Birthday Bashed

As our industry redefines itself to capitalize on two seminal changes/disruptions affecting all — the mass migration to digital media consumption and the mass empowerment of consumers as media producers — a great many people still equate pubic relations with event management and party planning.

The portrayal of PR in popular culture serves to feed this all-too-common perception. Have you ever caught that vacuous TV program “The Hills” on which the Prada-wearing devil wannabes at Teen Vogue push around their publicity interns, or its equally mindless forerunner on the same network, “PoweRGirls,” in which Lizzie Grubman and company party-hopped under the guise of our profession? Trust me: neither are worth the Tivo time.

Nonetheless, the media event still playa an important role for garnering attention from the filter. Who can argue with the success of Steve Jobs’s periodic on-stage performances? Just count the breathless media bi-product each one produces.

Still, it’s one thing to look at the iPhone for the first time, and quite another to watch some bold-faced names mingle to mark the anniversary of a magazine. Did any of you see the coverage from the 150th anniversary celebration of The Atlantic magazine? Having worked on the 100th anniversary of the Ochs-Sulzberger family ownership of The New York Times, and the 150th anniversary of The Associated Press, I had to wonder what the organizers were thinking when they chose this format to mark the venerable magazine’s sesquitennial.

In a nutshell, the media-worthy guests took the stage at an NYU venue, while all other attendees were relegated to star-gazing status from the theatre-style seats to watch the partyers mingle. Huh? Gawker exclaimed: “The Atlantic’ Attempts a New York Party, Bombs.”

“In a striking display of awful judgment, the VIPs (Arianna Huffington, Moby, the Mayor) were allowed (forced) to mingle on stage. The poors sat in chairs in the auditorium and watched.”

New York magazine, which under Adam Moss’s steerage is relevant again, had this to say: “The ‘Atlantic’ 150th-Anniversary Party: A Play in One Act.”

“The curtain rises on an empty stage, set with just one large circular bar in the center, manned by four bartenders dressed in black. The house is empty, so the hundreds of red velvet chairs cast an eerie crimson glow on to the party. Revelers drift in, including the writer Tom Wolfe, Amanda Burden, Moby, P.J. O’Rourke and Atlantic editors.”

Even The New York Times was puzzled:

“The event — part cocktail party, part panel, part concert, part performance art — seemed a bit puzzling, even to some of the hosts.”

Much of what we do in PR comes down to instincts: what is right and what is wrong. Clearly putting the noteworthies on stage for the rest to gawk at could not have possibly seemed like a good idea. In deference to the PR people, maybe the magazine chose one of those faux-PR, marketing promotion shops that creates “media events,” but have little understanding of journalistic peccadillos? Happy birthday, Atlantic.