The New York Times recently published three fascinating articles, all dealing with different aspects of public relations.
The first, “Need Press? Repeat: ‘Green,’ ‘Sex,’ ‘Cancer,’ ‘Secret,’ ‘Fat,’” practically blows up PR secrets by showcasing which words are likely to receive pickup. Most people who follow the news today know that anything green is hot (so much so that there is information overload), and sex and health are pretty much standbys, but those popular adjectives of “better, faster, stronger” (like the Kanye West song) are also golden, provided the information is true. The idea is to strike a balance so that the information is newsworthy but not hyperbole, not dull and businesslike but easy to understand. It’s also funny to note that the celebrity world revolves around “baby,” “breakup,” “marriage,” and “divorce”; the particular names filling in the sentence make it fun.
This isn’t a story the Times would traditionally run, tucking it away on a Tuesday. The case study the article opens with, on toxic shower curtains, was not only picked up by ABCNews and a host of other outlets, but the PR machine became the story. “Toxic shower curtains” had legs because it tied something commonplace with a fear—always a sure bet when it comes to getting attention. That’s why terrorists hit shopping malls and subways; they are places everyone goes, and they are part of routines.
Speaking of routines, Sunday’s paper gave us “Warning: Habits May Be Good for You”, which quickly shot up to be one of the Times’ most e-mailed articles. It discusses the marriage of public health campaigns and industry, combining sophisticated marketing techniques with social causes. One reason new products succeed is because they become ingrained as habits, as a necessity. The bottle water revolution is one of them. Certain cues trigger a craving, which is why beer commercials nowadays feature groups of friends and candy bars are marketed as a pick-me-up, not as a special treat. Cravings, when tied to habits, are often thought of as bad, like in terms of smoking, but now the same science is working towards connecting positive ideas and cues with beneficial products.
Doing PR for good causes isn’t new, but it’s something that’s been gaining traction as corporations have begun to see how their reputation is affected by how they act with the rest of the world, not just in their corporate bubble. Fox News is a lesson in negative PR. They now have quite a reputation, not just for being right-leaning (to put it mildly), but also for being a bully. Fox News' slogan of “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report. You Decide” is widely mocked, and Stephen Colbert’s whole show is based upon an exaggeration of their philosophy. David Carr’s July 7 column talks of smear campaigns taken on by the network’s PR machine, all because they are so afraid of being viewed negatively (ha!) that they go all militantly defensive. But even excusing the media and liberals’ own issues with Fox News, their aggressive tactics have backfired, causing many of their accomplishments to be underreported, therefore denying them the legitimacy they seek. Quite a catch-22. Politically, their hard-line approach to topics have made them winners in the ratings race for a long time, but by acting the same way with the media, as if they are always the losers, it has effectively killed positive coverage of their organization. Engaging other reporters and trying to set the story straight—as accurately and fairly as possible—is key, not bludgeoning a narrow agenda to death.
Brian Lewis, the head of the public relations department at Fox News, points out that with the media being an all-encompassing vehicle now, with blogs and 24-hour coverage, it is necessary to be engaged and active. True, but that does not mean tampering or trying to stranglehold negative coverage, because that is only going to mar a company’s reputation; it means working to damper the bad news while acknowledging the criticisms that fueled the story in the first place. While Fox News maintains that it is its politics that separate them from the competition, it is also their tactics, and sometimes they mix the two of them up--a line that should always be demarcated.