Guerrilla PR- Chapter One

Alma L. Figueroa


Thirty years ago, Marshall McCluhan, the father of modern

communications, wrote the immortal words, “The medium is the message.”

Today I would amend that to, “The medium is the media.” Our civilization is

utterly dominated by the force of media. After our own families, no influence

holds greater sway in shaping the text of our being than do the media that

cloak us like an electronic membrane.

We all think of ourselves as unique, unlike any person past or present.

Indeed, what gives human life its divine spark is the distinct quality of every

individual. Yet in many ways we are all the same. The task of market

analysts, pollsters, and demographers is to identify those characteristics we

share, and group us accordingly. If you are in your early forties, male,

Caucasian, a father of two, earn $50,000 or more, and listen to a Top 40

radio station, there are total strangers out there who know an awful lot about


That’s because they understand a lot about your upbringing. They know

you watched “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the fifties, “The Man From

U.N.C.L.E.” in the sixties, “Saturday Night Live” in the seventies, became

environmentally conscious in the eighties, and were probably sorry ABC

canceled “Thirtysomething” in the nineties. They’ve got your number because

they understand the role the media have played in your life from the moment

you Boomed as a Baby.

Today, in America, we tune in to over 9,000 commercial radio stations, 1,100

television stations, 11,000 periodicals, and over 11,000 newspapers with a

combined circulation of nearly seventy million. These are the sources of our

opinions on everything from nuclear disarmament to Madonna’s love life.

Nobody likes to be told what to think, but all of us, every single day, are told

precisely what to think about.

As Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson show in their insightful book, Age of

Propaganda, the mass media are most effective in terms of persuading the

public for two primary reasons. First, they teach new behavior and, second,

they let us know that certain behaviors are legitimate and appropriate. So, if

the media are encouraging certain buying patterns, fashion trends, modes of

thinking, the unstated message we receive is “It’s okay for me to like that,

do that, feel that.” In this way, our culture evolves, is accelerated, and


Like the transcontinental railroad of the last century, the media link every

city, gully, farmhouse, and mountaintop in North America. Regionalism is

fading. The American accent is more uniform; our penchant for migration

and blending in is like the smoothing out of a great national blanket. We are

fast becoming one.

A common grammatical error occurs when people say “The media is” rather

than “The media are” (“media” being the plural of medium”). Yet I sense

people who say “the media is” are on to something. They perceive the many

arms of the media-TV, newspapers, radio, etc.-as part of one monstrously

monolithic creature. The media are “one” too.

Consider “Baby Jessica” McClure, for whom my firm donated public

relations services. Jessica was the toddler from Midland, Texas, who fell down

a narrow pipe in her backyard in 1987. For thirty-six hours, America was

mesmerized by press coverage of her rescue. Acting as a concerned

neighbor, the media conveyed Jessica’s light to the nation. The private agony

of the McClure family became the anguish of all America.

Think of it: the temporary suffering of one “insignificant” little girl stopped

the world’s most powerful country dead in its tracks. (Then, to canonize the

experience, the TV movie version of Jessica’s story made it to the small

screen within a year.)

Without those cameras there to catch it, and those TV stations to broadcast

it, Baby Jessica’s ordeal would have made absolutely no impact on anyone

other than her family and those who saved her. Because of the media, all of

America for two days became part of Jessica’s family.


Journalists and talk-show hosts like to claim they’re in the information

business or the news business. But you know and I know they’re in the

money business just like everyone else. Because practically all media are

privately held profit-making ventures, they behave much like any other

enterprise, looking for ways to increase the bottom line.

To do that they must expand their consumer base, that is, their audience.

They must give the customer what he or she wants. So if your local news

station runs a few too many five-part specials on the illicit sex lives of nuns

during “Sweeps Month,” remember they’re only trying to please the viewers.

