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Even Don Draper Needs Media Training: Mad Men and Public Relations

Mike Santoro

With anyone in an ad agency already watching Mad Men, creator Matthew Weiner threw those of us in public relations a bone with an episode entirely dedicated to PR. Ok, maybe it wasn’t entirely dedicated to public relations, but certainly it played a big role in the season opener.

We saw depictions of good PR and bad PR, with Don Draper shockingly bombing an interview with Advertising Age and Peggy Olson launching a publicity stunt worth of P.T. Barnum. So what did the shows producers get right and what can PR pros learn from last night’s episode?

For those who don’t watch the show here’s the CliffsNotes version: The episode opens with Draper taking an interview with AdAge about a recent commercial that is getting critical buzz, yet Don fails to impress and the subsequent article provides no boost to the SCDP image. On the flip side, copywriter Peggy Olsen stages a fight over a client’s product to generate some good buzz thanks to a story and photo in the Daily News.

So with PR playing a central role, what can we take away?

Public Relations Drives Sales

People understand advertising, they struggle with PR. Even today I am often asked to explain the benefits of public relations. In last night’s episodes I received two fictional case studies to point to.

The first was the missed opportunity in AdAge. When the principals of the firm see the piece they describe it as a “missed opportunity” or more eloquently as “You turned all the Sizzle from Glo-Coat into a wet fart.”

A framed piece at the entry way of their agency would have been nice, but it’s the buzz about their fledgling agency that they needed. A piece that expressed who they were would have driven new meetings and new clients – something the fledgling firm badly needs.

Opposite to this, Peggy’s stunt results in increased sales of Sugarberry hams and an increased investment in marketing the product. All it cost was two $25 actresses and a well placed story. Compared to what the client was spending for ad buys, PR was a much better investment.

Know the Story You Want to Tell

Who would have thought that Don Draper would have completely bombed a media interview? As I watched I couldn’t help thinking that he could have used a little media prep. He had a story he could have told, but he hadn’t worked that out before the media and when the reporter started probing about his personal life he shut down and couldn’t get back to the story that would have showed off the agency.

Think you can go cold into a media interview without prepping? Not even Don Draper could pull that off.

Now compare that to the interview with The Wall Street Journal that Don completely owns. He has his story honed and was ready to tell it. It took a moment of clarity earlier in the episode to realize the story he wanted to tell, but once he did it completely changed the dynamic of the interview. Instead of passively answering questions he became the guy who causes women to swoon and clients to hand over piles of money. As he told his story you see the reporter leaning in closer to hear more. That’s going to be a good piece that will surely lead to some new accounts.

Authenticity Always Wins Out

For me this was the most important lesson from the episode. The Sugarberry stunt works initially, but it’s marred by a number of repercussions – most notably the fact that the actresses assault one another, end up in jail, and then threaten to expose the whole stunt if they don’t receive hush money. Don chastises Peggy for the stunt when he learns of it and I suspect that this stunt will eventually lead to more trouble than it was worth.

The main problem – it isn’t real. It’s a manufactured event. And though there is nothing wrong with event PR, if the event is a complete untruth about the product, it will eventually backfire, particularly with today’s savvy consumer. Whenever you deliver a message it needs to ring true. If it isn’t believable or you don’t believe it yourself, it isn’t going to work. That’s why the second Don interview is so successful.

We see Don at his most electric during the WSJ interview as he describes how he formed the agency and the kind of work they expect to perform. He’s most successful here because he’s found an authentic message to deliver. It works much better when you are delivering something you are true to than something you’ve constructed. And yes, I realize the irony about discussing Don Draper and authenticity.


The story arc benefits well from a flip flop in which Don is able to reestablish himself as the true head of the firm. It didn’t sit well with me that Don was bombing media interviews while the rest of the agency conjures successful publicity stunts. But as a story it worked. The stunt turns out to be somewhat ill-advised and by the end of the episode Don is back on top with the WSJ reporter.

It’s good to have Mad Men back, and great to see PR as a central plot device. Here’s to next week when they launch an advanced social media strategy.