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NEW YORK — Overlooking the simplest principle can cause many of the most complex business problems.
That straightforward premise forms the foundation of “Full Frontal PR” (Bloomberg Press), the latest book by flack and former journalist Richard Laermer, whose discursive, humorous voice makes for an unusually breezy read about working the media business. At the same time, Laermer imbues Full Frontal with a no-nonsense, primer-like sensibility: His advice regarding public relations ranges from the ongoing primacy of word-of-mouth, to the way in which information placed in a journalistic context trumps advertising as the most effective means to spread the word about a product or cause.
“Ads are so much a part of our lives that at this point we are jaundiced and always judgmental of them,” Laermer writes. “When we look at an ad…only rarely do we run out and immediately purchase the item. By contrast, the free press actually validates what you say about your product. No matter how cynical the reader is, he has a general predisposition to love what he reads — and best of all, to believe it’s for real. It is truly the most effective way to generate buzz.”
There’s more than a dash of self-interest in this view, of course, as p.r. people live and die by their media connections — and compete with advertising agencies for business. Laermer addresses this reality, in part, when he counsels fellow flacks to refrain from crossing the line between respecting journalists — or clients, for that matter — and sucking up. And he acknowledges the irony in his point of view by calling the press merchants of exposure.
One oft-overlooked fundamental Laermer fleshes out is the need for clients to know clearly and state simply what they want to convey in a p.r. campaign. Sounds like a no-brainer, but Laermer tells of countless client meetings when each executive responded differently when asked what they wanted to achieve with a particular campaign. That’s when things grind to a halt.
“Clients need to be able to say what they want to do in about 10 words,” Laermer insisted in an interview. (Clients of Laermer’s 12-year-old agency, RLM Public Relations, currently include Barnes & Noble, Allergan Pharmaceutical, Mandalay Pictures, ReedBusiness Info, and LookSmart.com.)
Yet another common hurdle for public relations to clear, Laermer writes, is a chief executive officer who’s a “press hog.” Referring to that breed, he cautions: “They think they can do it all themselves. Not only that, they think journalists are there to do them a favor — that’s the F word in this book.”
The antidote Laermer prescribes is creating “a ceo who can talk the straight poop.” A must-to-avoid, toxic syndrome, he adds, is the cult of personality, or the unproductive clatter that arises when a company’s media exposure revolves solely around “the nature of its ceo or other top management,” rather than its “true news hooks.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean talking loud — even if the message is saying something. Amid the escalating media cacophony, the best route to good word-of-mouth, Laermer advises, is from a whisper to a buzz. “In fashion, as in most businesses, it is the whisper that works,” he said Thursday. “Americans tend not to relax when they put their point across. A folded-arms attitude is a bad way to do p.r. It’s better to put your cards on the table in a way that you give of yourself.”
Then there’s the related matter of being truthful, and declining to exaggerate or speculate. It is far better, for credibility-building alone, to say when you don’t know something, rather than pretend, in a grab for public relations points. How wrong can things go when someone makes something up? Aiming to piggyback on the patriotism stirred by the Sept. 11 attacks, Steve Madden Ltd., Laermer writes, “told everyone in earshot” that it was giving proceeds from the sale of a sneaker, with stars-and-stripes beading, to New York’s recovery fund. “A few probing journalists quickly found out the donations were not being made and publicized that fact,” Laermer recounted. “No one bought the sneakers, and they were pulled from the shelves.”