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Going Mad over PR: What Mad Men didn't understand and what people still don't get

I love Mad Men. I love it for its 60s style, for its writing, character development and what it says about us today. The fact is, all period dramas (and futuristic science fiction) say more about who we are today than they do about the people they pretend to portray. In a way Mad Men lets us look back at our 1960s selves and say "aren't we better?" We don't smoke like that, we don't drink like that, we wear seatbelts when we ride in the car, we don't let our kids play with plastic, male bosses don't call their female colleagues "honey" etc.

The fourth season of Mad Men opened up with an episode named "Public Relations," which, being a PR guy, got me listening pretty closely. The last time I heard PR mentioned on Mad Men, lead-character Don Draper was deriding the profession by saying that PR guys think they can change the conversation, but they can't. Only advertising can change the conversation.

But in this episode "changing the conversation" is just what PR is expected to do. We open on Don Draper in the middle of an interview being asked by an Ad Age reporter "Who is Don Draper," a question that Ad Age has already said doesn't fairly portray who they were at the time (or are today). Yet, in the PR world this is a pretty basic question and one that can take up hours of pounding out to get right. We often open messaging sessions by asking "what does your company do?" and then spend the next 3 hours trying to answer that question. Seems so simple, yet, it can be much more nuanced.

Don blows the question.

A few scenes later they get the article and a Roger Sterling comments "this was supposed to be an advertisement for the firm." Wait, and ad? If they wanted an ad wouldn't they have bought one? Why an article when they wanted an ad?

Ah, we have a misunderstanding of what PR can do and what it does.

Still, PR does play a role. In a side-plot a few characters stage a PR stunt that gets the client in the Daily News, an ultimately successful gambit as far as driving sales. Yet, one laments "we can't charge them for this."

Oh really? Sure you can, but you're not a PR firm, you're playing in waters you don't understand.

The episode ends with Don in another interview, ostensibly having learned his lesson and now creating a much more interesting fact-based story. He is, in large part, using PR to change the conversation about himself and his firm.

All that said, people today still don't fully understand what PR does and what role it plays in a business. The one thing the leadership at Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce never did was hire a PR firm. Why? Well, in a bit of fiction they just called up the Wall Street Journal and the reporter jumped.

What could a PR firm have done for the firm?

  • Set the message: Very simply put an outside firm would have helped define what this company is, who it wants to target and what key messages it needed to get across.
  • Position: Just a slight variation on the messaging, but during the episode you heard one of the sales executives trying to fit the new firm into the landscape of ad agencies around New York. A PR firm could help clarify this so they could speak to it in sales meetings.
  • Tell the story: In the course of the show we hear a bit about a controversial TV ad campaign for floor wax that Draper had created. I'm sure the Ad Age of 1964 would have loved a story that told the origin of that ad, what it tried to convey and its results.
  • Hit the media: Even in 1964 the Journal and Ad Age weren't the only two games in town. Not only were there the major daily papers, but there was also the evening newscasts as well as magazines and trade publications. I'm sure Supermarket News would have loved to know the results of a ham-selling campaign.

Yet, still today people don't fully understand what PR does. Not only in the context of needing a firm to help get the message out, but even in crafting what that message is. I recently watched as a group for which I do pro-bono work let an interview happen without my knowledge. The resulting article was of little help. It's not that the article is terrible, but it's just not as positive as it could have been. Just as the article about Don Draper wasn't terrible, but it wasn't nearly as useful to the firm as they needed.

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