Today’s column is narrowly focused for the benefit of America’s public-relations professionals. The rest of you can just rest easy and amuse yourselves for the next 20 inches or so. As they used to say in the service, “Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em,” although in today’s health-conscious times they probably say, “Denounce ’em if you haven’t got ’em.”
Now, I am not one of those journalists who take a condescending view of PR people. I understand their challenges. In my aforementioned military service, I was in a public-relations unit that attempted by means of cheerful press releases and photographs to put a happy face on the Vietnam War. Apparently these efforts were not entirely successful.
Yes, a soldier’s life is terrible hard, says Alice (she of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh fame). But a PR person’s life can be impossible hard, says the PR and marketing firm of Alice, Robin, Pooh & Associates.
For example, let us suppose that you are a young PR person fresh out of PR college, where you chose a major in press releases and a minor in smiling, and you are working for a national health association. Your boss wants you to publicize colorectal cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the United States.
What do you do? Perhaps you toy with the idea of having someone dress up as a large, smiley-faced endoscope to visit doctors’ waiting rooms and hand out bran cookies and informational packages. Then you think to yourself: Nahh!! Where would I get an endoscope costume? The patients would take a stern view of it anyway.
You think: What I need is for the media to run some letters or opeds or devote public-service spots to this important subject. But the media require a peg for the story — an anniversary or an event — because there’s a thousand stories in the naked city but the media need some excuse to print one.
Enter the PR magic. Enter the Awareness Month, that ready-made excuse to promote stories. I am not sure if people are aware of this, but Awareness Months have reached epidemic proportions. Not only is the public expected to be aware during certain months, but also on particular weeks and days.
The Awareness Month industry has proliferated to such an extent that observances often overlap and the result is that almost nobody is aware of anything. People can, however, search for the health-related ones on a government Web site. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides a very fine list at www.healthfinder.gov.
March is, in fact, National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. But I also count a half-dozen other conditions sharing the monthly honor, plus at least eight special weeks, not counting Root Canal Awareness Week, which starts March 30. You’d think sweet-toothed Americans might be aware of root canals but some people have to be told everything.
As for special days, well, two are listed this month. I am sorry I missed World Kidney Day (March 13). I would have had a cold beverage to celebrate if only had I known, although that may not have been in the spirit of the occasion.
In the same manner, I completely slept through National Sleep Awareness Week (March 3-9) and was unaware of Brain Awareness Week (March 10-16), but how great to learn of a special week just for people in the red states. I was also mortified to find out that I missed National Condom Week last month (Feb. 11-15). That would have been some kind of fun.
I can see that America’s PR professionals have worked very hard to entice the media to engage many important topics. This is good. But I have to say in frankness and sorrow that the old Awareness Month gimmick has run its course. There is only a certain amount of awareness that you can expect of the American people and their media in any given month.
To be sure, the pulse races a bit on discovering that April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month, but the glory days of Awareness Months have passed. You just can’t depend anymore on some fool columnist mentioning the cause-related occasion you are promoting.
As merely a troublemaker, I cannot suggest the future of cutting-edge PR promotion. But I am thinking that you can’t go wrong with something involving cookies, even if they are not distributed by people dressed up as proctological instruments. For as we are all aware, “eat ’em if you got ’em” has become our national motto.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)