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Below the Beltway

You Can't Buy This Kind of PR

But then, you wouldn't want to

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page W15

I received a press release the other day offering me an interview with a man who was identified as -- and I quote -- "Mr. PR."

Now, I confess that this designation did not fill me with an earnest desire to find out what Mr. PR had to say. It filled me with an earnest desire to make fun of Mr. PR. The whole shtick seemed presumptuous, you know? I do not call myself "Mr. Funny."

(Eric Shansby)

Still, mocking people is cruel. I hesitated. Maybe Mr. PR is far better at his craft than I am at mine, I reasoned (even if Mr. PR did find it necessary to use a PR man to write his release). Then I came to the part where Mr. PR was promising he could teach Washington Post readers "how to become famous." As an end in itself, this sounded as slimy as squid succotash.

What pushed me over the edge of humanitarianism into the terrible abyss of satirical hostility, however, was the line that identified Mr. PR's new book, Networking Magic, as "best-selling." Now, I know something about the difficulty of writing bestselling books, having twice failed spectacularly to write one myself. Mr. PR's PR man defends this claim by alleging that the book was, at least briefly, listed as No. 1 in popularity by two online booksellers. If that's true, its success was astoundingly short-lived. On the day I checked, seven weeks after its publication date, Networking Magic was the 94,226 most-purchased book in the country, according to Amazon.com. I don't know if you are aware of just how non-bestselling this is, but, suffice it to say that it was not moving nearly as rapidly as Fig Heaven: 70 Recipes for the World's Most Luscious Fruit.

So, sadly, I lost my battle with my conscience. But what to do about it? I didn't want to write about Mr. PR, because that would give him exactly what he was after: big-time publicity. In the end, I decided on a diabolical plan. I would subject Mr. PR to the PR man's Worst Nightmare.

I called him up (his name is Rick Frishman), and told him I would interview him for The Washington Post, but only if he agreed to directly answer my questions, and only my questions, without digressing into any other areas. He said, Sure! Here, verbatim, is the interview:

Me: I think we can agree that the reasonable person, hearing that your nickname is Mr. PR, would conclude that you are Mr. BS. They would feel, in essence, that public relations is a field in which the practitioner accepts money to twist and shade and otherwise distort the truth so as to create an undeserved positive impression for his clients; that the field is about as respectable as loan-sharking and as shallow as a puddle of beer on a bar stool, and it is peopled by opportunists with the ethics of a New Orleans pimp. My question to you is, are you left-handed or right-handed?

Mr. PR: Uh, right-handed.

Me: Your press release says that you can tell readers how to get famous, suggesting that fame is nothing more than a commodity -- not something that one earns through hard work or talent, but a condition that can be cynically manipulated for profit. Furthermore, if anyone can become famous, fame itself is devalued to the point that those who are famous on the merits of their abilities or the strength of their character -- William Faulkner, for example, or even Nelson Mandela -- become thrown into a vast cesspool of mediocrity inhabited by people made "famous" by people like yourself, for a fee. My question is, do you have a favorite comic strip, and if so, which one?

Mr. PR: "Peanuts."

Me: Your new book is about networking. I think the average American understands that networking is by and large the disreputable, dehumanizing pursuit of knowing the right people -- creating for oneself an unlevel playing field based on cronyism, where friendships are established for hypocritical reasons, using people and then abandoning them when they are no longer of strategic value -- in short, mortgaging one's mortal soul for personal gain. My question is, how tall are you?

Mr. PR: I am very short. By the way, the entire message of the book is the opposite of . . .

Me: That's not answering the question. We had a deal.

Mr. PR: Five-foot-two.

By the time the interview was over, I confess, I was feeling sorry for Mr. PR, and a little ashamed of myself. But not all that much. In the world of make-anyone-famous PR, no publicity is bad publicity. Mr. PR's PR man can now report, truthfully, that the book was "featured in The Washington Post."

Gene Weingarten's email address is weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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