#DonDraper, Media Relations Myth and the Future of Public Affairs

What kind of employee would Don Draper hire in 2013?

Would the “Mad Men” advertising genius look for the skills of 1964 or something a little more contemporary? As my wife and I continue our “Mad Men” marathon in season four, I often compare that era to today.

For example, as he’s trying to pitch a new angle for the now defunct Mohawk Airlines, print and radio ads were advertising gold, the standard tools by which success was measured for getting the word out. But today? A hasthtag would likely be one of his first thoughts.

So as I sometimes see job openings in the public affairs arena, why are so many (by my unscientific count through periodic glances in recent weeks leading up to this post) senior level positions so focused on media relations? I’m amused by this continued trend that public affairs officers, especially in government, need to have umpteen years of experience dealing with the media.

Hogwash (to use a technical term).

The media don’t really want the help of a public affairs person most of the time. Sure, journalists may need assistance to get an interview or to get some facts and perspective, but most journalists worth their byline would – and should – bypass public affairs and focus on the angle they’re interested in. That may be uncomfortable for some to read, but I believe the hand holding that often accompanies a journalist’s call represents a failure to imagine a new future of public affairs.

We need good journalists in our communities, but independent of their existence, senior level positions should advertise for someone who knows search engine optimization. Or hashtags. Or, perish the thought, some coding experience. Or how to first execute the elements to post and then analyze Facebook Insights like this below (which is Facebook’s new per post metrics view):

Facebook metrics screenshot

As a public affairs profession, we can have impact, too, by talking, engaging and interacting directly with our communities. These skills of 2013 that Don Draper would look for are much more relevant and useful than hoping a journalist will cover your story the way you want it through a press release littered with useless quotes that required five people to approve. Journalists can be good amplifiers of messages during emergencies or for human-interest stories, but in today’s world, organizations are broadcasters/publishers, too.

No, we’re not journalists and I would be “sinning” against my undergraduate journalism education if I equated the two, but senior executives at organizations need to realize the alleged art of media relations is dying. The art of engaging directly with your community is rising and you need senior-level experience to respond to the future rather than stay stuck in the past with media relations as a dominant determinate of success.

Social media, customer experience, web design, SEO and other digital duties shouldn’t be relegated to mid-level people while senior level folks “handle” the media. That’s a structure I’ve seen for years in many organizations and many recent job ads perpetuate this notion.

The whole public affairs enterprise needs a different focus if we want to remain relevant to the people we serve rather than becoming more irrelevant to journalists who have a different purpose.

Mohawk Airlines would fire Don Draper today if he presented an entire campaign focused on media articles, radio buys and print ads. Media relations should not dominate today’s public affairs landscape, which is a difficult fact for many senior executives to digest.

That era, along with Mohawk Airlines, has passed.

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4 comments on “#DonDraper, Media Relations Myth and the Future of Public Affairs

  1. A good analysis. But, perhaps, markets and market needs differ from region to region. D.C. is a big league; would media relations still matter heavily in much smaller media markets?

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  4. Three thoughts based on recent experiences in our medium sized market (1 rather local though a national event – Sandy, and 2 a completely unique situation with international focus we never expected – three young women found alive after 10 yrs):

    First, you’ve GOT to know both and/or have the depth of people with the necessary skills to pull from to sustain a few weeks of round the clock action.

    Second, on a daily basis the “different focus” is indeed a necessity just to be a part of the conversation and to get that critical, unfiltered feedback!

    Third, that “different focus” on a daily basis can make life much easier when the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan, the rumors are spinning, and the calls are coming a mile a minute from all directions.

    It only takes one incident to get thrown in with the big dogs, even in a small town, and whether those dogs are the pitbulls of journalism or the wolves of publics you never knew were paying attention, you’ll have to somehow manage them all.

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