Creating a successful product means citizens may not always get the

information they need. A Harvard researcher found the average network

sound byte from presidential campaigns dropped from 41.5 seconds per

broadcast in 1968 to just under 10 seconds in 1988. That translates into

roughly sixteen words a night with which to make up our minds on who

should run the country. We absorb more information, yet understand less

than ever before.

This is a logical consequence of big media. Their existence depends on

keeping the audience tuned in. If TV station “A” covers candidate “B”

droning on about farm subsidies, most of the audience will probably switch to

station “C” running a story about the stray cat raised by an affectionate pig.

Station “A” would be wise to ditch candidate “B” and send a crew out to film

Porky and Tabby.

Along with this contraction of information is a parallel expansion of media.

Because social scientists have us so precisely categorized, outlets targeted to

specific groups flourish. Lear’s caters to mature, high-income women.

Details appeals to middle-income, fast-tracker men. Essence aims for black


Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, and Mary, tells a great story in his stage show

to illustrate how narrowly focused we’ve become as a society. In the 1940s

and 1950s we had the all-encompassing Life magazine. Then, we cropped our

vision down to People magazine in the seventies (all of Life wasn’t good

enough anymore). Things tightened up even more with Us. Now we have Self.

Somewhere, there’s just gotta be a magazine just for you. I can just imagine

it: on sale now, “Fred Morganstern Monthly.”

Not only do we see more media outlets, but the flow of information has

likewise increased dramatically the past few years. Fax machines, cellular

phones, modems, fiber-optic cables, Low Power TV, satellite down-links, all

have reshaped the way we get our information, when we get it, and what we

do with it.

During China’s “Goddess of Democracy” protests in 1989, the students

kept in touch with the outside world via fax. Instantly, China seemed to leap

forward from feudal empire to modern nation. Vietnam was the first “we’ll be

right back after these messages” war. As napalm rained down on the jungle,

we saw it live as it happened. We had no time to process information or

analyze events as we were barraged by them. Because of improved

communications, the Gulf War had the same effect, only with infinitely more


The media may have accelerated the process of dissemination, but as we

found out in the days of the first supersonic jets, breaking the sound barrier

did not, as some scientists feared, cause planes to disintegrate. Likewise,

instant news did not cause us to psychologically disintegrate.

There’s no way to assess what this means to society. To be carpet-bombed

by information must have far-reaching consequences to our civilization, but

that’s for future observers to sort out. Today, we face an intimidating media-

driven culture. Anyone looking to succeed in business must first master the

fundamentals of navigating the media. To reach customers, donors, or

investors-to reach the public-one must rely on the media as the prime

intermediary. The methodology to achieve this is known as Public Relations.


Half the world is composed of people who have something to say

and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.

— Robert Frost

I’m often asked whether public relations is a science or an art. That’s a

valid question. In science, two plus two equals four. It will always equal four

whether added by a Republican from Iowa, a shaman from New Guinea, or an

alien from Planet X. However, in public relations, two plus two may equal four.

It may equal five. It may equal zero today and fifty tomorrow.

Public relations is an art.

Like an art, there are rules of form, proven techniques, and standards of

excellence. But, overall, it’s a mercurial enterprise, where instinct is as

legitimate as convention.

Public relations was once defined as the ability to provide the answers before

the public knows enough to ask the questions. Another P.R. pundit once

stated, “We don’t persuade people. We simply offer them reasons to

persuade themselves.” I define what I do as gift-wrapping. If you package a

bracelet in a Tiffany box, it will have a higher perceived value than if

presented in a K Mart box. Same bracelet, different perception.


Don Burr, former CEO of People Express Airlines, once said, “In the airline

industry, if passengers see coffee stains on the food tray, they assume the

engine maintenance isn’t done right.” That may seem irrational, but in this

game, perception, not the objective truth, matters most.

How one comprehends given information is all-important in public relations.

