When you look at the big picture—the 500-channel, picture-in-a-picture picture—what else is a new column if not the rough draft of a press release? In an effort to hone Your Ad Here into a more effective publicity platform, I’ve been consulting an inordinate number of books with titles that end in exclamation points (PR!, Publicity Stunt!, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!) and cold-calling various opinion manipulators.
My spiritual guide as I began my quest to leap from mere columnist to bona fide pundit was Edward L. Bernays, the public relations pioneer who perfected the art of the clandestinely manufactured, ready-to-air pseudo-event, and who helped “engineer consent” for clients such as NBC, Procter & Gamble, General Motors, and Calvin Coolidge, among others.
In the ’80s, hype—embodied by schmoozy, speed-dialing superflacks such as Bobby Zarem—was the operative PR trope. In the ’90s, however, hype has given way to spin: PR as facile euphemism, the smoothly deceptive language of White House press secretaries and corporate dissemblers, those exfoliating, liposuctioning cosmeticians of truth. While this aspect of PR has been present since the industry’s turn-of-the-century origins, never before has it been so out of the closet, so shamelessly venerated. Hence the current vogue of Bernays, who always chose subterfuge and indirection over the limited efficacies of candor. Despite having died three years ago at the age of 103, Bernays continues spinning in his grave via starring roles in Stuart Ewen’s PR! and Larry Tye’s recently published biography, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations.
To initiate my search for Bernaysian inspiration, I first contacted Richard Kirshenbaum, co-founder of the New York advertising agency Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners. Kirshenbaum has mastered the art of advertising as PR; KBP’s ads attract so much attention that they often end up as news stories themselves. In the late ’80s, for example, a KBP spot for No Excuses jeans featuring notorious Hartbreaker Donna Rice generated so much publicity that KBP never even purchased airtime for it. (According to Under the Radar, a book Kirshenbaum penned with his partner Jonathan Bond, KBP “just handed out the tapes at the media event, and [the news media] did the rest.”)
“How can I reach key influencers in a compelling way?” I asked him when I called, hoping for a little personalized under-the-radar advice.
“People have so little time today,” he told me. “Any under-the-radar idea has to get people to consider your column when they have a free moment. A few years ago, somebody who wanted a job at our company put a roll of toilet paper in each stall, and it just said, ‘I’m willing to start at the bottom.’ That was a really under-the-radar idea.”
Sure. The next time I find myself in Steven Brill’s bathroom with a spare copy of this column, I’ll know exactly how to exploit the situation. In the meantime, I decided, I should look for some additional ideas. The key to an effective PR effort, after all, is to achieve a certain ubiquity, so that people can’t help but see your message in one form or another.
With that in mind, I called Greg Jones, vice president of marketing communications at Medialink, the world’s largest distributor of an increasingly popular PR tool, the video news release (VNR). Like press releases, VNRs are produced for corporations and other organizations seeking media coverage. But while press releases are easy to edit, append, or completely ignore, VNRs, with their eye-catching, broadcast-ready visuals, generally offer more value to television news departments looking to fill airtime on tight budgets. Medialink, which was founded 12 years ago, now distributes more than 3,000 VNRs a year to media outlets around the world.
Was it possible a VNR would work for me?
I summarized the idea behind Your Ad Here for Jones: The column explores and explains marketing by trying to market itself.
“Your news is that you’re doing this column,” Jones concluded. “But that ain’t news. So we’d need to supply a news angle—what you should do is employ some sort of survey.”
“A survey?” It sounded like a lot of work.
“You could say that your next column features your results of surveying 1,000 PR people on their attitudes on such and such. That would immediately get into one of those news producer comfort zones—it’s news you can use; it may spur some consumer interest,” he explained.
However compelling I found the prospect of performing that particular tribute to the context of faux context, the hard truth is that I simply didn’t have the resources the project required. In the current news economy, where journalism schools also train PR practitioners, freedom of the press release (and the VNR) belongs to those who hire companies such as Medialink. For institutions and individuals who can afford their expensive television production budgets and in-depth surveys, times have never been better: Portions of VNRs produced for corporations such as PepsiCo and Burger King, and theme parks such as Six Flags Magic Mountain, air in news segments on hundreds of broadcasts and reach hundreds of millions of viewers. But for those of us who aren’t able to simulate the news with the requisite fidelity, such exposure is an unlikely prospect.
Is there any way to address this inequity?
In Robert Bray’s opinion, the solution to too much corporate PR is more grassroots PR. As the director of the SPIN Project, Bray provides media training to such groups in order to help them “shape public opinion and garner positive media attention” in the same way corporations do. (SPIN stands for Strategic Progressive Information Network.)
“What about Your Ad Here?” I asked him. “Do you think you could come up with a VNR for a magazine column about advertising and marketing?”
“Well, if we want to do TV, we have to think of a compelling picture,” he replied. “I can take almost any subject and make it visual—but a column? Radio would be a better bet.”
“Radio would be great.”
“First, you’d have to turn your story into news,” he continued. (That sounded familiar.) “For example, maybe you could find three progressive organizations that are realizing they have to come up with compelling names right from the beginning to move their message most effectively. Then you’d pitch it to a reporter as a story about language, America, and community politics, and offer yourself up as an expert who can comment on this trend.”
This seemed like the most practical idea yet. It would be easier than contacting 1,000 PR professionals. But the “your column isn’t news” refrain that both Jones and Bray had offered was starting to preoccupy me. Did it mean the column’s central concept is flawed? Is it all too self-referential to sustain interest?
Perhaps, I started thinking, I was wrong to choose Bernays as my spiritual guide. Perhaps I should have looked slightly deeper into the publicity industry’s history, back to PR pioneer Ivy Lee, a former New York Times reporter who characterized the business as a “two-way street,” an ongoing exchange of information between a corporation and the public.
Did it make sense to try to sell this column to the public before I’d even tried to determine if this was the sort of advertising and marketing column readers wanted? Were there potentially more popular ways to fulfill their desire for 10-minute, text-based edutainment experiences? There were companies—brand consultants, marketing-services agencies, focus group facilitators—who specialized in divining just this sort of information. It was time to talk to them.