MAD WOMEN: PR Is Not Publicity

MAD WOMEN logo/name/likeness by Sasha H. Muradali. 2009 All Rights Reserved.

By: Gini Dietrich, guest blogger

Like Sasha Muradali, I am a huge Mad Men fan.

I love the storyline, the characters, the old days of advertising, the three martini lunches, and the clothes…oh the clothes!

While, I love the series, the first episode of this season really rubbed me the wrong way.

{Spoiler alert: If you’re not yet watching season four, stop reading now!}

If you are, however, caught up and saw the first show of this season, you’ll remember Pete fretting to Peggy about losing the Sugarberry Ham account.

Peggy suggests they hire actresses to fight over a ham in the grocery store, in order to create a sense of urgency to buy one.

Pete, liking the idea of generating news coverage from the “event,” dismally proclaims that publicity stunts aren’t billable.

However, he reluctantly agrees to go ahead with the stunt only to be pleasantly surprised when Sugarberry Ham sales are up…though not even the client knows the reason.

… And so was born public relations – in which clients begin to pay for publicity stunts.

Publicity is not PR.

PR is not publicity.

I remember when “Wag the Dog” came out.

I was only a year or so into my career and not even I could explain what I did.

But that movie helped so many people “understand” what we do. My mom called and said,

“OH! So that’s what you do.”

Umm, no.

Shows like Sex & the City, PoweR Girls, and SPINdustry (as Sasha blogged about here) do nothing more than sensationalize what we do for a living…and in a fairly harmful and untruthful way.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never created a fake fight over a ham, a fake war to distract from indiscretions, created hype over a celebrity who was coming to an opening only to “back out” at the last minute, or allowed a client to spin the truth, just to make headlines.

I’m so much against this idea of our profession, in fact, that I have an entire blog dedicated to how much Spin Sucks.

The idea that no PR is bad PR is ridiculous, as evidenced by the most recent news with BP, Tiger Woods, LeBron James…need I go on?

There is such a thing as bad PR.

There is such a thing as spin.

There is a difference between nightclub openings, the paparazzi, and pairing celebrities with brands. This is publicity.

And it’s not what most of us in the public relations profession do for a living.

The problem is so much of what we do is invisible to the ‘outside’ (and even those within close proximity.)

People can confuse public relations with its end product.

While, I am positive a lot is wrong with the way Mad Men portrays the advertising agencies, let’s get real here.

Public relations and publicity are not synonymous. However, many PR campaigns include means for publicity.

Publicity spreads information to gain public awareness, typically via an advertising campaign (or stunt), for a product, person, service, cause or organization.

It is the child of effective public relations planning. Not the other way around.

‘Spin,’ on the other hand, that’s propaganda:-

“The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.”

– (Edward L. Bernays, “The Engineering of Consent”, 1947)

Public relations is about two-way communication and engagement. It is a social science that manages communication between an organization and its publics, not to mention that it provides an organization, or individual, exposure to their target audiences.

Encompassing social media, it bridges the gap between advertising, marketing and journalism.

Public relations was created by Edward Bernays, not by a bunch of girls in mini-skirts and too-tight shirts, not by celebrity-seeing junkies, not by a girl who is famous for a sex tape, and certainly not by an advertising agency in the 1960s.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and chief executive officer of Arment Dietrich, Inc., a firm that uses non-traditional marketing in a digital world.

The author of the award-winning Spin Sucks (@SpinSucks), Gini has delivered numerous keynotes, panel discussions, coaching sessions, and workshops across North America on the subject of using online technology in communication and marketing.

Copyright © 2009-2010 Sasha H. Muradali. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Well-said, Gini! I couldn't agree with you more. A fan of Mad Men myself, I was excited to see the season opener but was dinged about how they framed PR as a sensational publicity stunt. The other, less obvious hint at PR was the fallout of Don Draper's interview with Ad Age, which I felt was more akin to the PR issues most practicioners face. While fiction makes for entertainment, it doesn't always reflect reality.

  2. Krista, I loved the “you fix this” from Roger Sterling about the AdAge fall-out and Peggy's snide remark about them not being the ones to hurt the firm's reputation. You're right – that is more akin to public relations.

