“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.