Jul 26, 2010

The much-anticipated, fourth season premiere of AMC’s Mad Men aired last night. I got very excited when I saw the episode was titled “Public Relations.”  I wondered how this new classic, highly dramatized show would portray my profession.  I’m not going to review the program itself – the characters or plot or beautiful set design.  I’ll leave that to the TV writers. But I would like to reflect on some of the questions the show raised about PR. I wasn’t expecting much, as the show is set in the early 1960’s. And so much has changed in marketing in general.  Still, I believe the episode illustrated what seems to exist very much still today: A distant appreciation yet misunderstanding of PR, even by (in this case) knowledgeable advertising executives.

As the reluctant public face of the new agency, Don Draper had to do a couple of media interviews.  These interviews were, no doubt, intended to help shape the public image of the agency, give insight to his creative process, and frame the company’s business goals from its leader’s perspective. Readers would want to know what makes creative director Don Draper “tick.” Interestingly, the otherwise brilliant Draper failed miserably in his interview with Advertising Age.  His partners were furious with the resulting article.  So what media relations mistakes did Don make?

  1. Bad attitude.  Draper was noticeably annoyed with the reporter. His reactions were emotionally driven and he was aloof and impersonal. Bad way to start an interview.
  2. Don was woefully unprepared. He had no message to deliver, no statement to make about himself or the agency.  The first rule of interviews: You’re not there to answer questions; you’re there to deliver your messages.  If Draper had an agenda, it was unknown to us, and the reporter.
  3. It wasn’t all Don.  What about that reporter? He asked the question, “Who is Don Draper?”  That doesn’t sound like the way a seasoned journalist would acquire details for a profile piece. No wonder Don later proclaimed, “Stay away from one-legged reporters.” Though the leg had nothing to do with it.

Later, Draper nailed an interview with The Wall Street Journal. What did he learn and apply to that second interview:

  1. Color and demeanor.  Viewers only caught a short snippet of the interview.  But it had the marks of success. Don smiled slyly while swirling his scotch and started telling a personal account that would paint a picture for the reporter. It’s all in the details and the delivery.
  2. This time, Don was on a mission. He knew what he was there for, and he was poised and ready.  He would have even better had he received some media training.

The other PR piece of the program was a covert media stunt gone awry, which was thrown together by Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell.  In an effort to boost ham sales for a client, they decided to hire two actors to “fight over” the last ham at the grocery store in order to generate media coverage and buzz.  It worked. Sales were up.  However, I have many problems with this approach as a media strategy.

  1. I’m in PR so I’m all for publicity.  But really, when it comes to clients, I don’t subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s philosophy, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”  Public relations is not mere publicity. Publicity is simply anything that makes news – good or bad, by accident or design.  The news that two women are arguing over a ham at the store says something. But it says more about the women than the ham. Readers get no details about the product, why its better, why they would want to buy it. It’s empty buzz.
  2. It’s disingenuous.  This was a staged argument, not a real one.  Basically, they “planted” a story about something that didn’t really happen. They were actors being paid for their roles.  What bugs me the most about this is that the agency folks on TV actually called this “public relations stuff.”  The operative word here is “relations.”  What relationship do you think these marketers would have with this reporter, and the newspaper, if they found out it was staged? What would the public make of it?  Yes, we do media stunts all the time. But we INVITE the media! We make sure it’s a newsworthy story, tell them what we are doing and make sure it’s compelling for them and their audiences.
  3. Client was in the dark. This is just wrong. Sorry, Peggy. you’d probably be fired you if you pulled this on our clients.  This shows a rampant disregard and disrespect for the agency/client relationship.  Clients and firms are strategic partners. This flies in the face of trust and partnership.
  4. Sets a poor example at the firm.  Not only did Peggy and Pete pull this off without client approval.  They didn’t get internal approval either.  I strongly believe in teamwork as a path to success.  Carrying out this tactic without input from your team (and your boss) is very dangerous and sets a terrible tone for mistrust within the team.

Relationships are crucial in this business. This stunt exploited various relationships for little gain. The potential for many burned bridges was a high risk and does not make for a well-formulated, long-term marketing strategy.  Building trust with your clients, the media, and your colleagues takes time, honesty and integrity.  This one action caused damage to all, with even greater potential for more fallout, in one fell swoop.

I love Mad Men and will definitely continue watching, for the impeccable art direction, engaging characters and all the ego-driven plot twists. But I hope the Madison Avenue men (and woman) stick to what they know best: advertising.  Dabbling in media and calling it public relations only served to further confuse misperceptions about what is apparently an already misunderstood professional practice.

According to the Institute for PR, Public relations is the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain understanding between an organization and its publics.  It consists of two-way communications which foster mutually beneficial relationships. When done well, as part of a comprehensive marketing program, it delivers results and can impact business.  On the show, Pete said he doesn’t like PR because “you can’t charge for it.”  That’s because he’s not doing it right.


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