For decades, baby harp seals were bludgeoned to death by fur hunters, but

until the public saw the cute little critters up close and personal and

perceived the hunt as unacceptable, the problem didn’t exist. Before that, it

was a matter of trappers preserving their hardy way of life. The seals

ultimately hired the better publicist.

This also works in negative ways. The congressional check-bouncing scandal

was a case in which individual congressmen’s visibility skyrocketed, while

their credibility plummeted. The Tobacco Institute, a Washington-based

lobbying and P.R. outfit, spends its time and money claiming cigarettes are

okay. Nothing they do or say will ever make that true, but they may go a long

way in changing public perception of their product. A few years ago they

sponsored subliminally that no-smoking regulations infringe on our basic

liberties. How’s that for a P.R. stretch?

Ultimately, the goal of any public relations campaign is to either reorient,

or solidify, perception of a product, client, policy, or event. From there,

nature takes its course. If the public perceives the product as good, the movie

star as sexy, the pet rock as indispensable, then the public will fork over its

money. As the brilliant business author Dr. Judith Bardwick explained, “To be

perceived as visible increasingly means one is perceived as successful.”

Some may charge that stressing perception as reality is tantamount to

sanctioning falsehood. I disagree. As the great historian Max Dimont argued,

it didn’t matter if Moses really did have a chat with the Lord up on Mount

Sinai or not. What matters is that the Jewish people believed it and carved

their unique place in world civilizations because of it. Perception became


Likewise, on a more mundane scale, one will succeed in a P.R. campaign only

if the perception fostered truly resonates with the public. I do not believe

people are easily duped. You may try everything in your bag of tricks to get

the public to see things your way. You’ll pull it off only if the perception you

seek to convey fits the reality of the public, the reality of the times. As

Pretkanis and Eronson argue, credibility today is manufactured, and not



Often, the terms “public relations” and “publicity” are used interchangeably.

They shouldn’t be. Publicity is only one manifestation of P.R.-specifically,

achieving notoriety through accumulated press exposure. A publicist knows

newspapers, magazines, and TV talk shows. Public Relations is much more

than that. The Public Relations expert is as well versed in human nature as in

editorial and sound bytes.

P.R. can be as macro as a campaign to persuade foreign governments so buy

U.S. soybeans, or as micro as a warm handshake. The notion that P.R. is

simply a matter of mailing press releases is nuttier than a squirrel’s

breakfast. As producer, manager, and publicist Jay Bernstein says, “P.R. is

getting a front table at the right restaurant, getting you invited to the right

party, and getting into first class with a tourist ticket.”

A man who has greatly affected my thinking, the esteemed business author

and lecturer Tom Peters, tells the story of a visit to a neighborhood

convenience store. “American Express was being a little user-unfriendly,”

Tom recalls, “and it took a good three minutes for my AMEX card to clear.

When it finally did, the cashier bagged my purchase, and as I turned to go

reached into a jar of two-cent foil-wrapped mints. He pulled one out,

dropped it in my bag, and said, ‘The delay you experienced was inexcusable.

I apologize and hope it doesn’t happen again. Come back soon.’ For two

cents, he bought my loyalty for life.”

This story is about one small business owner and only one customer, but it’s

a perfect example of good P.R. But what about bad P.R.? I doubt there’s

anyone on the scene who has mastered that dubious craft better than

sometime-billionaire Donald Trump. This is a man who has lost control of

his own gilded ship. His lurid infidelities, his profligate spending, his

precipitous fall from fortune, and, worst of all, his attempt to exploit the

Mike Tyson rape tragedy to promote a prize fight, collectively paint a portrait

of a thoroughly vulgar mind.

The Donald doesn’t care what you say about him, as long as you spell his

name right. True, whenever he opens his mouth or makes a move, the press is

all over him. But his massive celebrity has made him only a famous fool. You

are not likely to achieve the degree of fame that Mr. Trump has, but, given

his shameful image, I would congratulate you on that.


