In 1910, William Jennings Bryan used the famous whistle-stop train to campaign for a proposed Constitutional amendment against special interests. That is: to spread a message, he literally spoke out of the back of a train, after which more coal was shoveled into the firebox and they hurried on to the next town, where he could do it again. (Here’s a photo of Gerald and Betty Ford doing a whistle-stop tour in 1976, just to be cute). So, sure, when train travel was a good way of getting your message out, (almost) any publicity was good publicity. It really depended on whether you were running for office or selling a new brand of girdle.
Even once television took hold, publicity was hard to come by. My mom, who is in her early fifties, often told me stories about having “only three channels” on television, and how if someone was on Johnny Carson, basically every single person in America had seen it or at least knew about it. (My mother is also adamant that, when the Jackson 5 first appeared on Johnny Carson, she was the one who predicted that Michael would be a big deal). So, if you could get Johnny Carson to mention your name or product even in a derogatory way, sure, any publicity was good publicity.
Publicity is now, comparatively, really easy to get. There is more media than anyone can consume or even know about. In the ’60s, if you were on television regularly, you were definitely A Famous Person. Today, there are not only more television shows than anyone can keep track of, there are entire television networks many culturally- literate people have never heard of. Try this: next time someone asks you what you do, say that you host a television show. If the person seems like a big hipster, say it’s late-night on EW. If the person seems not like a hipster, say it’s late-night on IFC. Pick some believable semi-celebrities you recently interviewed, like Lo Bosworth, or Levi Johnston’s family members. 90% chance you’ll get away with it.
On a more down-to-earth note, when I went on an East Coast tour as a comedian in 2007, getting press was really, really easy. If you do something cool in, say, Durham, people would like to know about it. Neat! Everyone’s happy! Even if you don’t get a feature article in the local alternative newsweekly, you will definitely be in the calendar, because the calendar lists literally everything that is happening. In New York, you can fly in a troupe of singing Maori children and still have to fellate someone to get listed in TimeOut under “Tuesday.”
But if print doesn’t work out, there are blogs! And if you do an interview that gets cut from the print edition of the newspaper because there’s a bomb threat at the local Stop & Shop, your piece will still go up online. Newspapers aren’t going to let content go to waste once it’s been created.
If you have a bit more time on your hands, actually create the free content yourself. Plenty of highly-read blogs would be happy to take free content from you, provided that the free content is itself informative and/or entertaining and only promotes your event/product obliquely (here’s an example). Every time you open a local newspaper and see one of those how-to columns on homebuying — always next to a photo of a smiling, glossy-haired real estate agent — you’re seeing someone who’s trading content generation for publicity. You can also do this for things that aren’t lame.
In fact, if your career would be helped by being able to say that you have PR experience, I highly recommend either developing some kind of cool performance or event, or attaching yourself to someone else’s, and then going on the road to various small and medium-sized American cities, and getting press. Seriously: if it’s election time, try a political trivia show. If people are making a big deal about Crystal Renn, put on a plus-size fashion show. Anytime is a good time for a charity fundraiser. These things are not hard to do (I once, through a strange confluence of events, guest-wrote two pages of a book, explaining to religious people how to put on a modest fashion show). Then book a small theater or find an amenable bar or community space, schedule your event, send event listings and friendly emails to all the local news outlets and blogs, get in your car or on a Greyhound bus, go do your show, and email the Flickr link late that night to any bloggers and journalists who sounded interested but couldn’t make it. Now you have clips! Your resume is now full of PR experience!
So, publicity: there’s plenty of it to go around.