Pride and Publicity Prejudice

In the Philadelphia radio market, there is a news station that has been on the air as long as I can remember. On this station, there is an advertisement for a marketing firm that has been playing for as long as I can remember. I don’t recall it completely without the prompts, but it goes something like this:

“A man wakes up and gets out of his advertised bed. He eats a breakfast of advertised coffee and advertised bread, toasted in an advertised toaster. He puts on advertised clothes, looks at his advertised watch, gets in his advertised car, and drives to work. But he refuses to advertise for his business because he says advertising doesn’t pay.”

You get the picture; this is the tale of someone who is bombarded by images, messages, and branding everyday yet doesn’t see it in his own life. It’s the advertisement equivalent of the cerulean belt in which we think we make independent decisions when it comes to product selection. But, in reality, we’re more likely to pick up a brand that we’ve heard something about (anything, really) because we have had some sort of encounter with its advertising. Familiarity, even in passing, is a higher favorable factor versus the unknown or when all other factors seem to be the same.

I’ve been thinking about advertising, publicity, and marketing in the library world since last week after viewing this TED talk by Dan Pallotta about the way we think about charities and non-profits. My enthusiasm for TED talks has cooled over the years, a result of seeing how much the events tend to be the focus rather than actually supporting (as the TED motto goes) ideas worth spreading. But I digress.

For those who want to skip to the chase here, one of the excellent points Dan makes is in regard to our misguided notion of how overhead should work in charities and non-profits.  In essence, spending money on the cause is good and spending any money on non-cause related things is bad (even if it raises more money/awareness). Overhead and administration are considered the anathema of the noble purpose and good deeds that these organizations are set up to do. But, in putting such restrictions and pressures on these groups, it ignores two important points.

First, in keeping administration costs as low as possible, it makes it hard (if not impossible) to attract the talent that would take the organization further into the future. Even if the organization is raising millions of dollars a year, six figure executive pay is considered outrageous even in a multi-million dollar charitable operation. The Stanford MBA isn’t going to join such an organization when he can work a regular job at his market rate salary and then donate generously.  This goes across the board with other organization talent (accountants, lawyers, marketing, etc.) because these groups don’t have the salary to make them attractive.

Second, the pressure to keep overhead low makes getting the message out harder. Spending $40,000 for a full page ad in the Sunday edition of the New York Times is considered an extravagant expense despite the fact that it brings in donations that cover the cost many times over. Publicity campaigns are considered wasteful when in fact getting the message out and finding more people to support the cause is vital to an organization’s survival. But, in the topsy turvy logic that is applied to charities and non-profits, that kind of spending is thought as a fraud of the donor’s intent when they gave to the organization.

I’ve experienced something like that first hand at my library a few years back. A gentleman came in and wanted to donate a bag of books. When they were shown to me by the circulation person, they were nothing new or popular and in so-so condition. So I took them out and put them on our ongoing book sale.

You would have thought I had run over the guy’s dog. He left muttering about how AWFUL it was that the library had put HIS donation out on the book sale. Those books were meant to improve the collection and he wasn’t ever going to donate to the library ever AGAIN. I would say that he clearly didn’t understand the functional definition of “donation” and what it entails, but my tale isn’t anything unusual in the public library world. I could write a treatise on the matter since people will donate (or attempt to donate, if we can stop them in time) the damned things that they would otherwise be embarrassed to put out at a yard sale. From that point forward, anyone who has offered a donation to me has been given the long version of the fine print about how we can do whatever we want with the donation and the many possible outcomes.

In thinking about that incident as it relates to the Pollotta TED talk, the expectations of donations and the perception of public libraries neatly dovetail together. Would people still donate materials and money to the public library if they were told that the money would be used to publicize programs, advertise services, or branding? To double down on this question: would be taxpayers be as supportive knowing that their tax money was going spent in the same way? I believe public libraries are caught in that Catch-22: we need to spend money in order to maximize our reach into the community, but every dollar not spent on materials is perceived as wasteful, unwarranted, or even unethical.