  3. Krista and Gini, I loved that part of the episode, too, because it's more like the issues we encounter every day. And the confusion around “publicity” vs. “public relations” is why I dislike the term “publicist.” It's about communication, strategy, engagement. Great post–maybe now someone will actually understand what I “do.” 🙂

  4. Gini, Been meaning to watch Mad Men but somehow let it slip past me, but I understand what you're saying.

    I did watch SATC enough to hate that Samantha was “in PR” when in my opinion, she was more of a celebrity publicist. Big difference. Loved Wag the Dog, satire that again… is so not PR.

    Publicity can be earned by public relations campaigns, but it's so much more than that. It's the publics, the target audiences of customers, investors, employees, bloggers, media.. goes on and on. It's those relationships that are critical to a company's success.

    I'm a strong advocate of integrated marketing communication, how advertising, social media and public relations can work together to achieve communication and engagement.. to accomplish business goals of a brand or company. And that is so much more than just publicity.

  5. Toni Antonetti says

    Great post! I'm a huge Mad Men fan, too and agree that most stunts are not strategic and are ill-advised. Covered on a blog post, too:

  6. Davina – OMG! You have to watch Mad Men! It’s the best show on television. Rent the first three seasons on DVD. You won’t be disappointed. Also, we are in total agreement about integrated marketing programs that affect business growth, not just brand awareness.

  7. Davina – OMG! You have to watch Mad Men! It's the best show on television. Rent the first three seasons on DVD. You won't be disappointed. Also, we are in total agreement about integrated marketing programs that affect business growth, not just brand awareness.

  8. BFF – like I said on Facebook, I'll be curious to hear if this post helps people understand! 🙂

  9. Toni – I'd guess the way they portray advertising makes the industry angry, too. Otherwise it's not great television, huh?

  10. I am a huge Mad Men fan as well. And chuckled a little at the publicity stunt to sell hams. I think it also begs the question about who should be managing the public relations efforts. There are some great advertising agencies out there that, recognizing the value of public relations for their clients, have in-house teams of professionals managing those efforts. In the case of Mad Men, is the advertising copywriter and advertising account executive really the best ones to deliver this?

  11. Well, clearly they are, Abbie! I mean, they invented it!

  12. Like I have time for that much TV 😉 Kidding, it's on the list… sorta waiting for it to hit Hulu (time shifting, multi-tasker) or maybe when it's over, buy the complete series.

    WORD to PR being about business growth, not JUST brand awareness. That's why stunts are just that, stunts. Show me long term, when the brand takes it to the next level and maintains it (thinking the clever @OldSpice campaign) over the long haul.

  13. Great post, Gini! Surprisingly, a lot of people still don't understand the difference between publicity and public relations. There are a lot of reasons for this problem — shows like SPINdustry, a lack of knowledge within the profession (the main problem) and there not being a clear definition of PR. As a recent PR grad, I'm glad my professors made sure I understood the difference. Through my organization of choice (PRSA), I will work hard to help others understand the difference.

  14. A great debate and post Gini. My sense is we shouldn't tear our hair out about TV “entertainment.” We'll never educate or convince the average sit com viewer that PR is a serious business. They don't care about our profession. They're looking for fast food TV. That'd be like lifeguards being upset about Pamela Anderson not representing them accurately on Baywatch. I opt to just change the channel. Oh, and having started as a copywriter, I really like Mad Men. Regards.

  15. Kion, wasn't it Ghandi who said be the change you want others to make? Love that you're working hard to help others understand what we do for a living!

  16. Oh Jeff. I totally agree. You're right that TV is made for entertainment purposes. It just drives me batty that every time a TV program or a movie romanticizes our business, it's flat out wrong. The bigger issue is when you interview a newly graduating student for a job and they have the perception of the job being how TV portrays it. Hopefully more universities are educating students on the industry, like Kion illustrates below.

  17. News flash: Edward Bernays didn't invent PR. He was a philosopher of PR.

  18. News flash: Edward Bernays didn't invent PR. He was a philosopher of PR.