Your product isn’t the product, and other PR truths

Bobby pinned: Fashion icon Bobby Kim (a.k.a. Bobby Hundreds) nails it down in "This Is Not a T-Shirt," required reading for the PR professional, according to David Chauvin.

Early in über-successful streetwear designer Bobby Hundreds’ (real name Bobby Kim) book “This Is Not a T-Shirt,” there’s a striking passage that sent me thinking about my industry, public relations:

We’ll sell you a T-shirt, Bobby writes, but not before we tell you about the artist behind it or his or her message. Our stores are less about sales and profit and more about providing a venue to experience our culture. And the more we connect the dots between our people, the stronger the bond they have with our brand, the deeper our roots go.

Now I may be no one’s idea of a fashion trendsetter, but a great concept is a great concept. I could spend a month trying to come up with a better tagline to describe what public relations does, but I don’t think I’d ever come up with anything better than “connect the dots between people.”

That’s what it all boils down to, really. Social media, newsletters, press conferences, live events – these aren’t our products. They are the tools we use to develop our actual product: connection.

The sooner we realize this, the better our communication plans will become.

Time and time again in his book, Hundreds displays a deep understanding of a fundamental truth of fashion: What your product is isn’t nearly as important as what it conveys about the people wearing it.

David Chauvin: Hundreds’ reasons why.

People don’t wear T-shirts to stay warm. They wear them to connect themselves with a larger culture, to broadcast their allegiances, to fit in. Hell, even people who choose boring, nondescript T-shirts are sending a message – that they’re above such trivialities, or they simply don’t care.

This is not a T-shirt, Bobby Hundreds implies, over and over again, it’s a culture of like-minded people. That mindset has allowed his brand to stay relevant for nearly two decades, which is forever, as Bobby puts it in his book.

So how does this apply to someone who works in a media relations department and is not (at least publicly) a pioneering streetwear designer?

I’m reminded of an old bit of sales wisdom that says it’s more important to understand your product than to be knowledgeable about it. Same goes for public relations, of course – it’s just that, in our industry, our product is communication.

Any communications professional worth his or her salt is knowledgeable about target audiences, demographics, voting tendencies, notable people, etc. But to effectively communicate with that audience is to understand the context behind the demographics, the reason the community votes the way it does, the history behind the influencers.

Say you represent a development company looking to build a deluxe apartment complex on the shores of a sleepy seaside town. It goes without saying you’re going to learn everything there is to know about this development: amenities, environmental impact, number of units, etc.

But to effectively understand your product, you need to understand what attracts constituents to it. You need to learn about how the property aligns with local sustainability trends, how its proximity to walkable downtowns increases quality of life.

Your product isn’t the new apartment. It’s the allure of the lifestyle the new apartment provides.

Bobby Hundreds understood that his product wasn’t the product – the T-shirt wasn’t a T-shirt. Public relations professionals have to realize that we aren’t hired to set up a website or stage a rally. We’re hired to deliver a message.

That’s our product. We need to embrace this concept and act accordingly.

David Chauvin is executive vice president of Great Neck-based public relations firm ZE Creative Communications. and former director of communications for the Town of North Hempstead, among several government positions.