With Guerrilla P.R. (and P.R. in general), you do not tell the public that your

new digital fish cleaner is the greatest invention since the dawn of time. You

could easily do that in an ad. Your goal is to lead people to draw that same

conclusion for themselves. Otherwise, you’re engaging in good old-fashioned-

or is it new-fashioned?-marketing strategy.

Companies often relegate public relations to their marketing departments.

That might make sense from a corporate point of view, but there’s a distinct

difference between P.R. and marketing. Going back to the “science vs. art”

analogy, whereas P.R. is the art, marketing is the science.

Bob Serling, President of the Stratford Marketing Group, an L.A.-based

marketing firm, has written, “Marketing is everything you do to make sure

your customers find out about, and buy, your products and services.” That’s

a tall order, and to go about filling it, marketing executives lug around a

hefty bag of tricks.

To a large degree, they rely on surveys, demographic analyses and

established sales and advertising procedures to accomplish their goals. But

in Public Relations, intangibles play a far greater role. How do you measure a

feeling? It’s not easy, but in P.R. we trade in the realm of feelings every day.

We may use the media as the vehicle, but the landscape we traverse is

contoured by human emotion.

Marketing often goes hand-in-hand with advertising. The undeniable

advantage with advertising is that the advertiser retains full control. He

knows exactly what his message will say and precisely when it will be seen.

But remember this little fact of life: most top ad agencies consider a 1-2

percent response rate a triumph. That’s all it takes to make them happy.

And, like it or not, most people don’t take ads as seriously as advertisers

would like. Everybody knows they’re bought and paid for.

I prefer the odds with major media exposure. True, you do lose a large

measure of control, and you never know for sure when or how your message

will be conveyed. But the public is far likelier to accept what it gleans from

the news media over what it sees in commercials. If Dan Rather says a new

sports shoe is a daring innovation, people will give that more credence than

if company spokesman Bo Jackson says it. The news, indeed the truth, is

what Dan Rather says it is.

So who tells Dan Rather what’s news? The media like to boast they rely on

ace newsgathering staffs; but in fact they depend a great deal on public

relations people. That doesn’t mean the journalists of America are saps.

They’re just looking for good stories. A hungry reporter and a smart publicist

is a match made in heaven, and it’s been that way since the dawn of the

Communication Age.


In Amarillo, Texas, you’ll find the Big Texan Steak Ranch, where the owner

issues the following challenge:

If you can eat a seventy-two-ounce steak in an hour, you get it free. News of

the deal traveled far and wide, even to the skies where I first read about it in

an airline magazine.


The public relations industry flourished with the growth of twentieth-century

mass media, although sensitivity to public opinion on the part of public figures

is nothing new. Even Abraham Lincoln got into the act, declaring once, “What

kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.” The fathers of modern P.R. knew

the value of simple images to convey powerful messages.

Edward Bernays, founder of modern P.R., defined his mission as the

engineering of consent. He was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and he strikes

me as having been just as perceptive about human nature as his esteemed

uncle. Bernays displayed a genius for concocting indelible images, something

good P.R. campaigns require. In one early triumph, he arranged for young

debutantes to smoke Lucky Strikes while strolling in New York’s 1929 Easter

Parade. What Bernays sold to the press as a bold political statement on

women’s rights was no more than a gimmick to sell cigarettes.

Pioneers like publicist/film producer A.C. Lyles set the pace for generations

of publicists to follow. Another innovator, Ivy Hill, is often credited with

inventing the press release. Hill believed telling the “truth” in journalistic

fashion would help shape public opinion. He sensed editors would not

dismiss press releases as ads, but rather would perceive their real news

value. He was right.

The publicist’s ability to appeal to newspapers proved invaluable to captains

of industry seeking to shore up their images. Back in the 1920s, Hill

masterminded industrialist John D. Rockefeller’s much-ridiculed habit of

handing out dimes to every child he met. Ridiculous but effective in its time.

