January 16, 2004
the publicity game
We succeeded in getting some publicity for the survey that we released yesterday: articles in Reuters, Yahoo News, Washingtonpost.com, UPI, and USA Today, and an interview on CBS radio news. I was glad, because we wanted to publicize the survey so that people would be aware of it. Besides, we are held accountable for getting press coverage. That is why we spend significant amounts of money on a professional public relations firm.
I recently posted several critical comments about the pursuit of fame. I am well aware of the irony that days after I wrote those posts, I struggled to craft press releases that would maximize attention.
I'm not in imminent danger of actually becoming famous; but this behavior is just what troubles me. My colleagues and I sorted through miscellaneous data, looking for items that might interest particular kinds of reporters at this precise moment (i.e., days before the Iowa caucuses). Then we tried to write releases and other materials that would catch their attention. I believe that what we said was true, and that it is genuinely worthwhile to seek publicity. (Otherwise, what's the purpose of collecting information on a public issue?) Yet I see numerous snares and pitfalls.
First of all, the word "spin" applies, since we accentuated particular findings that we thought would capture attention. Second, it is not especially fair that we got media attention--however limited--for our survey, when thousands of academics labor in greater obscurity because they don't have p.r. budgets. In the intellectual marketplace, the best idea is supposed to win. In fact, the best funded idea has big advantages.
You may be reading this blog in small part because of the influence of money and its ability to attract attention. My website would score lower on Google search results if it weren't linked from my employers' elaborate and well-trafficked websites (see CIRCLE and the Maryland School of Public Affairs). These organizations, in turn, boost their profiles by spending money on p.r. We like to think of the "blogosphere" as a commons, as a free space in which one can acquire influence only by writing in ways that other bloggers find persuasive or inherently interesting. That is true to a degree. But my blog is surely not the only one that benefits from advantages stockpiled in the offline world.