Mad Men Enters The 70s And PR Looks Back

The final season of Mad Men advances the advertising and PR industries into the 70s along with fictional agency Sterling Cooper & Partners. The period is considered by many the decade of the “great shift.” America inches away from the public-spirited universalism of the 60s that birthed the Civil Rights movement toward the free-market economy that changed the face of business forever. 

Don and company would have likely had financial clients like the nascent KKR or Drexel, Burnham, Lambert, or even some tech startups like IBM or Atari.  The 70s also ushered in Richard Nixon and Watergate, which spawned an expansive, eager generation of young new journalists, and forever changed the way we “shorthand” any scandal.

And, in 1976, public relations pioneer Rex Harlow sought to define the field, using a grant to investigate 472 definitions of PR and breaking them into concepts. After analyzing his research, he came up with this comprehensive definition:

“Public relations is a distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics; involves the management of problems or issues; helps management to keep informed on and responsible to public opinion; defines and emphasizes the responsibility of management to serve the public interest; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends; and uses research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.”

From our vantage point in 2015, we offer evidence that the definition still holds today.

“Establish and maintain mutual lines of communication … between an organization and its publics.” With the advent of content development, self publishing, and open conversations via social media, this couldn’t be more true. The Public Relations Society of America, after an extensive process seeking to update its definition of public relations, came up with something very similar.

An outgrowth of the 24/7 news cycle is the ability to keep management on top of or even ahead of news. PR pros can act swiftly and responsibly to help clients become part of a story (as Crenshaw recently managed with client Retale and the Apple watch launch), or offer helpful opinion and commentary to further a position.

“Define and emphasize the responsibility of management to serve the public interest.” “No longer a nice-to-do, corporate social responsibility is now a reputational imperative…” according to an annual survey, and no company can afford to ignore a cause that has meaning to its constituency. For example, much of our work for a leading mattress company focused on providing new beds for returning veterans and disaster survivors.

“Help management keep abreast of and effectively utilize change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends.” Competition for media coverage has never been as fierce, so the savvy newsmakers are on trend or better yet, ahead of the trends. Crenshaw is helping Five Elements Robotics tell its story of creating Budgee, a personal robot for our aging population. Part of a burgeoning niche category,  Budgee is now gaining traction in key senior assistance and retail development trades.

“Use research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tools.” Research has always been the backbone of successful PR campaigns, and methods have only improved through the years. We would bring Harlow up to date here, adding research analytics tools to determine how PR campaigns impact a company’s bottom line. As for “ethical communications techniques?” There are innumerable instances of “bad behavior” in PR, resulting in public shamings our PR forebearers could have never imagined. Here’s hoping major lessons have been learned there.

Before You Hit "Send": Effective Communications For Communicators

Ever exchange 12 emails with someone in an office next door when a 10-second conversation would do? It happens all the time, at our PR agency and plenty of other companies. And here we thought we were the communications experts!

In award-winning novelist Joe O’Neill’s compelling new book, “The Dog,” the narrator has a tricky relationship with his employers, who are mysterious Middle Eastern billionaires. The situation is so tenuous that the hero spends hours “mental-mailing,” or composing emails he rarely sends but instead uses to decide which channel, if any, will accomplish his goals.

I can identify. PR people and other communications professionals do this also. Since we juggle multiple constituencies, and our livelihood often depends on getting the attention of very busy people, we are well served to be selective about our outreach. It’s easy to hide beyond  email, but options for communication should be weighed carefully.

In our experience, every relationship benefits from a mix of multiple contacts and channels, and the forms keep evolving. Here are our best practices when it comes to everyday business communications.

Social media outreach works best when you want to demonstrate that you’re familiar with someone’s work or persona through their published content. Commenting on a blog post or RTing a savvy observation is a great way to progress a relationship. Benign social stalking can also be effective if a media contact or client honcho is particularly elusive. If they’re active on Twitter, by all means, DM. Or, if more of a LinkedIn type, try Inmail. Judicious contact will show persistence and can eventually transition to other, more direct forms of communication.

Texting is effective when you have an established relationship that transcends the “BAU” workday. It’s best used for time-sensitive messaging or to skirt the “official” office communications network, offering a more personal touch. Although it can never be assumed private or secure, texting is recommended when you want to create the feel of “offline” conversation and you have a certain comfort level in doing so.

Email is best when you don’t require an instant answer, as with a program recommendation that requires thought and deliberation, with a workable deadline.  It’s also a top choice for regular and frequent project updates, or, naturally, when it’s the recipient’s preferred way to communicate. But email is overused and often not sent thoughtfully. It’s notoriously iffy when conveying sarcasm or edgy humor and an imperfect tool for communicating constructive criticism. Most importantly, don’t email anything you wouldn’t want to see in the news. My draft folder is filled with unsent messages that I thought better of, and that’s a good thing.

The phone is shockingly useful when the email thread is becoming untenable, or ideally, before it happens. Make a call to discuss anything that’s uncomfortable, like criticism of a team member, or sensitive salary or budget negotiations.  When I have a fabulous media opp for a top exec, I call them. At the same time, if there’s bad news on any front, a call demonstrates concern and directness in dealing with the situation. PR people strive for regular calls with their day-to-day contacts to stay on top of projects and discuss changes in strategy or direction. These regular touchpoints are key to keeping and building relationships.

Schedule a face-to-face when the information is too complex  to convey in a deck or memo, or when building a relationship and striving to earn trust.  There are actually key words to use to help master any meeting.  MIT researchers actually found that certain words helped participants appear more persuasive, including “yeah”, “give”, “start” and “discuss”.  So, yeah! Schedule face-to-face meetings with some regularity and plan time together that’s not directly work-related. That’s healthy communication for any working relationship.