THE NATURE OF MEDIA
Thirty years ago, Marshall McCluhan, the father of modern
communications, wrote the immortal words, “The medium is the message.”
Today I would amend that to, “The medium is the media.” Our civilization is
utterly dominated by the force of media. After our own families, no influence
holds greater sway in shaping the text of our being than do the media that
cloak us like an electronic membrane.
We all think of ourselves as unique, unlike any person past or present.
Indeed, what gives human life its divine spark is the distinct quality of every
individual. Yet in many ways we are all the same. The task of market
analysts, pollsters, and demographers is to identify those characteristics we
share, and group us accordingly. If you are in your early forties, male,
Caucasian, a father of two, earn $50,000 or more, and listen to a Top 40
radio station, there are total strangers out there who know an awful lot about
That’s because they understand a lot about your upbringing. They know
you watched “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the fifties, “The Man From
U.N.C.L.E.” in the sixties, “Saturday Night Live” in the seventies, became
environmentally conscious in the eighties, and were probably sorry ABC
canceled “Thirtysomething” in the nineties. They’ve got your number because
they understand the role the media have played in your life from the moment
you Boomed as a Baby.
Today, in America, we tune in to over 9,000 commercial radio stations, 1,100
television stations, 11,000 periodicals, and over 11,000 newspapers with a
combined circulation of nearly seventy million. These are the sources of our
opinions on everything from nuclear disarmament to Madonna’s love life.
Nobody likes to be told what to think, but all of us, every single day, are told
precisely what to think about.
As Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson show in their insightful book, Age of
Propaganda, the mass media are most effective in terms of persuading the
public for two primary reasons. First, they teach new behavior and, second,
they let us know that certain behaviors are legitimate and appropriate. So, if
the media are encouraging certain buying patterns, fashion trends, modes of
thinking, the unstated message we receive is “It’s okay for me to like that,
do that, feel that.” In this way, our culture evolves, is accelerated, and
Like the transcontinental railroad of the last century, the media link every
city, gully, farmhouse, and mountaintop in North America. Regionalism is
fading. The American accent is more uniform; our penchant for migration
and blending in is like the smoothing out of a great national blanket. We are
fast becoming one.
A common grammatical error occurs when people say “The media is” rather
than “The media are” (“media” being the plural of medium”). Yet I sense
people who say “the media is” are on to something. They perceive the many
arms of the media-TV, newspapers, radio, etc.-as part of one monstrously
monolithic creature. The media are “one” too.
Consider “Baby Jessica” McClure, for whom my firm donated public
relations services. Jessica was the toddler from Midland, Texas, who fell down
a narrow pipe in her backyard in 1987. For thirty-six hours, America was
mesmerized by press coverage of her rescue. Acting as a concerned
neighbor, the media conveyed Jessica’s light to the nation. The private agony
of the McClure family became the anguish of all America.
Think of it: the temporary suffering of one “insignificant” little girl stopped
the world’s most powerful country dead in its tracks. (Then, to canonize the
experience, the TV movie version of Jessica’s story made it to the small
screen within a year.)
Without those cameras there to catch it, and those TV stations to broadcast
it, Baby Jessica’s ordeal would have made absolutely no impact on anyone
other than her family and those who saved her. Because of the media, all of
America for two days became part of Jessica’s family.
CONTRACTION AND EXPANSION
Journalists and talk-show hosts like to claim they’re in the information
business or the news business. But you know and I know they’re in the
money business just like everyone else. Because practically all media are
privately held profit-making ventures, they behave much like any other
enterprise, looking for ways to increase the bottom line.
To do that they must expand their consumer base, that is, their audience.
They must give the customer what he or she wants. So if your local news
station runs a few too many five-part specials on the illicit sex lives of nuns
during “Sweeps Month,” remember they’re only trying to please the viewers.
