Monday, March 15, 2004

Popular Misperception 

I'm reading a history of Mozart's last year of life, called "Mozart's Last Year: 1791." The author, H.C. Robbins Landon, went back to archival evidence, original correspondence, newspaper reports and other documentary material to reconstruct Mozart's final days. It's interesting because the man that emerges is vastly different than that of the stage play and movie called Amadeus by Peter Shaffer.

What people think about Mozart today is in no way accurate. He wasn't a wastrel touched by genius, as Shaffer would have it. He wasn't murdered by Salieri. Certainly, Salieri didn't like Mozart but Salieri programmed and conducted Mozart's music in 1791. Mozart was a middle-class householder and composer scrambling to make a living at a time when composers did not have copyright protection on their works. The man was a devoted husband and a shrewd, pragmatic operator. He wrote for instruments he had on hand and voices under contract. His genius emerged in mudane circumstances.

The public would rather believe the myth.

There was a time -- for some PR practitioners, there still is a time -- when accuracy was not essential. It was more important to titillate than stick to facts. In fairness to publicists, accuracy wasn't that important to newspapers either. The great sportswriters of the 1920s and 1930s often made up their copy. It was creative writing with an emphasis on legend.

It is easy to create popular misperception but hard to correct it. That's something to remember in everyday PR work. Getting the story right the first time helps one avoid many hours of repositioning later.


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