How PR is as bad is it ever was

In 2013 – Beginning Of The End For PR Boomers, David Bray actually says this…

The media landscape is evolving rapidly, and baby boomers are about to be left behind because of their inability to keep up with technology and the changing times. The days of the self-proclaimed experts (those who profess to be “thought leaders” as a result of reading and hearing about new advancements that clients can take advantage of) are long gone.

Media today is all about authenticity — and largely dominated by participatory media and consumers, who see right through advertising and marketing hyperbole and shut it out. Participating in these media is the only way to gain a “true” understanding of how and which work, and which don’t. Clients are demanding that their PR counsel and support teams are in the conversation, and that they themselves use the media where their content is being created and distributed.

Take, for example, the use of social media for online business networking or lead generation. As the saying goes, “it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” The old dog in this instance — baby boomers — use traditional, in-person offline meetings as their primary source of building their business networks, while the younger generations are building their own brands and businesses more quickly, and reaching a much wider audience by leveraging new digital tools like LinkedIn and Twitter to run full-on campaigns.

… giving his profession some bad PR that gets worse as you read down through the comments. Here’s mine:

No person is just a demographic, just a race, or just a category. Nor does any person like to be dismissed as a stereotype, especially if that stereotype is wrong about them personally. I have 972 friends on Facebook, 19,061 followers on Twitter, 801 connections on LinkedIn, a Klout score of 81 and a PeerIndex of 81. That I’m also 65 is not ironic. If I weren’t this old, those stats wouldn’t be this high. I got the hell out of PR several demographics ago — and into the far more helpful work I do now — exactly because of shallow and dismissive stereotyping that has been a cancer in PR, and all of marketing, for the duration. It only makes the problem worse to drive out of the business people who have been young a lot longer than you have.

PR’s problems are old news and not getting any younger. Here is what I wrote for Upside in 1992. Alas, Upside erased itself when it died, the Wayback Machine only traces it back to 1996, and the text is stuck for now in a place where search engines don’t index it.  So I’ll repeat the whole thing here:

THE PROBLEM WITH PR
TOWARD A WORLD BEYOND PRESS RELEASES & BOGUS NEWS

There is no Pulitzer Prize for public relations. No Peabody. No Heismann. No Oscar, Emmy or Eddy. Not even a Most Valuable Flacker award. Sure, like many misunderstood professions, public relations has its official bodies, and even its degrees, awards and titles. Do you know what they are? Neither do most people who practice the profession.

The call of the flack is not a grateful one. Almost all casual references to public relations are negative. Between the last sentence and this one, I sought to confirm this by looking through a Time magazine. It took me about seven seconds to find an example: a Lance Morrow essay in which he says Serbia has “the biggest public relations problem since Pol Pot went into politics.” Since genocide is the problem in question, the public relations solution can only range from lying to cosmetics. Morrow’s remark suggests this is the full range of PR’s work. Few, I suspect, would disagree.

So PR has the biggest PR problem of all: people use it as a synonym for BS. It seems only fair to defend the profession, but there is no point to it. Common usage is impossible to correct. And frankly, there is a much smaller market for telling the truth than for shading it.

For proof, check your trash for a computer industry press release. Chances are you will read an “announcement” that was not made, for a product that was not available, with quotes by people who did not speak them, for distribution to a list of reporters who considered it junk mail. The dishonesty here is a matter of form more than content. Every press release is crafted as a news story, complete with headline, dateline, quotes and so forth. The idea is to make the story easy for editors to “insert” with little or no modification.

Yet most editors would rather insert a spider in their nose than a press release in their publication. First, no self-respecting editor would let anybody else — least of all a biased source — write a story. Second, press releases are not conceived as stories, but rather as “messages.”

It is amazing how much time, energy and money companies spend to come up with “the right message.” At this moment, thousands of staffers, consultants and agency people sit in meetings or bend over keyboards, straining to come up with perfect messages for their products and companies. All are oblivious to a fact that would be plain if they paid more attention to their market than their product.

There is no demand for messages.

There is, however, a demand for facts. To editors, messages are just clothing and make-up for emperors that are best seen naked. Editors like their subjects naked because facts are raw material for stories. Which brings up another clue that public relations tends to ignore.

Stories are about conflict.

What makes a story hot is the friction in its core. When that friction ceases, the story ends. Take the story of Apple vs. IBM. As enemies, they made great copy. As collaborators, they are boring as dirt.

The whole notion of “positive” stories is oxymoronic. Stories never begin with “happily ever after.” Happy endings may resolve problems, but they only work at the end, not the beginning. Good PR recognizes that problems are the hearts of stories, and takes advantage of that fact.

Unfortunately, bad PR not only ignores the properties of stories, but imagines that “positive” stories can be “created” by staging press conferences and other “announcement events” that are just as bogus as press releases — and just as hated by their audiences.

Columnist John Dvorak, a kind of fool killer to the PR profession, says, “So why would you want to sit in a large room full of reporters and publicly ask a question that can then be quoted by every guy in the place? It’s not the kind of material a columnist wants — something everybody is reporting. I’m always amazed when PR types are disappointed when I tell them I won’t be attending a press conference.”

So why does PR persist in practices its consumers hold in contempt?