Creating a successful product means citizens may not always get the
information they need. A Harvard researcher found the average network
sound byte from presidential campaigns dropped from 41.5 seconds per
broadcast in 1968 to just under 10 seconds in 1988. That translates into
roughly sixteen words a night with which to make up our minds on who
should run the country. We absorb more information, yet understand less
than ever before.
This is a logical consequence of big media. Their existence depends on
keeping the audience tuned in. If TV station “A” covers candidate “B”
droning on about farm subsidies, most of the audience will probably switch to
station “C” running a story about the stray cat raised by an affectionate pig.
Station “A” would be wise to ditch candidate “B” and send a crew out to film
Porky and Tabby.
Along with this contraction of information is a parallel expansion of media.
Because social scientists have us so precisely categorized, outlets targeted to
specific groups flourish. Lear’s caters to mature, high-income women.
Details appeals to middle-income, fast-tracker men. Essence aims for black
Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, and Mary, tells a great story in his stage show
to illustrate how narrowly focused we’ve become as a society. In the 1940s
and 1950s we had the all-encompassing Life magazine. Then, we cropped our
vision down to People magazine in the seventies (all of Life wasn’t good
enough anymore). Things tightened up even more with Us. Now we have Self.
Somewhere, there’s just gotta be a magazine just for you. I can just imagine
it: on sale now, “Fred Morganstern Monthly.”
Not only do we see more media outlets, but the flow of information has
likewise increased dramatically the past few years. Fax machines, cellular
phones, modems, fiber-optic cables, Low Power TV, satellite down-links, all
have reshaped the way we get our information, when we get it, and what we
do with it.
During China’s “Goddess of Democracy” protests in 1989, the students
kept in touch with the outside world via fax. Instantly, China seemed to leap
forward from feudal empire to modern nation. Vietnam was the first “we’ll be
right back after these messages” war. As napalm rained down on the jungle,
we saw it live as it happened. We had no time to process information or
analyze events as we were barraged by them. Because of improved
communications, the Gulf War had the same effect, only with infinitely more
The media may have accelerated the process of dissemination, but as we
found out in the days of the first supersonic jets, breaking the sound barrier
did not, as some scientists feared, cause planes to disintegrate. Likewise,
instant news did not cause us to psychologically disintegrate.
There’s no way to assess what this means to society. To be carpet-bombed
by information must have far-reaching consequences to our civilization, but
that’s for future observers to sort out. Today, we face an intimidating media-
driven culture. Anyone looking to succeed in business must first master the
fundamentals of navigating the media. To reach customers, donors, or
investors-to reach the public-one must rely on the media as the prime
intermediary. The methodology to achieve this is known as Public Relations.
THE NATURE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
Half the world is composed of people who have something to say
and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.
— Robert Frost
I’m often asked whether public relations is a science or an art. That’s a
valid question. In science, two plus two equals four. It will always equal four
whether added by a Republican from Iowa, a shaman from New Guinea, or an
alien from Planet X. However, in public relations, two plus two may equal four.
It may equal five. It may equal zero today and fifty tomorrow.
Public relations is an art.
Like an art, there are rules of form, proven techniques, and standards of
excellence. But, overall, it’s a mercurial enterprise, where instinct is as
legitimate as convention.
Public relations was once defined as the ability to provide the answers before
the public knows enough to ask the questions. Another P.R. pundit once
stated, “We don’t persuade people. We simply offer them reasons to
persuade themselves.” I define what I do as gift-wrapping. If you package a
bracelet in a Tiffany box, it will have a higher perceived value than if
presented in a K Mart box. Same bracelet, different perception.
PERCEPTION IS REALITY
Don Burr, former CEO of People Express Airlines, once said, “In the airline
industry, if passengers see coffee stains on the food tray, they assume the
engine maintenance isn’t done right.” That may seem irrational, but in this
game, perception, not the objective truth, matters most.
How one comprehends given information is all-important in public relations.
For decades, baby harp seals were bludgeoned to death by fur hunters, but
until the public saw the cute little critters up close and personal and
perceived the hunt as unacceptable, the problem didn’t exist. Before that, it
was a matter of trappers preserving their hardy way of life. The seals
ultimately hired the better publicist.
