Monday, July 26, 2010

Everything I needed to know about public relations I learned from Don Draper

Don Draper, the fictional ad man on AMC's "Mad Men," has previously expressed his disdain for public relations -- an attitude mirroring that held by many of his real-life counterparts. But last night's season four premiere was aptly titled "Public Relations," with Don and his colleagues finding some use for their profession's cousin. In the process, he provides a decent PR primer.

I had originally thought that Don's smack-down of the Jantzen swimwear execs was a stunt, in parcel with his subsequent interview with a Wall Street Journal reporter. But "Mad Men" series creater Matthew Weiner set me straight during an interview today on "Fresh Air." That scene, in which Don unveils a risque ad campaign he knows the straight-laced Jantzen boys will reject, was really about Don calling a spade a spade. Jantzen wants to pretend it isn't selling sex, even refusing to call its swimsuit a bikini, since bikinis are merely "underwear you wear to the beach." If they don't own up to what their product is really about, their competition is going to eat them alive, Don tells them.

That's lesson number one: Own your brand.

In reality, it was Peggy Olson who taught Don that lesson. After he chews her out for pulling off her own PR stunt, she reminds him that everyone in the new firm had put their future at risk to follow Don. They all wanted to please him. No matter how many other names are on the letter head, it's his firm, and he better start acting like it.

Which brings us to the next lesson. After blowing an interview with an Advertising Age reporter by refusing to answer the question, "Who is Don Draper?" -- a question, that, at its heart, Don really can't answer -- he gives the WSJ reporter an exclusive about how he convinced his partners and co-workers to flee Sterling Cooper to form the new agency. The reporter eats it up, and Don seems to relish the tale. Why shouldn't he? After all, it's his story, and for once, Don gets to tell the whole unadulterated truth.

That's lesson number two: The truth is the best kind of public relations.

Unfortunately, Don Draper and the truth have but a passing acquaintance.

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