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PR and Mr. Selfridge
By: Patrick Foughty, APR
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If one tuned into PBS the week after the third season of Downton Abbey concluded in March, one would have bumbled onto a delightful show called Mr. Selfridge featuring the always energetic Jeremy Piven. The show, about a real person who opened the first major department store in London (think the UK version of Macy’s), takes place shortly before World War I and shows how Mr. Harry Gordon Selfridge built a store and brought a new concept of shopping to our friends across the pond.

A recent episode touched on a PR node. Aside from the fact that there is no PR guy or gal on Mr. Selfridge’s staff (why would there be; PR as we know it had yet to be invented), there is a segment where a PR lesson is learned. To provide a quick recap: Mr. Selfridge, depicted as a flawed but effective and inspirational leader and businessman, is in a coma after a car accident, and his Chief of Staff, who recently lost his wife to illness, is in charge. Meanwhile, the suffragettes plan to march by the store and vandalize places that don’t open their doors to them or otherwise neglect to show support for their cause (women’s right to vote). The Chief of Staff takes a conservative view and orders the staff not to let any of the suffragettes in, even though a primary backer of the store is a woman who supports the movement.

The staff realizes the folly in this and that Chief of Staff is distraught and not thinking like Mr. Selfridge would, so, taking matters into their own hands, they create window displays welcoming the women — thus saving the day and keeping the place from becoming a brick magnet.

So what are the PR lessons? 

Knee-jerk reactions are rarely good. The Chief of Staff has lost a major part of his life (his wife); he’s not thinking clearly, and when he hears of a looming civil disturbance his reaction is to close down and think no more about it, even after he is advised not to. All too often when presented with problems we see an easy, immediate solution — many corporations and government agencies do this. A problem comes up and a statement is released or action is taken before the situation is completely understood. The President’s recent firing (asked resignation) of the acting IRS Commissioner is a good example. It’s an easy fix to appease the masses, but it’s likely not the answer to the problem. Avoid these reactions if possible; take time to understand the situation and think about your options.

Part of knowing your public/consumer is knowing where their sympathies lie. In this case Selfridge’s primary consumers are middle- and upper-class women — many of whom support the suffrage movement. Taking a side against a movement that many of your consumers probably support could prove to be disastrous. This is elevated when one of your primary investors is also a supporter of the cause. Facebook is doing this right now; alienating many users with its FWD.us initiative. Of course one has to wonder, why in the world is Facebook doing anything political?

Don’t make decisions under duress. The aviation world is keen on this. Before pilots fly, they brief the flight and talk about personal issues, even going so far as to not fly if their pet fish died before they came to work (that’s super sad). As a PR person not only should you recognize when you might be making poor decisions based on your personal life, but also recognize if those you work for and those who work for you might be. Once you do, find ways to mitigate and ensure your organization is making the most sensible decisions.

Mr. Selfridge is what is it is, a TV show, but as with many shows and stories, there are lessons to be learned — even for the PR pro.

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About the Author
Patrick Foughty is a former helicopter pilot turned PR lover. He pays bills by playing the role of Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. where he manages media operations and digital media for his organization. When he's not thinking about PR he's working on his first novel or studying medieval history.
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