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The Marcus Perspective

A ROLL OF NICKLES AND A PHONE BOOTH

By Bruce W. Marcus

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Anybody Can Do PR

One would think that in these days of declining newspapers that the good old press release would have gone the way of rubbing two sticks to make a fire. But no. It’s still with us. And what’s worse, that the change in media from hard copy to digital — from newspapers to Internet and social media — would have altered the techniques of delivering public relations releases to the new media. Again, but no.

I think that the news that certain public relations practices have changed is the slowest moving of all. Or as that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, put it: “Ain’t nobody here knows how to play this game?”

If you ever get to thinking that public relations is so easy that anybody can do it, then spend a day on the receiving end — the editor’s desk. If public relations is so easy to do, how come so many practitioners do it badly?

From major corporations, and both small and large public relations firms, comes a stream of so-called releases and other material that’s so inept, and so primitive, that you must ultimately realize that those who do it right must have a vast array of skills, talents and imaginative energy. It must be difficult, because how could it be simple when so many people do it wrong? And of course, the client pays the high price of doing it wrong.

Take mailing lists, for example. The Marcus Letter is a very carefully designed publication. It’s target audience — professional services — is spelled out, its subject matter is abundantly defined, its thrust is far from secret.

And yet, each day’s mail — both e-mail and snail mail — brings releases about products or services that have nothing to do with anything in The Marcus Letter. Liquor and perfume company pitches. A Fedex package containing a videotape and a press kit for a computer football game (at least $20 worth, sent to a publication that couldn’t possibly use it). Personnel releases to a publication that doesn’t include personnel news. Pitch letters for stories that are so irrelevant to what we do that I can’t believe that anybody over 12 years old is doing it. A press release from a fast food company announcing the appointment of the head of a “new guest satisfaction initiative in the role of Director of Customer Delight.” What about that basic tenet of good publicity — know your target publication? Each year, hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars in wasted mailing. I still get mailings addressed to me as editor — which I once was — of a long since defunct magazine.

In virtually a lifetime of doing this, one of the major tenets of public relations that I’ve learned is that a press release must cast your story in the same syntax as the major daily papers, or the Web site to which they’re sent. You’re competing for space against the papers’ or Web sites’ own reporters, and you’d better write your release in newspaper or Web site style. How, then, account for this, which arrived with the standard notation For immediate release …

Enjoying a great bottle of wine has never been easier. XYZ company (to protect the innocent, if innocence indeed there may be) is pleased to introduce Cellar, a unique wine-tasting program that brings the world’s private cellar to your front door every month.

Makes you really want to stop the presses and tear out the front page, doesn’t it?

What further complicates the situation is that journalism has changed, but a great many practitioners (not all, thank goodness) are still stuck in the past. They certainly seem not to have noticed that the old five W’s (Who, What, When, Where, and Why) have disappeared, as have the old pyramid structures (the most important paragraphs first, then on down). The exhortations to the old-line journalists never to use the letter I (if you must refer to yourself, you’re supposed to have used we) have fallen back into the woodwork. Where once The New York Times set the style for journalistic style, today that style is set by blogs and the Internet. In fact, even the Times has conformed to the new style.

Now, the great universities teach courses in public relations, and I assume their graduates know better. But that may be a poor assumption, since old retired journalists teach so many journalism courses. Who then is doing this? Is practicing public relations so easy that anybody can do it? And where are the department heads and chiefs — the ones who used to say to the likes of me: “No, that’s not how you do it. This is how you do it?”

No wonder so many editors hold so many public relations people in such low regard (but, fortunately, hold so many more in high regards. They know when good is good and bad is bad.)

I think that it’s so easy to get into public relations that there are too few knowledgeable and aware people teaching too many newcomers.

And what about the clients — the ones who are paying for expensive mailing pieces to editors who can’t use them and press releases that no respectable publication will use? The expensive public relations people who write the releases that no one will ever publish? How much are they wasting each year? And what happens to respect for the value of public relations when all that wasted money produces so little useful result?

Maybe what’s needed is a travelling exhibit — sponsored by PRSA or somebody — of outrageous public relations practices that embarrass all the good practitioners. A kind of a Grand Guignol of public relations horrors. Every editor in the business could send them new stuff every day.

Barring that, every PR person should be made to read both blogs and The New York Times regularly.

Then there’s the time I was chatting with my old boss and mentor, Ruder & Finn’s Bill Ruder, about the changing nature of public relations. He said: “In the final analysis, public relations is an art form, and no matter what changes, if you’ve still got the art, you’re still in business.” As ever, Bill was right.

And I note, too, that the success of leading public relations practitioners, like Richard Weiner (another of my mentors), Richard Levick and Larry Smith, not only have the art, but understand change.

In today’s digital world, the delete key has replaced the wastebasket. No editor could survive the day’s workload without the delete key.

If Edward Bernays, the self-styled father of public relations, could see these anachronistic practices, he’d turn over in his grave. But only if he could get a couple of columns on the front page of The New York Times for the stunt. He knew his craft.


Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, (www.marcusletter.com) and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). His e-mail address is marcus@marcusletter.com. © 2010 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.

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