This also works in negative ways. The congressional check-bouncing scandal
was a case in which individual congressmen’s visibility skyrocketed, while
their credibility plummeted. The Tobacco Institute, a Washington-based
lobbying and P.R. outfit, spends its time and money claiming cigarettes are
okay. Nothing they do or say will ever make that true, but they may go a long
way in changing public perception of their product. A few years ago they
sponsored subliminally that no-smoking regulations infringe on our basic
liberties. How’s that for a P.R. stretch?
Ultimately, the goal of any public relations campaign is to either reorient,
or solidify, perception of a product, client, policy, or event. From there,
nature takes its course. If the public perceives the product as good, the movie
star as sexy, the pet rock as indispensable, then the public will fork over its
money. As the brilliant business author Dr. Judith Bardwick explained, “To be
perceived as visible increasingly means one is perceived as successful.”
Some may charge that stressing perception as reality is tantamount to
sanctioning falsehood. I disagree. As the great historian Max Dimont argued,
it didn’t matter if Moses really did have a chat with the Lord up on Mount
Sinai or not. What matters is that the Jewish people believed it and carved
their unique place in world civilizations because of it. Perception became
Likewise, on a more mundane scale, one will succeed in a P.R. campaign only
if the perception fostered truly resonates with the public. I do not believe
people are easily duped. You may try everything in your bag of tricks to get
the public to see things your way. You’ll pull it off only if the perception you
seek to convey fits the reality of the public, the reality of the times. As
Pretkanis and Eronson argue, credibility today is manufactured, and not
P.R. OR PUBLICITY?
Often, the terms “public relations” and “publicity” are used interchangeably.
They shouldn’t be. Publicity is only one manifestation of P.R.-specifically,
achieving notoriety through accumulated press exposure. A publicist knows
newspapers, magazines, and TV talk shows. Public Relations is much more
than that. The Public Relations expert is as well versed in human nature as in
editorial and sound bytes.
P.R. can be as macro as a campaign to persuade foreign governments so buy
U.S. soybeans, or as micro as a warm handshake. The notion that P.R. is
simply a matter of mailing press releases is nuttier than a squirrel’s
breakfast. As producer, manager, and publicist Jay Bernstein says, “P.R. is
getting a front table at the right restaurant, getting you invited to the right
party, and getting into first class with a tourist ticket.”
A man who has greatly affected my thinking, the esteemed business author
and lecturer Tom Peters, tells the story of a visit to a neighborhood
convenience store. “American Express was being a little user-unfriendly,”
Tom recalls, “and it took a good three minutes for my AMEX card to clear.
When it finally did, the cashier bagged my purchase, and as I turned to go
reached into a jar of two-cent foil-wrapped mints. He pulled one out,
dropped it in my bag, and said, ‘The delay you experienced was inexcusable.
I apologize and hope it doesn’t happen again. Come back soon.’ For two
cents, he bought my loyalty for life.”
This story is about one small business owner and only one customer, but it’s
a perfect example of good P.R. But what about bad P.R.? I doubt there’s
anyone on the scene who has mastered that dubious craft better than
sometime-billionaire Donald Trump. This is a man who has lost control of
his own gilded ship. His lurid infidelities, his profligate spending, his
precipitous fall from fortune, and, worst of all, his attempt to exploit the
Mike Tyson rape tragedy to promote a prize fight, collectively paint a portrait
of a thoroughly vulgar mind.
The Donald doesn’t care what you say about him, as long as you spell his
name right. True, whenever he opens his mouth or makes a move, the press is
all over him. But his massive celebrity has made him only a famous fool. You
are not likely to achieve the degree of fame that Mr. Trump has, but, given
his shameful image, I would congratulate you on that.
