The roles of skepticism and persuasion in PR

January 24, 2012

Years ago, before the era of all things digital, an entrepreneur came to me with an enchanting idea. At the time, CD drives were rare and exotic extravagances. As is often the case with new technologies, few of us realized how omnipotent, and eventually antiquated the CD-ROM would become.

But his dream was to make CD-ROM gaming available to the masses by opening walk-in gaming centers where consumers would buy time to play on massive CD-ROM servers.

Oh, how naïve were we, now that gaming is streamed in real time to your iPad and available on cable TV. But back then, CD-ROMs cost thousands of dollars, games hundreds, and playing Freddie Fish was the rarest of treats for young children. To bring his idea to fruition, he partnered with Intel, built a beta store, and turned to us for media coverage of the idea in advance of franchising.

The media loved the story — a way to bridge the digital divide and allow anyone with a few dollars to rent time to play CD-ROM games, a luxury out of the reach of most families at the time. We intrigued Inc. magazine to do a profile. It gushed in every way, until the second to last paragraph when an analyst suggested that someday CD-ROMs would come pre-installed on personal computers, a threat to any business model that defies Moore’s Law.

The client was furious. How dare I allow the media to include even a whiff of negativity? he attacked me. I explained all that is controllable and uncontrollable once you enter the arena of media relations. But then, I let him in on the real power of public relations.

I explained that the reporter’s single, short, skeptical paragraph was more valuable to our cause than the article’s pages of glowing hyperbole. By presenting a negative, the reporter revealed himself to be an objective third party, thereby strengthening and validating his positive review of the concept.

And that served as the real power of persuasion. No one believes an advertisement. But most of us believe an article that is written by someone willing to do the optics and see the full spectrum of positives and negatives, and then fall clearly on our side of the argument.

No use. The client argued that one paragraph overwhelmed pages of positives. The relationship lasted about as long as the pay-to-play CD-ROM gaming industry.

Yet, I often think back on the experience as a seminal realization of the value in what we do as public relations professionals. The dance we do relies on the skills and steps of our partners. They must lead, and when they do, and dance well, presenting the balanced and fair, we see our greatest triumph as PR professionals.

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