(Imagine T.Boone Pickens trying that today.)

Occasionally, clients got less than they bargained for. In the late 1950s, the

Ford Motor Company hired P.R. trail-blazer Ben Sonnenberg to help overcome

the negative fallout from the Edsel fiasco. He charged Ford $50,000 for a

foolproof P.R. plan, and after three days submitted it in person. Sonnenberg

looked the breathless executives in the eye and intoned, “Do nothing.” With

that, the dapper publicist pocketed his check and walked out, much to the

slack-jawed shock of the Ford brain trust.

Even nations sometimes need help. During the 1970s, Argentina developed a

little P.R. problem when its government kidnapped and murdered thousands

of its own citizens. Buenos Aires hired the high-powered U.S. firm of Burson-

Marsteller to tidy things up. For a cool $1,000,000, the firm launched an

extensive campaign involving opinion-makers from around the world: a

stream of press releases stressed, among other things, the Argentine

regime’s record in fighting terrorism. Sometimes the truth can be stretched

until it tears itself in half.

I don’t wish to give the impression that P.R. is strictly a polite version of

lying. That’s not the case. As I said, P.R. is gift-wrapping. Whether delivered

in fancy or plain paper, truth is truth, and the public ultimately comprehends

it. The trick is packaging the truth on your own terms.

How often have you read about a big movie star storming off the set of a film

because of “creative differences” with the director? We all know the two

egomaniacs probably hated each other’s guts. But if the papers printed that,

we’d perceive the situation very differently. By our soft-pedaling the row with

words like “creative differences,” the movie star’s reputation remains intact,

even though intuition tells us he’s “difficult.”


Thus far, when referring to the public, I’ve generalized to mean the

population at large: We the People. The sophisticated modern art of P.R.

encompasses many more “publics” than that. In fact, selective targeting is a

primary tactic in sound P.R. strategies. As you will see, bigger is not always


Depending on the goals, a publicist could target any one of various business,

consumer, or governmental communities. An investor seeking financial backing

aims for the financial press and relevant trade publications. A rock musician

zeroes in on the local music rags. A lobbyist might need nothing more than a

friendly article in the Washington Post, a retailer only the residents of his

immediate neighborhood.

Though I’ve found a few clients easily dazzled by quantity, in P.R. quality is

what really counts. A seven-inch stack of press clippings means nothing unless

the objectives of the campaign have been met. The scrapbook makes a great

Mother’s Day gift, but I’d rather see my clients’ careers advanced in the

right direction.

Figuring out which public to reach is one of the most critical decisions a

publicist makes. My orientation-and, I hope, yours-is geared toward the

most significant audience vis-à-vis your objectives, which is not necessarily

the widest. You may want to target the people you buy from, the people you

hope to sell to, the people you work for, the people that work for you, and so

on. It’s a big world full of little worlds when you look closely.

In most cases I spell out precisely who and what I’m going after, and then

proceed aggressively. Don’t go for the moon all at once. Set a goal, achieve

it, then build on that base. Any good planner knows the advantages of

thinking three steps ahead while proceeding one step at a time.


The history-making August 1991 revolution in the former Soviet Union

began when then-president Mikhail Gorbachev left Moscow for a vacation on

the Crimean Sea. Because the whole affair had a happy ending, everybody

laughed when, only a few days later, the president of an outdoor billboard

company in Detroit ran a series of large ads all over town reading: “Welcome

Back, Gorby! Next Time Vacation in Michigan.”


Never be boring. Never!

Know your subject thoroughly.

Know the media you contact. Read the paper, watch the newscast.

Cover you bases.

Don’t just take “yes” for an answer. Follow up, follow through.

Never feel satisfied.

Always maintain your composure.

Think several moves ahead.

Be persistent, but move on when you’re convinced you’re getting nowhere.

Remember, this isn’t brain surgery. Don’t take yourself too seriously (like too

many publicists I know). Have fun.

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