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Don Draper and PR

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you know that AMC’s hit show “Mad Men” has returned for its fourth season. And wouldn’t you know it, the first episode of the season was entitled “Public Relations.”

For the uninitiated (all six of you), “Mad Men” is about advertising in Manhattan in the 1960s. This season is about new beginnings, with the core of the cast having left their old firm to establish a new one, before their old haunts were bought out by McCann Erickson. So the new season starts with main protagonist Don Draper — one-fourth of the nascent Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising firm — being interviewed by Advertising Age and being, for want of a better term, a bit of jerk.

Of course, that leads to a lousy article that, later in the episode, indirectly causes his fledgling firm to lose a major account. His fellow partners, particularly senior partner Bert Cooper, urge him to pitch himself to other publications — perhaps, Cooper says, to his man at the Wall Street Journal. Don’s curt response is that his work, by damn, should speak for itself. Why does he have to spend time courting hack writers for trade publications?

But by the end of the episode, he begins to see the writing on the wall. After a presentation for a nervous client goes south, he’s forced to shed the attitude that his work, and his work alone, should speak for itself. In short, Don came to the realization that reputation management was an invaluable part of his responsibilities in growing and sustaining his enterprise. So, moments after the climactic office run-in with the clients, Don stomps from the conference room and snaps to his secretary: “Get me Bert Cooper’s man at the Wall Street Journal.”

And, in a nice piece of symmetry, the episode’s final scene shows Don, humble and engaging, charming the writer from the Journal. We’re left to assume that the subsequent article would gush about the new firm. Bottom line, even the great Don Draper had to learn the value of getting some good press.

Hey, we love “Mad Men” for its style, writing and complexity alone. But we really love it when it’s making some of the same points we do right here on this blog. To wit:

Public relations = more bang for the buck. What are the benefits of public relations? Ask Don Draper. His lousy interview with Advertising Age caused at least one client, after seeing the dour piece, to pull their million-dollar account. Instead of creating a nice buzz about their agency, they got a disgusting thud.

Meanwhile, in the same episode, Don’s protege, Peggy Olson, orchestrates a stunt to get client Sugarberry Hams’ product flying off the shelves. She pays two actresses a pittance to go to a local store and pretend to fight over one of the hams. It results in a news article that gets wide play. The Sugarberry people, none the wiser, love the results. OK, OK, questionable ethics aside, here’s the larger point: A well-placed news story that puts your product in a good light is priceless.

But be honest. The Sugarberry ham example, though, shouldn’t be misconstrued to mean we think you should construct a ridiculous exaggeration of yourself or your work to present to the media. In the long run, it won’t work: In the age of savvy news reporters and readers, authenticity is the only viable route. Sure, the Sugarberry ham trick got some short-term bang for its buck. Problems still persisted with Peggy’s stunt, though — and we suspect there may be more trouble in the future from it — simply because it wasn’t honest.

Don, meanwhile, was tone-perfect during the Journal interview at the end of the hour. It was clear he truly believed in what he was saying — he was being straight-up with the reporter, and he was being true. We’re pretty sure Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will get their coveted framed article at its office entryway now.

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Here’s one instance where you should not try to be like Don. Never go into an interview cold, and always practice and hone your story. Let me say that again: Never go into an interview cold. Practice and hone your story. Our hero had to learn this the hard way … but by the time Don was sitting with the Journal reporter, he was again the suave, cool cat who is used to owning the boardroom. This is mainly because he knew the story he wanted to tell, recognized how that narrative cast his agency in a desirable light, and carried it out relentlessly in the interview. He drove the discussion instead of being reactionary and evasive.

There are a ton of tips and tricks to offer when contacted by the media, and if you or your department or college hasn’t been through a media-training session, seriously consider scheduling one. But, those tactics and skills are all are still predicated on one principle: Before you sit down with the journalist, you must work through what story it is that you wish to convey. The rest is just details.

One last thing. When it was over, we found ourselves wistfully wishing that it was still that easy to pick up the phone, call the Wall Street Journal, and BAM — get a story placed. We’ll have to work on that.

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