22 April 2011

O is for Other, P is for People...

Listening to: Luna, "Everybody's Talking (Harry Nilsson)"

Talking with a friend the other day, she lamented the fact that she seemed to be getting an extra earful of other people's problems recently. She requested that we analyze what she was doing to be the target of such rants, diatribes, and egocentric repetitive problem venting with no discernible positive actions or solutions. I said I didn't even have to analyze anything. I already knew her problem: her friend PR was all wrong. Let's look at what an actual public relations firm does. Actually no, that's pretty obvious, instead let's dive right into what friend PR should do.

Control access: A good firm manages what you are willing to do and sets boundaries about what is acceptable -- and when exceptions can be made. Think of it as crowd control and preventing yourself from being overwhelmed. When you are celebulous (as you most certainly are), people need you for a variety of things. The problem is, you only have a life to live, one world to turn. Friend favors, expected attendance at events, shoulders to cry on, mundane office gossip, random requests, all of these things can be draining. As much as you want to be there for everyone, you can't be. Every starlet has a few people manning the velvet rope. You should too.

Sample phrases:
"I don't do airport runs after midnight. Get your own magic pumpkin."
"I'm running out the door, but we can do this over text. Or Twitter."
"That's a baby shower and a colonoscopy in one? Thanks but I'll pass."

The key here is to not feel like you have to apologize. "Sorry" is nice but not part of the PR vocabulary. You don't have to feel bad about telling someone that you can't do something. We are grown ass people. "No" is enough. Trust me, as adults I'm sure people will appreciate knowing what you're available for and what you're not. "I am good with illogical career advice, irresponsible financial planning, Mac product recommendations, details about mega-drama that I'll inevitably spread later, and weekday runs to Costco. I can also say 'no' to that dress."

Marketing: This brings me to the next component of friend PR. Come up with a comprehensive plan to promote the things you are good at, preferably with a memorable tagline. For example, a classic: "Always there when you call, frequently on time. (But I'll ditch you if my boyfriend is around.)" The message is honest and clear, proper expectations are formed, and friends are made aware of your positive/negative traits. Simple is good. Individual messages can also be tailored to different demographics.

"Carefully reassembling the pieces from your emotional wreckages since 1997."
"When you need to bitch, call a friend. Me."
"Unbiased advice, almost never."
"The best part of waking up is I'll be out the door by seven."
"I used to fiend for your ex-girlfriend/sister/best friend/mother, but never went up in her."

Advertising: Now you gotta get this information out there. Take all that stuff you decided on in the marketing meetings and then tell people about it. Drop things into conversation about how you're "always awake at five am, and it's important that my friends can call at any time." People will appreciate knowing this tidbit about you. Or tell them about "another friend" who always bores you with the annoying recaps of his essentially non-existent dating life. He'll get the hint soon enough. Remember, good advertising can be sometimes be passive(-aggressive), oftentimes it has to be. The most important thing to do is focus on expression and effectiveness. Tell your friends who you can be in their lives, communicate.

Nowadays I personally prefer to be a little more upfront about it, and I'm willing to gently interject mid-whatever, "Am I really the best person for this situation?" That will make them double take and really consider if I am truly the person they should be telling their "my dog went to the vet and I'm so worried about him because he shakes so bad when other people touch him that sometimes he tinkles" story. In this example, a momentary pause will reveal to both of us that I am clearly not the right guy for this particular job. Hey, I care about your dog (a little) but there's probably somebody else who will be more capable of giving you the reaction you're looking for. Maybe reach out to them? "What's their number? No, I'll go ahead and dial that for you. It's ringing... Call me later when you have salacious secrets to share."

I do have a friend who very expertly says, "Hmmmm, yeah, I think I just stopped caring." I kind of love that style too. It's all personal preference really. Just be sure to use all your tools to get the message across. Be creative, use different mediums. Think audio, video, notes, innuendo, flashing banner ads, anonymous Facebook messages from a newly created account. Whatever. You can't have this great marketing plan and then not buy the ad space to inform people.

Note: A good PR firm will also know how to damage control. That's a key component actually. You're gonna inevitably piss off some friends during your short tenure on Earth. A good crisis management team will prepare you to handle that. Sometimes.
So the aforementioned friend has a problem with people always coming to her for a patented blend of patient listening skills and hard edged advice. However this tends to lead her down the path of having too much crap she doesn't care about thrown at her. For example, she is not good with "it'll be okay" and "that sucks, I'm so sorry" talks but she's constantly being put in that position. The incessant whining about dead end relationships is wearing on her too.

Currently, she has been doing all the things a normal person does. Not picking up the phone, long delays on reply texts, going invisible on chat. Yet somehow she is still being hunted down. I told her that she needs to fire her current friend PR firm and hire me. I'll clarify her vision, recontextualize her conversations, adjust her apologetic attitude, wipe that "want to be nice" drool off her chin, and really get her on her shit. Basically I recommended a complete brand overhaul. I also said I'd waive my normal hefty consulting fee. My new suggested tagline for her: "I've always got (about) five minutes for you."

If you need, I'll be your Ogilvy & Mather of friendship too. Pretty please?

Coming soon: A detailed look at the corporate structure of friendships. A few months ago, at a bar, a friend mentioned that she had to talk to her "board of directors." When I asked her what that meant, she replied, "You know, the people who help me make major life decisions." Brilliant! I'd like to take this idea to its fullest extreme and send "Welcome to the board!" invite letters on fancy stationary. If only I had taken calligraphy that one summer camp instead of ham radio or stained glass. A lot of damn good bottle rocketry did me too. "Life skills workshops," they had to have been kidding.