Friday, August 8, 2008

What is Publicity Anyway? (#2 in a series)

Now that is a good question.

According to Wickedpedia, "Publicity is the deliberate attempt to manage the public's perception of a subject."

In essence, publicists are like Svengalis... villainous hypnotists. Dang, who knew? All this time I was under the impression - based on six years of college and 28 years of practice - that publicity is, as Merriam-Webster defines it:

1: the quality or state of being public
2 a: an act or device designed to attract public interest; specifically: information with news value issued as a means of gaining public attention or support b: the dissemination of information or promotional material

Yeah, okay, so that's not the same thing.

According to the perennial college textbook, “Effective Public Relations,” by Scott Cutlip, Allen Center, and Glen Broom, "Publicity and other communication tactics are not the defining framework for the profession, but merely the tools used to accomplish its larger objective of relationship building and maintenance." Relationship building and maintenance? That sounds more like the job of that newfangled online PR. Maybe these guys never heard of Edward L. Bernays!

Not just the father of public relations, but the nephew of Sigmund Freud as well. And according to his obituary (he died in 1995 at the age of 103): "Mr. Bernays was one of the first people to expand what had been a narrow concept of press agentry, or working to influence government policy, into a far more ambitious -- and controversial -- realm of seeking to influence and change public opinion and behavior." And hey, here is an interesting side note you might not be aware of, Bernays was instrumental in making it acceptable for women to smoke in public.

Now that's more like it... more evil, more insidious.

Then I found this definition provided by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD: "Publicity is mention in the media. Organizations usually have little control over the message in the media, at least, not as they do in advertising. Regarding publicity, reporters and writers decide what will be said." What?! Reporters and writers and editors actually think for themselves and decide what will be communicated? This is heresy!

Clearly I am getting nowhere fast. I need one authoritative source to provide an acceptable definition and position we can all live with... One that will clarify what publicity really is - a useful strategic tool for communicating news and information or a diabolical, magical potion for duping the unsuspecting and weak minds of our society.

How about a Supreme Court Justice? Louis Dembitz Brandeis was also an American litigator, advocate of privacy and developer of the Brandeis Brief in Muller v. Oregon (This was the first instance in the United States that social science had been used in law and changed the direction of the Supreme Court and of U.S. law. The Brandeis Brief became the model for future Supreme Court presentations). Anyway, here is what Brandeis had to say:

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

Sounds to me like he thought publicity was a good thing. And it is. In the world according to Jim, "Publicity involves primarily the development and maintenance of databases, the documentation of news or information and the subsequent distribution of that news or information to relevant audiences.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe."

That is - in its simplest form - what publicity is, letting people know the facts. Unfortunately, it's never quite that simple.

In the next post we'll address "publicity in practice" and how, when integrated with media relations, it can be an amazingly effective tool that serves the good of clients, the media and the public.

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