Ouch: The Times goes in hard on PR stunt

Newspapers and news sites are full of PR stories (stories created to help gain attention for companies and causes). The likes of “(sugar brand finds that) a quarter of workers bake cakes for colleagues” are amazingly common.

Yesterday however, The Times (which covered the baking story) went in hard on one such stunt and I have mixed feelings about it.

On page three of the paper, the story began…

It is a given in public relations that a marketing stunt involving the rewriting of classic novels requires a credible scholar to lend the exercise polish. A truth universally acknowledged, perhaps.

So the marketeers behind new editions of texts including Pride & Prejudice were delighted to secure an endorsement from John Sutherland, emeritus Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London. If only he would stick to the script.

The academic admitted yesterday that the wheeze to insert references to smartphones, social networks and the dating app Tinder into Jane Austen’s work was not really his doing and did not result in a cogent or even an enjoyable book.
The books were created by UKTV Drama to celebrate the channel’s ‘Romantic Sundays’ season of period dramas. Sutherland is reported as saying…

“I thought it was an interesting exercise and I was glad to be involved with it and pick up a useful penny or two.”

“I was a bit like the Rolls Royce mascot on the front of the car.”

When asked if it was possible to insert modern technology into the stories, Sutherland said…

“No, you can’t. I think all you can do is be aware that the passage of time does make everything which is written, even quite recently, historical. And it’s a very clever trick to be able to contextualise things.”

Many PR folk would say that this was a particularly poorly executed effort and if done properly, and in genuine collaboration with Sutherland, it may have given the exercise some genuine purpose and merit. I agree!

At the very least, having a mascot that doesn’t agree with what he’s mascotting for defies basic logic. Putting that anti-mascot in front of the media is of course a huge PR blunder.

However, I’d also understand if the PR people behind this particular effort feel sorry for themselves right about now. Journalists regularly callout PR “BS” (some regularly cover it too to be fair) but rarely do they do it in such a high profile way (page 3 of a national no less). Perhaps a example has to be made every now and then…

stop stop

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