P.R. VS. MARKETING
With Guerrilla P.R. (and P.R. in general), you do not tell the public that your
new digital fish cleaner is the greatest invention since the dawn of time. You
could easily do that in an ad. Your goal is to lead people to draw that same
conclusion for themselves. Otherwise, you’re engaging in good old-fashioned-
or is it new-fashioned?-marketing strategy.
Companies often relegate public relations to their marketing departments.
That might make sense from a corporate point of view, but there’s a distinct
difference between P.R. and marketing. Going back to the “science vs. art”
analogy, whereas P.R. is the art, marketing is the science.
Bob Serling, President of the Stratford Marketing Group, an L.A.-based
marketing firm, has written, “Marketing is everything you do to make sure
your customers find out about, and buy, your products and services.” That’s
a tall order, and to go about filling it, marketing executives lug around a
hefty bag of tricks.
To a large degree, they rely on surveys, demographic analyses and
established sales and advertising procedures to accomplish their goals. But
in Public Relations, intangibles play a far greater role. How do you measure a
feeling? It’s not easy, but in P.R. we trade in the realm of feelings every day.
We may use the media as the vehicle, but the landscape we traverse is
contoured by human emotion.
Marketing often goes hand-in-hand with advertising. The undeniable
advantage with advertising is that the advertiser retains full control. He
knows exactly what his message will say and precisely when it will be seen.
But remember this little fact of life: most top ad agencies consider a 1-2
percent response rate a triumph. That’s all it takes to make them happy.
And, like it or not, most people don’t take ads as seriously as advertisers
would like. Everybody knows they’re bought and paid for.
I prefer the odds with major media exposure. True, you do lose a large
measure of control, and you never know for sure when or how your message
will be conveyed. But the public is far likelier to accept what it gleans from
the news media over what it sees in commercials. If Dan Rather says a new
sports shoe is a daring innovation, people will give that more credence than
if company spokesman Bo Jackson says it. The news, indeed the truth, is
what Dan Rather says it is.
So who tells Dan Rather what’s news? The media like to boast they rely on
ace newsgathering staffs; but in fact they depend a great deal on public
relations people. That doesn’t mean the journalists of America are saps.
They’re just looking for good stories. A hungry reporter and a smart publicist
is a match made in heaven, and it’s been that way since the dawn of the
FROM THE GUERRILLA P.R. FILE
In Amarillo, Texas, you’ll find the Big Texan Steak Ranch, where the owner
issues the following challenge:
If you can eat a seventy-two-ounce steak in an hour, you get it free. News of
the deal traveled far and wide, even to the skies where I first read about it in
an airline magazine.
GLORY DAYS: THE FOUNDING OF THE P.R. INDUSTRY
The public relations industry flourished with the growth of twentieth-century
mass media, although sensitivity to public opinion on the part of public figures
is nothing new. Even Abraham Lincoln got into the act, declaring once, “What
kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.” The fathers of modern P.R. knew
the value of simple images to convey powerful messages.
Edward Bernays, founder of modern P.R., defined his mission as the
engineering of consent. He was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and he strikes
me as having been just as perceptive about human nature as his esteemed
uncle. Bernays displayed a genius for concocting indelible images, something
good P.R. campaigns require. In one early triumph, he arranged for young
debutantes to smoke Lucky Strikes while strolling in New York’s 1929 Easter
Parade. What Bernays sold to the press as a bold political statement on
women’s rights was no more than a gimmick to sell cigarettes.
Pioneers like publicist/film producer A.C. Lyles set the pace for generations
of publicists to follow. Another innovator, Ivy Hill, is often credited with
inventing the press release. Hill believed telling the “truth” in journalistic
fashion would help shape public opinion. He sensed editors would not
dismiss press releases as ads, but rather would perceive their real news
value. He was right.
The publicist’s ability to appeal to newspapers proved invaluable to captains
of industry seeking to shore up their images. Back in the 1920s, Hill
masterminded industrialist John D. Rockefeller’s much-ridiculed habit of
handing out dimes to every child he met. Ridiculous but effective in its time.
(Imagine T.Boone Pickens trying that today.)
