Enter the Golden Age of PR: Exit Reality

On my way to work this morning I pulled up on my bike beside a man wearing a t-shirt displaying a quote. The strap of his messenger bag fell across the first word leaving me with this: "________ (strap) is more abstract than reality." For the duration of the light I puzzled over the missing word. As the light changed, he shifted and the word was revealed: "Nothing."

"Nothing is more abstract than reality." The phrase had a contemplative quality I enjoyed rolling over in my mind; until I got to work and read this piece in The New York Times about the lies perpetrated boldface and without shame by people in positions of power: "False 'Death Panel' Rumor Has Some Familiar Roots." Reality is abstract, indeed.

There should be nothing shocking about the revelation that a political party would distort the facts in the name of gross self-interest. Spin is as old as politics -- actually, they might be synonyms. What's shocking was that the facts were exposed at all. That The Times felt compelled to set the record straight, to get to the bottom of the matter, to promote the real reality of the situation is almost quaint. It harkens back to a time when journalistic integrity had meaning and media outlets had a responsibility to report "the truth."

What's changing as we enter the wild west of information dissemination is that the concept of journalistic integrity has nearly disappeared and concepts like "the truth," and "reality," have become so abstract as to be meaningless. Anyone for some Reality TV?

As we speak, or blog, or Twitter, the Information Age is spawning its evil progeny, The Golden Age of PR. It will be an era defined by its irresponsible use of words to generate commercially driven versions of Reality. Brands are ditching advertising, which is really pretty transparent in its intentions, in favor of spin and PR, which really is not. This shift is partly because advertising is failing and partly because PR is right for the times.

As this new age dawns, the onus will shift to the consumer (literally, consumer of information) to know the source of the information he/she is consuming.

The good news for the consumer is that we're not completely naïve. We've started to develop an eye for -- industry term -- the fingerprint of the marketer. I believe the average American understands that altruism is not the primary driver (so to speak) when Oprah gives away a fleet of Pontiacs. The formula is pretty simple: media property + branded product/logo shot = paid endorsement.

The bad news is that things get trickier when you start to play with words.

See, brands are clearly not Reality. They're contrived, with personalities and identities cooked up by designers and marketers. They're like cartoon characters dancing about in our cabinets and cupboards. They're downright cute. But words, words with meaning, words that tell stories and purport to report on the facts, they are closer to reality and harder to spot when they are seeded in the self-interest of a company, political party, or person. It should come as no surprise to today's savvy viewer, that the Coca-Cola, the Rolex, or the Audi in this summer's blockbuster movie have paid for the privilege, but what about the rave review of the movie in the publication also owned by the men who own the movie studio? Not as easy to spot.

Let's all just be aware that the Golden Age of PR will be golden only for those who do the gilding. As the business of PR diversifies, we'll see the fine lines blur. Reality is going to get even more abstract. I'd like to say it doesn't matter, but when the abstractions change PR to spin to propaganda to lies, dear reader, it absolutely does.