Make good use of it

The last words of the Paul Giammati HBO movie mini-series, John Adams, are quoted from a 1777 letter that Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail:

Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.

The preservation of freedom is certainly a popular topic; ways and means are matters of debate. And just as Adams and Jefferson struggled to remain friends while taking different approaches to the challenge; so today certainty about the best means of preserving freedom remains elusive. The New York Times editorializes on the topic in response to President Obama’s speech in Cairo. When they write that in the content of Obama’s speech, “we recognized the United States”, I take it that the Times editors see in his actions a healthy balance that presses toward the good uses of freedom. I tend to agree, with provisos that are not in the scope of this article.

In the realm of public relations and marketing communications, the same principles remain open for discussion. How can we serve our clients, dispensing information in ways that benefit them, while serving the public or business audiences which we address?

The old joke that sales is the 2nd oldest profession is no longer a joke when advertising and PR practitioners earn reputations among the public near the bottom of the honesty scale, along with car salesmen and HMO managers, and worse than Congressmen and lawyers. In the 2007 study, we were down there with lobbyists, around 5 on a scale of 100. This year, it was up to 11. Lawyers are up to 18 and even journalists, that dying breed that Rush Limbaugh loves to castigate, enjoy a 26.

What advertisers and PR people need to do, it seems to me, is to play the integrity card with their clients. Instead of saying, “what do you want me to say on your behalf?” we should consistently listen to audiences, let them try products and listen to their feedback. Then translate their questions, disappointments, or ambivalence into intelligence we present to the client. We should refuse to call a sow’s ear a silk purse, even though in times past, when the consumers had little ability to impact the airwaves, we could do so with impunity. Or as Jen Houston wrote in a recent blog article, we should not put a dress on a pig. “We cannot just dress up the same old information, news, videos, and ideas and peddle it to audiences — they aren’t buying it. We owe them a new engagement paradigm — and a more authentic voice.” [Full disclosure: I hope one day to practice my trade with a team of people who hold those values.]

I would add that the value propositions have changed, and if I can continue Jen’s pork metaphor, what people want now is more bacon and less sizzle.

Content is King

Content is King

I chose to take this photo in front of some Queen Anne’s lace… [correction: Yarrow] inspired by 7th episode of HBO’s series on John Adams. He said,

I have seen a queen of France with eighteen million levers of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure, added to all the glitter of her jewels, did not impress me as much as that little shrub. [pointing to a Yarrow flower]

That’s where our audiences are heading. And not just the senior citizens. In fact, I would say from my work with college students that the Millennial generation more than their seniors want the real McCoy. They have an ear for authenticity and they use it to discriminate against hubris, hyperbole, exaggeration. It’s as though the whole culture is collectively maturing, wanting to hear straight talk, and sick of facing curve balls, spit balls, and sliders from “advertising practitioners” or “PR people”.

Suits me fine. I’ve been an early adopter several times in my life and I feel really good about seeing the communications business endure a shakeout that practically forces us to do the right thing. Let’s covenant to resign any client that doesn’t want us to tell the whole truth, and become a servant of excellence and evolution in product design and service offerings. And are we ready to do the heavy lifting of challenging the consumption goals, planned obsolescence, and  environmentally unsound packaging approaches of our clients? How about the poisons on the grass? The time-wasting, mind-numbing impact of certain programming or games? Are we willing to say (as I once had the opportunity of saying, but bit my lip), “With all due respect, the world does not need pizza in a tube”.

One of the benefits of the downturn is a seriousness, a concern about getting things right. This was what I saw in John Adams — refusing to applaud the historical inaccuracy of the painter of that grand fictional stylization of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that hangs in the Capitol rotunda. If we want to preserve our freedom, we need to have that kind of feisty regard for the facts. And if we don’t, even in our lowly work of pounding out words, pictures, and videos, we’ll find John Adams repenting at the pains he took to make freedom of speech so easy for us to misuse.


Authenticity on YouTube

From one of Mike Wesch’s students, Becky Roth, comes this documentary:

Near the end a college-age student asks, “As long as you know it’s fake, what difference does it make?” He seems to be in the minority: most folks want to feel like what they are watching is authentic.