Up the Valley: Public Relations

November 21, 2012

Have we all become our own publicists? In praise of shameless self-promotion, today’s column in the Star

Back in the mid-’90s, I produced a Broadway play that was nominated for a Tony Award, scoring me an invitation to the annual Tony-nominee brunch at Sardi’s. It was a giddy time, hobnobbing with my fellow nominees, each of us clutching our ceremonial plaques while watching the Broadway stars and actual celebrities in the room pose for a phalanx of photographers.

Backstage folk being of negligible interest to the paparazzi, we retreated into our own groups and, in the grand tradition of theater parties, spent the afternoon complaining about the diva-like behavior of our more glamorous cohorts and raiding the free buffet. I sat chitchatting with a seasoned female producer — an elegant lady of indeterminable age and patrician demeanor. Unexpectedly, a photographer approached us. “Pardon me,” he said to my colleague, “but would you mind if I took your photograph?” A bit embarrassed, she handed me her plaque, adjusted her flowing scarf and important jewelry, and struck a pose while he snapped away. I was so impressed — imagine a producer famous enough to merit her own photo op! I promptly added “Be Hounded by Paparazzi at Awards Ceremony” to my bucket list.

Flash forward a year or two. Attending the opening of a friend’s play, I milled about while the curtain was delayed, no doubt due to some diva-like behavior by a photogenic movie star–turned–stage actor. I spotted that same photographer and, recalling how we met, jokingly demanded assurance that he would not try to snap my photo this time. “I was so surprised,” I confided, “that you took a theatrical producer’s photograph, Tony nominee or not. Who would want a picture of us?” I asked, sincerely.

The photographer gazed at me with the wistful aspect of a sympathetic parent about to break the long-overdue news to their dimwitted descendant that there is, in fact, no Santa Claus. “The truth is,” he quietly explained, leaning in to whisper in my ear, “she pays me to follow her around at events like that and ask if I can take her picture.”

Of course she does. It brought to mind early career advice provided by a flamboyantly jaded theatrical general manager: “Honey, if you want to be a producer, you’ll have to be a _____” (since this is a family newspaper, let’s just say that Santa would call three of them: Ho Ho Ho).

Flash forward to today. I’ve been noticing lately that, like working girls flogging our wares on the boulevard, we are all “working it” these days — at the grocery store and coffee shop, and on Facebook and Twitter. Everyone seems to be selling something, engaged in a 24/7 promotional campaign for a product that defies precise description, but which has less to do with what we make or do than with who we are.

Perhaps we manufacture an eponymous item, like a wine, an olive oil or an artisanal cheese. Or we run a small local business, where the line between friend and customer is nonexistent. Maybe we are promoting our latest passion: our blogs, our charities or our driftwood art sculptures. We Pinterest our interests, send email blasts, and constantly update our profiles and cover photos across multiple platforms, as the image we seek to project to the world evolves. The Internet and social media have made amateur press agents of us all.

But is shameless self-promotion such a bad thing? My sweet aunt used to always rattle on about not hiding my light under a bushel. I never could understand what I would be doing with this bushel — and a bushel of what, for that matter — and wouldn’t it catch fire if I put my light under it? And without straining the biblical quote on which that saying is based, if we find ourselves inspired, shouldn’t we share the news with the world?

Admittedly, the PR blitz can go over the top — and I say this as someone who has just mentioned three times that she was nominated for a Tony (there’s one more coming in the footer). But mostly it is innocent and enjoyable, as the ability of friends, relations and colleagues to apply their considerable talents to multiple concurrent tasks continues to amaze.

Perhaps we have simply become willing co-conspirators in synergistic cross-promotion. Do we now serve as reciprocal paparazzi and publicists, snapping one another’s digital photos and “Liking” one another’s ideas, and dispatching them all into cyberspace? Regardless, our eyeballs now spend more time fixed on the faces of those we know and care about than on the random celebrities populating tabloid newspapers and People magazine — an undeniable benefit of our expanding lives online.

And as long as we have our Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections and Twitter followers, we won’t have to pay people to follow us around and pretend to find us interesting. We can mutually agree to find one another endlessly fascinating — for free. Because the truth is: now and again, we actually are.

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