More Blurred Lines of Communication?

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Some big news surfaced yesterday on the communications front.  As detailed in this article originally published in Advertising Age, an iconic Chicago-based company known for creating some of the best-known equity characters in advertising history has teamed up with a relatively new but extremely influential digital aggregator and blogger of news and commentary.

What would the late Leo Burnett say about his company's partnership?

What would the late Leo Burnett say about his company’s partnership?

Their goal, as stated in the article is “to develop strategies and then produce content for the ad agency’s clients.”  (And, of course, to make lots of money in the process.)

The players: Leo Burnett and Huffington Post.

Or, in other words: The ad agency that created Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna and the Marlboro Man now joins forces with writers from the top-ranked digital media empire to draft and distribute paid media messages.  Or in other words, write what used to be called “advertorials,” or articles that are paid for, just like TV, radio, digital, print, transit and other advertisements.

On HuffPo, as the site is known, and other online platforms, paid content is identified by a “sponsored link” disclaimer.

So what’s my take-away from this development?  Here are two thoughts:

1. Makes Sense. In this ever-increasing digital  age, competition is fierce for an audience’s time and attention.  I trust

Wouldn't you like to be the fly on the wall in a conversation between Ms. Huffington and Mr. Burnett?

Wouldn’t you like to be the fly on the wall in a conversation between Ms. Huffington and Mr. Burnett?

the HuffPo content writers have the skills to draft content that generates visits that lead to sales.  The creatives at Burnett know their clients and their products and services.

2.  Divide and Conquer. Both companies are businesses, and business should make a profit. So, why not consolidate forces to produce a better product?  After all, there are plenty of ways a company can spend money to influence the consumer or business audience.

But, I wonder if this partnership will prompt other communications firms — be they advertising, traditional or digital

media, and of course, public relations firms — to do the same. And, if so, will a company lose sight of its focus, its true mission?

Will lines of communication in regards to the originator become more blurred when disseminated to the target audience?

Stay tuned, but I’d like to put  the late, legendary Mr. Leo Burnett in a room with the very much alive Arianna Huffington and get their perspectives.







“Mad Men,” Public Relations and Reality

By Edward M. Bury, APR, aka The PRDude

At a recent series of meetings I attended, public relations professionals from around the nation offered comments on what really defines our profession today.  The general consensus is that public relations — as practiced at its highest level — is based on strategy and bound by high ethical standards.

One member of the group bristled as she recalled being labeled a “publicist” by a new acquaintance.  To the uninitiated, however, public relations is, indeed, publicity.  Clearly, public relations remains one of the most misunderstood professions, probably because so much of what we do is strategic in nature.

Strategy is not sexy.  Perhaps that’s why public relations does not lend itself to good fictional plot lines that make for good movies or television.  From another perspective, our communications colleagues in the advertising arena do work in an industry that’s incredibly sexy.  And there’s a hot TV show that takes advantage of the medium.

On July 25, millions of televisions were tuned to the AMC channel as fans of the retro ’60s series “Mad Men” debuted.  You’re probably familiar with the series, which is set in a fictional Manhattan advertising agency inhabited by a cast of characters bent on drinking, smoking and carousing.

Sometimes, they actually make some pretty good advertising.  What struck me about the season opener was the title of Episode One: “Public Relations.”

No, the new firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce did not switch practices, nor did they open a division to take on public relations business.   The title referred to what amounted to a tactical maneuver by lead character Don Draper (portrayed with a steely reserve by Jon Hamm) to generate some positive media exposure.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men."

For the few uninitiated, here’s what happened: When the episode opened, Draper was being interviewed by a reporter from Advertising Age magazine.  Draper is the creative director at the shop, and apparently he didn’t like the role of chief spokesperson for his renegade agency.  He delivered uninspired answers to the Ad Age reporter’s questions, resulting in a flat, unflattering article.

This did not sit well with partner Roger Sterling, who blasts Draper for not delivering the “sizzle” the fledgling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce needs to compete with major Madison Avenue shops for new business.

At the end of the episode, Draper is lunching with another reporter, this time one from the Wall Street Journal.   This time he not only delivers sizzle, he outright lies by proclaiming the agency occupies two floors of the Time-Life Building.  (They only have one floor; in fact, they don’t even have a conference room table.)

Hey, I’ll bet an honest, ethical public relations pro would never utter such a false statement!

The episode did feature a sub-plot that did comes right out of “Publicity Stunt 101.”  Two agency creatives hire actresses to battle in a grocery store over a ham product — an account managed by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — as a way to generate media exposure.  It works, but of course, the stunt is contrived and unethical.

Last Sunday’s “Mad Men” episode, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” did not continue the “public relations” plot line.  Instead, main story featured the client-from-hell — an adult brat who controls the Lucky Strike account — who forces the upstart agency to hold a much more expensive than planned Christmas party.  It’s a raucous affair, complete with a conga line, staffers locked in embrace in plain sight and Sterling as Santa passing out cartons of Luckies as holiday gifts.

No references to public relations this time, or even references to any “good PR” from the  Journal piece.  But there was a sexy scene, with Draper plying his charms upon his secretary.

“Mad Men” is fiction, of course; and the show addresses lots of themes — sexism, the workplace, greed — under the guise of being a period piece set in an early Cold War advertising agency.  Much of what happens on “Mad Men” probably did happen along Madison Avenue.  We get a glimpse into the creative process at an ad agency, along with the drinking, smoking and carousing.

It’s sexy stuff.  And, it’s not public relations.