Are we living in the 'Mad Men' era of PR?

As my Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds erupt with stories on how 'Mad Men' may set new records at the Primetime Emmys, it gives reason to pause and think about the show and the era it captures - the "Golden Age of Advertising."

As my Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds erupt with stories on how Mad Men may set new records at the Primetime Emmys, it gives reason to pause and think about the show and the era it captures - the “Golden Age of Advertising." It's also worth considering how the subject matter is relevant to today's PR industry, particularly within the context of the current transformative media environment.

When Mad Men's fifth season recently concluded, viewers were left with Don Draper alone at a bar, on the verge of making a decision that could jeopardize his already shaky second marriage. The scene delivers against an underlying theme of the show – the struggle of adjusting to change – and Draper is dealing with the challenge of being a man of the 1950s married to a woman of the 1960s. The scene is punctuated by its clever subtleties – Draper aptly drinks an Old Fashioned, Nancy Sinatra's “You Only Live Twice” is the musical score.

As the backdrop for Mad Men, show creator Matt Weiner chose 1960s America, a time of profound cultural and political change and the shattering of many norms:  race, gender, fashion, and – here's the PR connection – media consumption.

The glamorous lifestyle that Draper and his contemporaries enjoy results from their talent for marketing through a medium that was then still in the process of revolutionizing the way Americans consumed information and made purchase decisions – TV.

Fast forward to 2012 – a time when social media has transformed the media landscape, hastened the news cycle, and heightened the impact of PR. Just as the 1960s are looked back on as the “Golden Age of Advertising,” many have been saying, some for years, that we're living in the “Golden Age of PR.”

There are articles written daily, admittedly many by PR pros, on how the PR profession is uniquely suited for a medium that's a two-way dialogue and that PR stands to benefit the most as the lines become increasingly blurred between earned and paid media.

The reality is that it is far from a given that PR will continue to drive social media.  In order to own this mantle and win the “turf war” between the various disciplines, we must continue to mature as an industry.

Measurement, analytics, and transparency will help take us there. One of the great benefits of social media is that it has increased our ability to more clearly measure the efficacy of our work across a range of metrics. Of course, the flip side is that it is also much clearer when a campaign has failed. This is healthy – for the PR industry to continue to mature and establish its value as a strategic discipline, we must be able to show our worth and have the confidence to acknowledge failure but never accept it.

We must also strike the right balance between embracing change and disciplining ourselves and the organizations we represent from chasing the newest, greatest shiny object. In our ever-evolving media environment, new mediums and technologies seem to be emerging every week. There will be times to take “big bets” on new mediums but make them smart bets – backed by research and analytics and within the framework of an overarching strategy.

With all these new tools and resources in our hands, our success will lay in our ability to craft multi-layered communications programs designed to afford us the ability to move nimbly – to maximize successes but also to admit when a program is failing and to have the ability to recalibrate accordingly. 

Years from now, it may indeed be said that this decade was the “Golden Age of PR” – our Mad Men era. But the reality of the moment is that we're still writing our future as an industry. It's not an exaggeration to say that the direction and long-term health of our profession will be significantly impacted by the decisions we make today as professionals. 

Our growth as an industry will rely on our ability to capitalize on success, acknowledge and overcome failure, and navigate through an environment where change is the only constant. As Don Draper once remarked, “Change isn't good or bad. It just is.”

Joe Cohen, APR, is SVP at MWW and a member of the National Board of Directors of the Public Relations Society of America.

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