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Is PR Moot in an Illiterate World?

Saw a quote posted on Facebook from the late Joe Sobran, journalist, syndicated columnist and National Review writer, which went thus: “In 100 years, we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching remedial English in college.”

My father, now 90, and a 1942 St. Martin’s graduate, did indeed learn Latin in high school, and will quote it if you ask…or even if you don’t ask, he likes to demonstrate his cognitive abilities.

I’ve bemoaned the state of education of today’s young people in the past, referencing one college student’s inability to spell a one-syllable word – blame – correctly. “Blaim,” she wrote. Unbelievable, I thought.

My post today isn’t about deploring how (bleep)-poor our public education system is in the United States (to learn more about that and what you might do about it, check out this website:, but serves to address the issue, how effective can public relations be in an increasingly illiterate society?

As myself and my guest lecturers have told my PR students time and time again, good writing skills are the foundation of good public relations…but given the erosion of language due to everything from rampant texting to teachers who don’t teach to helicopter parents who insist that little Jimmy or Sally get a top grade even when they can’t spell “cat,” well, what good are great writing skills if your target audience is just too darn poorly educated to understand what you’re saying?

The marketing/advertising world has already implemented a strategy that might be called “enabling appeasement,” that is, developing campaigns that shoot for the absolutely lowest common denominator, i.e. not even trying to raise the bar. There’s no attempt at spelling correctly – “gonna” has obliterated any chance we’ll see “going to” in an advertisement – and messages have been reduced to a single word…like the “BELIEVE” campaign in Baltimore, and on a national level, President Obama’s “CHANGE” campaign.

Such approaches do little to LENGTHEN the American attention span or encourage any depth of contemplation or understanding beyond a “knee-jerk” reaction which is really the point of your typical ad or commercial. Marketing tries to angle in on that immediate, first-impressions-are-the-strongest response.

The problem is, we live in a world that is VERY complicated and trying to tell an indepth story in a 12-second soundbite is, well, impossible. We humans form an opinion within less than a second when we are scanning our TV programming choices, and once an opinion is formed, it is very difficult to change. People will target that which reinforces their opinion and have a tendency to tune out all that which does not.

This can’t have a good impact on public relations. Given current social and political conditions, it appears the future of PR lies primarily in crisis control and reputation management.

Of course, there is hope. The key to getting public support is to focus on what appeals to people’s self-interest. If we can show people that encouraging their children’s education beyond test results is important for their own well-being as well as their child's, the better off we all will be.

I believe that the foundation to good education begins at home. When I was a kid, my father encouraged myself, my sister and brother to expand our vocabularies by having little at-home contests…how many new words could we learn each week? I also remember my father bringing home these little self-test booklets in areas like history and math that were actually alot of fun to take. If you can show children at an early age that learning can be fun, they’ll be more predisposed to learning at school.

Otherwise, our future may look alot like the movie, IDIOCRACY, ( where the world is so "dumbed down" a so called "average American" revived from 500 years in the past is now the most brilliant man on the planet. What's the point of building relationships and encouraging mutual understanding among idiots? Hopefully it won't ever come to that, but unless we begin to reverse this trend of making a meaningful dialogue something more than "Hey"/"Whassup?" (that should be "What's up?" btw...and that's by the way), PR may be a moot point.

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