I don’t see this as a broad spectrum problem in the public library world, but an issue for medium to small sized libraries and library systems. Larger urban libraries tend to have their own marketing and publicity departments. But even those lucky organizations seem to focus on larger scope image and branding campaigns, not the nitty-gritty of your average monthly program cycle of storytimes and book talks at a local branch. I know that there are smaller libraries out there that have the kind of publicity staff that I’m describing here, but those arrangements are more of an exception to the rule.

Based on current funding trends, it’s hard to imagine that any sort of non-MLS staff will be added to the library payroll. Combined with depressed salaries, what reasonable marketing expert is going to accept such a position when they can be do much better in the private sector? In trying to keep such overhead low so as to minimize impact to collection budget lines, there isn’t any room to make to add that kind of talent to the staff.

But, with these factors in mind, here’s the bind I see: how are public libraries going to re-brand themselves for the digital age when the funding and the talent don’t exist? And for the people who want to argue as to whether the public library really needs a re-branding, I’m sorry to inform you that that ship has sailed. It left port once the line, “We are more than just books”, became a cliché within the field. (As I recall from Stephen Abram’s keynote at NJLA this year, we seem to say that line a lot and then quote circulation numbers to show how busy we are. What kind of stupid cognitive dissonance is that?) Hell, I still get people walking through the door who didn’t know we had internet access.

In looking at some of these lofty strategic plans that talk about providing services, creating community spaces, and all kinds of future babble, where are the points and plans for letting people actually know that these things exist? Who hasn’t worked a public desk and heard a library member exclaim, “I didn’t know you offered that!” Even now, after a year of lending museum passes, I regularly get calls from people who are just discovering it. I guess I should be happy that my current publicity efforts (which are also free) of press releases to the local papers, postings to the local Facebook group, and flyers all around the library (but not in town or anywhere outside the library) are slowly trickling through and find their way to people’s attention. Perhaps, in the days before I retire, my publicity messages will reach everyone in the community.

If those “libraries are in danger of not being relevant!” Chicken Littles want a new slogan to shout, it’s not that the public library will become irrelevant because we don’t offer the latest and greatest of bestsellers, technology, or 3D printing, it’s that people don’t know the extent of what we offered in the first place. Serendipitous discovery may be the allure of the physical bookshelf, but it should not be the primary method that the public learns about some of the lesser known aspects that their library offers. Doing a great job and hoping to God that we get noticed is not a strategy that will win the hearts and minds of our community in this cluttered, attention deficit driven world.

I have some solutions in mind, but I think that would be putting the horse in front of the cart. It has to be made a priority of the public library, not an afterthought or something that would fall into “other duties as assigned” on a job description. As much as I get compliments on the publicity stuff that I do, I know I don’t hold a candle to the real professionals. It can’t just be something that is assigned to a staff member who needs something to do on the desk; it has to be given to someone who knowledgeable in the field. If this means hiring outside the library or pooling money with other libraries to do it, then it needs to happen. Any solution I can think of will die on the vine if there isn’t the motivation to make it a prerogative.

So, with all this preamble, what remains to me is this hypothetical question for you, the reader:

Would you spend a $1,000 on items for the collection or would you take that money to reach 100 people who didn’t know that the library had a notary, offered training or computer classes, makerspaces, knitting groups, or other services, programs, and materials?

If you want to nitpick about the numbers, then cast them aside and break it down to its elemental components: money for collection stuff or money for letting people know about what is at the library? If we are an organization attending to the people of the community, then why don’t we make better efforts to communicate and educate what we offer to them? Even some of the most recognized brands in the world (Coca-Cola, Apple, Google, and BMW) advertise and the majority of people in the industrialized world know what they do without prompting. There might be more library locations than McDonalds in the United States, but I’m willing to bet that people could name more items off the their menu than tell me about the variety of materials and services are offered at their local library.

I’m sure there are parallels to be drawn to other library types, specifically whether students, faculty, teachers, parents, and administration are aware of what the library to offer. There are unique publicity challenges to be faced on those fronts as well, to be certain, as it should be made a priority as well. For what does it matter how much money is spent on a collection, resources, services, and materials if people don’t know it even exists?