Occasionally, clients got less than they bargained for. In the late 1950s, the
Ford Motor Company hired P.R. trail-blazer Ben Sonnenberg to help overcome
the negative fallout from the Edsel fiasco. He charged Ford $50,000 for a
foolproof P.R. plan, and after three days submitted it in person. Sonnenberg
looked the breathless executives in the eye and intoned, “Do nothing.” With
that, the dapper publicist pocketed his check and walked out, much to the
slack-jawed shock of the Ford brain trust.
Even nations sometimes need help. During the 1970s, Argentina developed a
little P.R. problem when its government kidnapped and murdered thousands
of its own citizens. Buenos Aires hired the high-powered U.S. firm of Burson-
Marsteller to tidy things up. For a cool $1,000,000, the firm launched an
extensive campaign involving opinion-makers from around the world: a
stream of press releases stressed, among other things, the Argentine
regime’s record in fighting terrorism. Sometimes the truth can be stretched
until it tears itself in half.
I don’t wish to give the impression that P.R. is strictly a polite version of
lying. That’s not the case. As I said, P.R. is gift-wrapping. Whether delivered
in fancy or plain paper, truth is truth, and the public ultimately comprehends
it. The trick is packaging the truth on your own terms.
How often have you read about a big movie star storming off the set of a film
because of “creative differences” with the director? We all know the two
egomaniacs probably hated each other’s guts. But if the papers printed that,
we’d perceive the situation very differently. By our soft-pedaling the row with
words like “creative differences,” the movie star’s reputation remains intact,
even though intuition tells us he’s “difficult.”
MORE THAN ONE PUBLIC
Thus far, when referring to the public, I’ve generalized to mean the
population at large: We the People. The sophisticated modern art of P.R.
encompasses many more “publics” than that. In fact, selective targeting is a
primary tactic in sound P.R. strategies. As you will see, bigger is not always
Depending on the goals, a publicist could target any one of various business,
consumer, or governmental communities. An investor seeking financial backing
aims for the financial press and relevant trade publications. A rock musician
zeroes in on the local music rags. A lobbyist might need nothing more than a
friendly article in the Washington Post, a retailer only the residents of his
Though I’ve found a few clients easily dazzled by quantity, in P.R. quality is
what really counts. A seven-inch stack of press clippings means nothing unless
the objectives of the campaign have been met. The scrapbook makes a great
Mother’s Day gift, but I’d rather see my clients’ careers advanced in the
Figuring out which public to reach is one of the most critical decisions a
publicist makes. My orientation-and, I hope, yours-is geared toward the
most significant audience vis-à-vis your objectives, which is not necessarily
the widest. You may want to target the people you buy from, the people you
hope to sell to, the people you work for, the people that work for you, and so
on. It’s a big world full of little worlds when you look closely.
In most cases I spell out precisely who and what I’m going after, and then
proceed aggressively. Don’t go for the moon all at once. Set a goal, achieve
it, then build on that base. Any good planner knows the advantages of
thinking three steps ahead while proceeding one step at a time.
FROM THE GUERRILLA P.R. FILE
The history-making August 1991 revolution in the former Soviet Union
began when then-president Mikhail Gorbachev left Moscow for a vacation on
the Crimean Sea. Because the whole affair had a happy ending, everybody
laughed when, only a few days later, the president of an outdoor billboard
company in Detroit ran a series of large ads all over town reading: “Welcome
Back, Gorby! Next Time Vacation in Michigan.”
MICHAEL LEVINE’S TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR DEALING WITH MEDIA
Never be boring. Never!
Know your subject thoroughly.
Know the media you contact. Read the paper, watch the newscast.
Cover you bases.
Don’t just take “yes” for an answer. Follow up, follow through.
Never feel satisfied.
Always maintain your composure.
Think several moves ahead.
Be persistent, but move on when you’re convinced you’re getting nowhere.
Remember, this isn’t brain surgery. Don’t take yourself too seriously (like too
many publicists I know). Have fun.