the same penetration.

It's more difficult than ever to “cut through the clutter” of television, radio, newspaper and even Internet advertising. People just tune it out. And when they are paying attention, it's challenging to get them to believe a message. Consumers are cynical, jaded and bored with advertising.

The Super Bowl, the biggest TV event of the year, is watched by 100 million people. One hundred million sounds like a big number, until you consider the fact that more than 200 million Americans figured out something else to do with their time. Yes, many people tune in just to see the ads, but those ads are more interested in shock value or winning awards than actually getting people to buy things. Super Bowl ads are available online immediately, along with instant analysis of the ads, numerous unused versions of the ads, and voting on which are the best.

The Super Bowl happens only once a year. The rest of the time, a really successful show attracts an audience with a maximum of 20 million or, in extremely rare cases, 30 million. Even 30 million is just 10% of the population. The venerable Academy Awards, the Super Bowl of fashion, attracts fewer viewers than many episodes of American Idol. That means that the highest-rated programs are still leaving 90% of the American people with no knowledge whatsoever of the products or services advertised therein.

But advertising is by no means dead. It still consumes a great deal of money and attention. Far more journalists cover the advertising business than the public relations industry. In fact, most of the largest PR firms are owned by advertising agencies. It's crucial to know what each part of an overall marketing campaign can deliver. Advertising can deliver image, frequency and a pinpointed message. Yet without the PR component, advertising lacks credibility, third-party endorsement and the ability to generate that elusive “buzz” where one person tells another about something spontaneously.

PR is also consistently less expensive than advertising, and on a limited marketing budget can often be the most cost-effective way to get a message out. You just have to know how.

“Spin” seems to have picked up a negative connotation in our society. People think that it makes us buy things we don't need, watch movies and television shows for the wrong reasons, and love or hate our political candidates. The truth is, all use spin. When we craft a resume, we write about our accomplishments—not our “off days.” When we recollect our families' weddings, we forget the sloppy speech by the drunken best man and focus on the beautiful bride. And we only want people to see attractive photos of ourselves—that's spin. It's just another way of saying, “putting your best foot forward.”

I don't want to give you the idea that public relations is something new in the world. Actually, the idea of having a “spokesperson” or a “media relations manager” goes at least as far back as the Bible. In the Book of Exodus, God commands Moses to appear before Pharaoh and demand, “Let my people go.” Moses sought to wriggle out of the assignment and told God that he wasn't particularly articulate.

Today, God would have sent Moses to get some media training. Instead, God told him to bring in his brother Aaron. Essentially, He said, “I'll tell you what to say, you tell him, and we'll all be fine.” So a lot of us in public relations believe that Aaron is actually the first practitioner of our craft, thus making public relations the third-oldest profession, slightly behind spycraft and prostitution. (And we get accused of both of those as well.)

PR always stood for public relations. I believe that in today's world, it actually stands for something different—Perception and Reality. It's the job of a public relations person to form a logical relationship between perception and reality—of an individual, of a product or service, of a geographical entity, of anything.

When you think about it, there are really just three possibilities—your public perception may be better than your reality, the reality of your situation may be better than the way the public perceives you or, ideally, they are in balance. In most cases, for the vast majority of my clients and for most people, their reality is better than the public perception about them. Perhaps that's because we live in an era where people don't trust anything—they don't trust the media, they don't trust politicians, they don't trust advertisers and they don't trust a lot of what they read on the Internet. We live in cynical times.