Don't Trend On Me!

A place to discuss terrible public relations and marketing.

Wednesday

05

November 2014

The Worst Piece On Public Relations Ever - And Why It's A Problem

by Ed Zitron

This afternoon in the social media network known as "The Face Book," a former colleague posted this piece entitled "Why Public Relations Is The Most Important Job You'll Ever Do."

Before we start, here are some more important jobs than PR professionals:

  • A trash collector.
  • A librarian.
  • A doctor.
  • A bus driver.

This is the most ham-fisted self-indulgent and self-unaware tripe I've read about PR in a few years. Its cavernous emptiness - reading like a mantra - also decries a total misunderstanding of the career and its level of actual importance to the universe at large.

This is the cancerous rhetoric that gets people to bumble into PR and do a bad job - or hate themselves, or both. This is the wordplay that tricks people into paying giant firms tens of thousands of dollars for perceived 'expertise,' in a piece that spends maybe two sentences actually describing the real job. This is why so many people are shitty at PR - because this is the kind of meaningless, vapid and self-congratulatory garbage that they are fed.

The first quote that made me reach for the Drāno was this one:
The truth is, corporate PR has undergone quite a transformation in recent years, connected in no small way to the changes experienced on both sides of the industries it serves to bridge – media and business. Quality and accountability have become the sticks with which we beat our press and the industries on which they report...

Here's the most horrific part of that: the phrase "our press." Here's why this is awful:

  • "Our press" suggests a degree of ownership over the press. Like we own them!
  • "quality and accountability have become the sticks with which we beat" - a firm suggestion that she thinks not only are PR people smarter than the press, but they also have to keep them in check.
  • There is an insidious suggestion here that PR and the press have become some sort of homogenous entity that PR controls absolutely, as an industry. This is almost true, in the sense that yes, PR effects reporting in some places. But I'm going to guess - forgive my slight elaboration here - that she's referring to content marketing bullshit.

Next patently wrong thing:
As I moved through the ranks in the early years, I learned that the majority of people who gravitated towards PR (our headcount is roughly 62,000) were just like me – decent folk in full possession of both their integrity and a highly attuned bullshit detector.

In six years of doing this I can name maybe four people who were decent folk in posession of both their integrity and a highly-attuned bullshit detector. I can tell you that 90% of them I've met have been devoid of knowledge of their industry, lacking in integrity and generally willing to do just about anything to not get fucking fired.

But wait!

As public perception about big corporations started to change – as disasters and blunders unfolded, from Lehman Brothers to BP – finding the truth was less about the story we wanted to tell, and more about a fight for the heart of business.

"Finding the truth was less about the story we wanted to tell and more about a fight for the heart of the business." What the flying blue-blazing horse-cock does that even fucking mean? Seriously, what the fuck are you talking about? Lehman Brothers and BP both did everything in their power to hide the truth, that's why everyone was so upset. The "fight for the heart of the business" was to save the money that they were going to lose and try and stop them going to jail.

It took me fourteen seconds of Wikipedia to get this QUOTE: Initially BP downplayed the incident; CEO Tony Hayward called the amount of oil and dispersant "relatively tiny" in comparison with the "very big ocean."

Gee fucking whizz that certainly sounds like someone not fighting for the heart of the business and more someone fighting to save the heart of their anus.

But of course, you could be referring to the follow-up of a $50m PR campaign. Thank god they were honest about it, right? Oh wait-

Spokesperson Toby Odone told ABC News that BP had successfully bid for several search terms related to the oil spill on Google and other search engines so that the first sponsored search result links directly to the company's website. This is "a great PR strategy" commented Kevin Ryan, CEO of an internet communications firm, and one not used before by other firms facing similar public relations "nightmares," adding that research suggests most people cannot distinguish between sponsored links and actual news sites.

So what you're saying is that one of your cited examples of truth-telling and honesty was that BP used millions of dollars to buy search terms to trick people looking for real information into going to their website for it. Okay.

