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NFL, Walmart Fumbles Show Just How Tough PR Business Is

In an epic display of bad timing, this week marks the debut of the Museum of Public Relations, the New York institution where students of the discipline — if you can call it that — can access some 500 books and 100 hours of interviews.

It’s hard to remember a moment when the business of PR looked more off balance, its practices more inept. Edward L. Bernays, the smooth, cerebral PR pioneer honored at the museum, would be turning over in his grave if compelled to witness present practitioners.

The inability of the National Football League to build a bridge of credibility to its core constituency provides one vivid example of PR paralysis. There’s $5.3 billion in TV revenues alone at stake. On another level, David Tovar, the newly promoted top flack for giant Walmart — a man who has zealously attacked “mistakes” in the press — was forced to resign this week for faking his college resume.

Communication clumsiness is abundantly evident at the political level, too — witness the Obama Administration’s inability to articulate its Mideast policy. By comparison, is ISIS destined to win social-media awards at year’s end?

The phenomenon of PR ineptitude is readily apparent in the media and entertainment world as well. Sony Entertainment keeps apologizing and retreating in the face of Wall Street sniping, yet it now turns out that its film, TV and vidgame product represents the lone island of prosperity amid a seemingly doomed corporate parent that is expected to lose more than $2.5 billion this year. Warner Bros., which in April hired former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Meyers as its communications topper, discloses it will imminently fire as many as 1,000 studio employees, then promulgates a story in the New York Times in which its top executives declare that since most of the cuts will come outside the film and TV production orbit, the layoffs won’t be noticeable. If they aren’t noticeable, why are those about to be laid off working at the company to begin with? Its corporate parent, Time Warner, having spun off Time, now must deal with rumors of an HBO spinoff.

Given all this, the PR fraternity should embrace the new book titled “The Rise,” in which historian and Harvard fellow Sarah Lewis argues that failure represents a valuable life experience — “inventions … involve a path aided by the possibility of setbacks,” she writes. It’s a process PR folks are becoming good at. Indeed some press releases I’ve read lately are so badly constructed that they are saved only thanks to apps like Glyph or Wickr that instantly cause the words to self-destruct.

One key problem is that the biggest media entity is not the New York Times or Wall Street Journal but Google, observes one veteran practitioner, Michael Levine. “It’s a moving target,” he says. “It’s like stapling jelly to the ceiling.”

A top New York PR agent, Shelley Spector, created the Museum of Public Relations, because “we needed to tell the story of why public relations was meant to be practiced,” she notes. Spector’s icon, Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, argued that key precepts of the subconscious could be mobilized to fortify the art of persuasion.

His biggest client was the American Tobacco Co., which sought to induce more women to smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes. The brand was shrewdly positioned as a symbol of liberation for women, with the cigarettes portrayed as “torches of freedom” in ads. The campaign was a huge success. Bernays also was hired by the government to build public acceptance of entry into World War I — another dubious proposition, it could be argued.

Perhaps, then, those NFL players who are non-sociopathic would be best advised to buy a pack of Lucky Strikes. They’d be better served by freedom torches than by their league’s fumbling PR umbrella.

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