Because PR’s consumers are not its customers. PR’s customers are companies who want to look good, and pay PR for the equivalent of clothing and cosmetics. If PR’s consumers — the press — were also its customers, you can bet the PR business would serve a much different purpose: to reveal rather than conceal, clarify rather than mystify, inform rather than mislead.

But it won’t happen. Even if PR were perfectly useful to the press, there is still the matter of “positioning” — one of PR’s favorite words. I have read just about every definition of this word since Trout & Ries coined it in 1969, and I am convinced that a “position” is nothing other than an identity. It is who you are, where you come from, and what you do for a living. Not a message about your ambitions.

That means PR does not have a very good position. It’s identity is a euphemism, or at least sounds like one. While it may “come from” good intentions, what it does for a living is not a noble thing. Just ask its consumers.

Maybe it is time to do with PR what we do with technology: make something new — something that works as an agent for understanding rather than illusion. Something that satisfies both the emperors and their subjects. God knows we’ve got the material. Our most important facts don’t need packaging, embellishment or artificial elevation. They only need to be made plain. This may not win prizes, but it will win respect.

That was 21 years ago. Now PR doesn’t just spin the press, but “influencers” of all kind. These days I sometimes find myself on the receiving end of that spin: a vantage from which I can see how much the fundamental disconnects in PR have remained the same, while the methods used, and the influencers targeted, have changed. (Mostly by adding new methods to old ones that haven’t changed at all.)

Even the “social media” David Bray finds so young and modern embody the same disconnect between consumers and customers that have afflicted old media, such as TV and radio, from the beginning. Only now the consumers are called users while the customers are still called advertisers. Thus PR maintains the age-old dysfunction of stereotyping populations, and of dealing with whole populations through categorical prejudices, rather than engaging real human beings in real ways, with a minimum of bullshit, even when one party is spinning and the other is just listening. That’s what being “in the conversation” actually means.

8 comments

  1. Joseph Ratliff’s avatar

    Awww… man Doc, did you have to use “insert spider into their nose…” ?

    I just had a nightmare. :)

    But I loved this piece, it illustrates one of the things the Internet does so well… magnifying what we think (good or bad).

    The stereotyping of “old people” as “behind the times” is just a mistake.

    I know plenty of young people who don’t want to own a smart phone, ever… even though the stereotype is opposite.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I remember debating what metaphor to use, back when I wrote that. I had a better one (“crab up their ass”?), but settled for spider-up-the-nose one for some half-polite reason.

    On the age thing, all of my kids (ranging from 16 to 43) are far less tech-savvy, and tech-interested, than I am. All occupy demographics and categories of one kind or another, but none are defined by those categories. And, I suspect, all resent being lumped into any category.

  3. Joseph Ratliff’s avatar

    So, I realize your post here was about “PR”… but do you think this is a marketing thing? For example… companies like Verizon wanting to “lump” their market into easily target-able segments, and using various tactics (like PR, press releases, commercials etc…) to accomplish this?

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Sure. It isn’t just PR at all. Bad manners have been marketing-wide for the duration.

    See here. The Bill Hicks clip at that blog post is about the same vintage as my original piece about PR.

    There is nothing wrong with demographic targeting of advertising. This is why there isn’t much complaining about beer and truck ads on sports broadcasts. There is something wrong with insulting people personally by subordinating them to whatever groups marketing happens to think they belong to. That’s what David Bray did in that MediaPost piece. And that’s what remains a cancer on marketing in general as well as PR in particular.

  5. Brett Cohen’s avatar

    I don’t think you can fragment PR in this conversation. Marketing as a whole these days is the problem. Handling most marketing for SeatCrunch, I see this often with my competitors. “These days I sometimes find myself on the receiving end of that spin: a vantage from which I can see how much the fundamental disconnects in PR have remained the same, while the methods used, and the influencers targeted, have changed. (Mostly by adding new methods to old ones that haven’t changed at all.)” I think this is the most valid argument you can make about the marketing landscape these days.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Sorry you got stuck in the mod queue for a bit there, Brett.

    And yes, we are in agreement here. Makes me want to channel my inner Bill Hicks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDW_Hj2K0wo

  7. Lou Hoffman’s avatar

    Doc,

    One line from your essay captures the disconnect in the PR industry:

    “There is no demand for messages.”

    I would go a step further and challenge anyone to find a customer/client/prospect who ever uttered the words:

    “Wow, that’s a great message.”

    While you escaped the profession, I still find satisfaction at both the personal and agency level in working with clients in a manner that reflects today’s climate (take your pick, sadistic or an optimist).

    While I can get as frustrated as the next person at what passes for PR (i.e., “Why Journalists Get Cranky About PR at http://www.ishmaelscorner.com/2012/12/05/why-journalists-get-cranky-about-pr/) I do question whether the breakdown of of great, good, average, mediocre, and poor PR practitioners is any different from other communication disciplines including journalism.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Lou. I think there is a similar breakdown in most professions, including journalism. In fact that’s one of the categories I’ve been focused on changing lately. I just brought up the PR one because I thought David Bray’s piece needed a better response than one comment at the bottom of a long thread. In any case, at the rate I talk about PR, it’ll be another 20 years before I bring it up again.

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