Now, I'm going to skip past a bit to get to the part where this person fails to understand her actual job:

Some corporations have rightly started bringing their communications teams into the beginning of their business planning processes so they can troubleshoot bad behaviour before it gains traction, rather than mop it up at the end. Those teams deserve a seat at every board table where they can help align corporate strategy with what society demands and expects, and speak truth into power – even if it’s an uncomfortable one.

Fact! This is not a PR person's job, beyond saying "hey is this the truth? Are you lying? Don't lie" and "Don't say that you sound like a moron."

This is actually where auditors, management consultants, and, y'know, the actual founders and C-level executives come in. That's what they do. It's their company. The PR people coming in at that level might be able to say "the press might find that interesting" or "that's not the best way to describe us," but the suggestion here is that PR people are A) philosopher kings that are able to talk of all of society's needs and wants and B) Actually well-educated on the business itself to make an intelligent statement, which they are more often than not unable to.

Sorry PR people, but as an industry we are not that smart. If you expect to be there at the business plan level and actually know how the actual business works and what it does on the level of the executives I'm very bloody impressed and don't believe you.

Simply put, this isn't even our god damn function, and it's another lie perpetuated to make PR people feel like they're more important and talented than they actually are.

Sidenote!
I’m not the only one to recognise the value of their work – according to its 2013 Census, PR Week reported that “the PR sector has not just survived recession and its unconfident, penny-pinching aftermath, it has positively thrived”. Good communications is good for business.

Every PR person could be fired tomorrow and PR Week would probably report that the industry was positively thriving.

This one particular paragraph is a doozy:
Corporate communications can be a moral compass, guiding business onto the right path and setting a vision for the difference they can make. Corporate communications can help you say what you do, and do what you say. Corporate communications can – whisper it – be a force for good.
No.

Corporate communications as a force for good? Come on. At best we are sometimes-ignored safety people that get reporters to sometimes write things on the internet. We are there to stop our bosses or our spokespeople from falling into spike pits like in Prince of Persia. We are there, at our best, in that boardroom (which we really don't have a place at) to be the person to say "okay lying and spinning this is dumb."

Like any sector, there are a few bad apples spoiling it for the rest of us. But I believe that the old days of PR are well and truly gone, and the big beasts of our industry whose luxury cars and uncapped expense accounts came from the trading and burying of scandal have fallen into disrepute. There is a new generation of communications professionals on the scene, and as a collective we are a powerful corporate conscience holding businesses to account.

And this is where I lead into my conclusion: This writer is one of the bad apples. Corporate 'bullshit' is not just about scandal. It's when you take an industry that is not many if any of the things you're writing, when you claim that your business is super-moral and super-important - the "most important job you'll do" - that's spin. That's the scum-shit that you scrape off your shoe, then burn the shoe.

The "old days of PR" are not even gone. There are still million-dollar spindoctors who get people out of bad situations and keep the press from printing stories. There is manipulation by PR people in every single industry. PR people are not a corporate conscience. If they need to be, the company is fucked.

This article is just as much a problem as the lying and spinning, because it lies and spins a world to those in the industry and entering the industry. It lies about the way in which you'll be treated in an organization. It lies about the quality of the job, the importance of the job, the level of 'expertise' you have in the job - the raw skill and importance of the job.
I've worked with so many PR people - trained them, spoke to them, interviewed them, worked with them - that I know that this kind of group-think is dangerous.

As long as this industry continually lacks any ability to criticize itself - to react like this to perceived attacks with yet more spin - the real irony of the piece being how it was spin about how we're not spin doctors - and tricking young people (and the outside world) into believing it's either A) this big ethical oh we're so important land or B) spindoctors hiding war orphans being harvested for organs, it will suck.

It seems there're few PR people who are willing to say that their job isn't actually super-special. Or even "It's cool!" or "it's good!" Superlatives must ring out, we must be 'masters' and 'mavens' and 'experts.' We in this case is not you or me but the industry at large. I actually cringe any time I'm quoted as an 'expert.' Good lord I just talk to people on email. Sometimes I tell people not to be so dumb. The best thing I do is that i know my industry fairly well and can talk to all sorts of people.


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