Dick Clark with John Travolta on American Bandstand
Years ago I wrote a book titled SPIN MAN, before SPIN became a pejorative term . . . hey man, that true or you just spinning?
My spinful memoir was favorably reviewed by such celebrities at the time as Sally Jessy Raphael, Regis Philbin and the legendary Dick Clark, who started out in my hometown of Philadelphia hosting his cult-classic TV show, American Bandstand.
Clark helped many rock & rollers leap to stardom. One of them, John Travolta, I helped catapult into a TV star when he was in the ABC show Welcome Back, Kotter, one of many TV series I promoted when I was PR Director there working with the great TV impresario Fred Silverman.
When Fred became CEO of NBC, he brought me along with him and made me his Vice President, Assistant to the President. For a hectic while, I was way up there at 30 Rock before I parachuted from the precipitous sixth floor and started my own PR firm, acquiring such mega clients as AT&T, Drexel Burnham and The City of New York.
In SPIN MAN I said some things about the profession of public relations, which I believe are true today and bare repeating before we put PR too far up on some lofty pedestal.
Here’s a sample of what I observed about what I was doing for a living and I’m still at it as CEO of TransMedia Group, serving clients worldwide from tony downtown Boca Raton.
The Art of PR
If they’re not calling public relations, the art of something, they’re putting such a redeeming spin on what we do for clients that it sounds as if we’re working more for the public good than our client’s financial welfare. Then let this be a sobering departure from such pompous patting ourselves on our back. Let’s get real. Our job is to make money for our clients. Period. End of News Release.
The corporate client today is focused on increasing profits quarter after quarter, not on doing good deeds. The refined public television program brought to you by the magnanimousness of some energy company is giving way to people like yesteryear’s turnaround specialist, Chainsaw Al Dunlap.
Al would charge into a crowd of then Scott Paper employees like a scimitar-wielding Cossack, cutting them down like so much tissue clogging up the flow of dividends to shareholders. Today poor Al is barred from serving as an officer of a publicly traded corporation in the United States and his widespread layoffs and accounting frauds have put him on several lists of worst CEOs.
Pound of Exposure
Still, if they do anything in the public interest, today’s corporations want a pound of exposure for their ounce of giving, not to mention for every ounce of their publicist’s messaging.
Philanthropist David Rockefeller once said a company’s first obligation is to be lean and mean before it can be kind.
Before you give oxygen to a child when the pressure drops at 30,000 feet, you strap yours on first. And that, my friends is telling it honestly, in terms that are practical, not cynical. I’ve been in enough board rooms to know what I’m talking about.
Lest we become effete and irrelevant to what business and industry is all about public relations needs to help companies move products and services and grow their businesses, or else we become superfluous messengers.
And the chainsaw cometh for us too.
For effective PR, communications should be measured on a color scale from the fiery red of propaganda to the snow white of pure speak, then off the charts to the transparency of technitalk, intended to be ultra-clear and bias free.
But without tint, communications are dull and won’t do the job of promoting business. Dab them with color and they become alive and effective. If there’s any art to it at all, it’s the art of the tale. But don’t call it PR. My colleagues consider it a pejorative terms ie., Does he mean it or is it just a lot of PR? (Translation: Is it true or just bullshit?) As for myself, I kind of like the term.
Dust Thou Art, to Dust Returnest
Without the lite and life of truth within us, we’re no better than the dust we’re composed of, to which we shall return. But does coloring mean lying? No, I would never condone lying to the media, or even revoking their press passes. Sorry Mr. President. Not only is it wrong, it’s dangerously dusty to our democracy.
Yet should we tell the whole truth? Often in PR it’s neither wise nor kind. What you do tell should be the truth, however. Sure, we might stretch it a bit, color it and jazz it up, but I wouldn’t call that lying. But telling the whole truth about our clients? No sirree! That could be costly to our careers.
And reporters, listen up. I was once one of you, breaking my ass to get the strory for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Before we PR practitioners come to you, we’ve had plenty of sessions trying to decide which client’s foot to put forward. And which one’s best left in closet.
If you ferret them out, that’s fine. You win. Maybe you’ll win your Pulitzer. More likely, you’ll just dig up a smelly flat foot.