February 25, 2010
Salinger’s Lessons for PR
I was speaking with a friend recently regarding the passing of author J.D. Salinger. His initial comment – “How would anyone ever know?” – was both facetious and understandable. Notorious for guarding his privacy, Salinger is the opposite of many clients for whom we work – organizations eager to share their expertise and build their presence in their respective industries and among key constituencies.
While Salinger’s particular approach to his work and career was extreme for even the most publicity-shy among us, there is a lesson here for the communications field. There is a time to be visible and proactive, and there is a time to step back from the limelight. There are times to talk, and there are times to listen and observe.
The dark lore of media relations includes many a tale of publicity folk trying to keep clients out of a story or throw an investigative reporter off the scent. Naysayers aside, this kind of obfuscation has never been the true business of public relations – and is certainly out of style and out of place in today’s context of more radical transparency. But knowing when to ‘sit out’ a story, versus when to jump in, is as relevant today as at any time in the history of our industry.
Today’s business landscape is highly-competitive, just as the media environment is highly-fragmented. There is an ever-growing chorus of voices eager to be heard. And the ‘noise to value’ ratio is too often skewed in the wrong direction.
As counselors to our clients, PR professionals must be constantly on the lookout for times when we’re throwing just one more hat into a ring that’s already piled high – versus when we are truly positioning what our clients do, how they think and who they are in ways that add insights or relevance or ‘news’ to the mix. We need to maintain a steady focus on how a given offering is truly different from Company X down the street, because sometimes our ‘messages’ may not be as unique as we think – at least not to the average consumer. On those occasions, it’s time to take step back. We have got to be able to hear our own tune among and above the cacophony.
One of the places this is most evident is social media. Everyone has a Facebook page now and you’d be hard-pressed to find a major brand that isn’t tweeting. And while social media may make sense for many companies, it’s our job to evaluate the strategy behind each and every effort – and not just jump into the mix because we can. The ‘how’ must be always tied to the ‘why.’
No one wants to sit on the sidelines – no one, perhaps, except for the late Mr. Salinger. But our job is to help our clients write and shape their stories. And with that comes a responsibility to really work at knowing what those stories are, who should see them and when the time is right for them to be told.