A little perspective, please

I always get a kick out of the fact that every other PR person I meet represents an entity that's invariably the "second largest" something, somewhere.

Sometimes we in PR lose perspective. For starters, I always get a kick out of the fact that every other PR person I meet represents an entity that's invariably the “second largest” something, somewhere. As in “we're the third largest manufacturer of industrial carpeting in the world,” or “we're the nation's biggest reseller of organically generated methane gas.”

The statement is delivered without irony, and always with a dose of pride.

And then there is the publicity obsession. When I was an AE at Ruder Finn in the early '80s, I had lunch one day with some old-timers who were swapping war stories. One SVP recounted how he had staged a publicity event for a prominent watchmaker to promote an ad campaign with the tagline: “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” To dramatize the tagline, they'd contracted for a live lion to accompany several models who were wearing the new watches. It seems things went awry at the press event. The lion grew agitated by the flood of lights and attendant commotion, and promptly bit one of the models.

“It was awful,” the SVP said. “Blood everywhere.” He paused. “But we got great publicity.”

I have my own morbid story that illustrates my struggle with publicity addiction, and while I'm a little embarrassed to share it, I feel compelled to do so. About 10 years ago, I created a publicity campaign for SunAmerica, which was in the retirement savings business. More specifically, it was the third-largest seller of variable annuities in the country. Now to provide some context, in the Olympics for difficult products to publicize, those touting annuities would win the gold.

Anyway, to get around the fact that discussing variable annuities on TV has been clinically proven to be better than Ambien for putting people to sleep, we hired three ex-child stars to go on the talk-show circuit. The ex-stars would first recall how they'd managed to blow all of their money, and then explain how important it is to work with a financial advisor in selecting safe, secure investments – like annuities – in planning for retirement.

The campaign seemed like a sure bet. We had “Eddie” from the Courtship of Eddie's Father, “Timmy” from Lassie, and Paul Petersen from The Donna Reed Show. Eddie had squandered his nest egg on cars, an around-the-world surfing trip, and a lot of drugs. Timmy came of age before drugs really kicked in, so he just didn't plan well; and Paul had actually started a foundation to help former child actors who had hit upon hard times. We almost hired Gary Coleman, but he was deemed too controversial.

Anyway, the publicity effort kicked off with a major piece in the LA Times that couldn't have been more positive. Following the opening article, we had two solid weeks of talk shows booked. It appeared the campaign was a runaway success.

The morning after the Times piece ran, I was working out when CNN carried a breaking news flash that John and Carolyn Kennedy's plane crashed. My first thought: “How tragic.” My second thought (here's the embarrassing part): “There goes our publicity campaign.”

In fact, I was right. The tragedy dominated the news and virtually all of our talk-show appearances were canceled. My CEO, a cantankerous billionaire, was not pleased with the minimal results and wanted to know what happened.

So like any good corporate guy, I blamed the agency.

Don Spetner is EVP of corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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