Provincialism Should Be a Dirty Word in Public Relations

New York is typically considered one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world when it can often be one of the most provincial. My friend Mike grew up in Brooklyn; from the bedroom of his house you can see the Empire State Building. Last week he asked me how to get to City Hall in Manhattan, which is at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Provincialism can work against public relations efforts because it shines a light on attitudes and ideas that may be foreign to others or that play into stereotypes. A recent story in the Wall Street Journal provided an interesting example.

It seems an advertisement for retailer JC Penney recently popped up on YouTube after winning the  Bronze Award at the 2008 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. Unfortunately, the spot was not legit. It appears someone at a third-party production company did the spot on the sly and submitted it to the festival.

The ad plays on JC Penney’s “Today’s the day to …” tag line. It shows two teenagers getting dressed in a hurry. Turns out their quick change of clothes is really preparation for sneaking off to the girl’s basement to have sex while her mother sits upstairs unaware. It probably would have been a “cute” scene in the film Juno, but I can’t imagine any retailer wanting the public to believe that it promotes teen sex.

Alan Siegel, chief executive of New York strategic-branding company Siegel & Gale, was asked for comment on the spot.

“It’s not going to reflect well on the brand in Middle America, but the ad is nicely done and the people in it are attractive; young people in New York and L.A. will get a kick out of it,” Siegel told The Wall Street Journal.

Quotes like Siegel’s are a dime-a-dozen in public relations and play into stereotypes about “Middle America.” These quotes are the product of a provincial mindset, because I know plenty of Americans from all walks of life who would think such an ad does not reflect well on a company. I know just as many “Middle Americans” who would find it “sassy, fun and irreverent,” to quote Siegel.

Provincialism comes in many forms, some of them subtle. My accent worked against me on television last year. I was talking about the banking company Wachovia, which is pronounced “wah-KO-vee-yah.” I pronounced the company’s name “wah-chove-vee-yah,” which is a symptom of having lived in Maryland when the company began expanding into the Washington, D.C. area. No one knew how to pronounce Wachovia, and Baltimoreans bastardized the pronunciation. Everyone at my company thought it was hilarious; even a few clients emailed to chide me jokingly for my poor pronunciation.

Last week while listening to the radio I heard a guest on a financial news show talking about Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company. The correct pronunciation is “shlum-behr-ZHAY”; the company is named after its French founders. The guest pronounced the company’s name as “slum-ber-ger.” I know the guy so I dropped him a joking note about it.

“I know, I know,” he wrote me. “Everyone is telling me I pronounced Schlumberger wrong. But that’s how we said it down in Houston.”

But properly targeting local media sometimes means having to take a provincial approach to public relations. If you aim too wide, the local media won’t see how the story affects its audience. The local media wants a provincial point of view; even with the wide reach of the internet, it understands that it’s still a local audience that butters its bread.

When I speak to a reporter in Indianapolis about a local company, I concentrate on what matters locally. In effect, I take off my “New York hat” and put on a local hat and try to tie my comments into what most interests readers in Indianapolis. I do the same thing when I talk to a reporter in Los Angeles, and when I speak to reporters overseas, I try to gear my mindset to that of someone outside of the country.

Whether it’s a media interview, a public relations campaign, or an advertisement, it’s important that you understand your audience and how that audience is most likely to interpret what you’re saying. Unless you’re trying to do so, you don’t want to come off as a country bumpkin or a city slicker, just someone who knows what he or she is talking about.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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