I read Schuyler Brown’s blog on the Huffington Post last week feeling a weird combination of amusement, distaste and even awe. First of all, kudos Ms. Brown for writing “As we speak, or blog, or Twitter, the Information Age is spawning its evil progeny, The Golden Age of PR.” Not because I agree with it, but because I haven’t heard nonsensical statement like that since I was a ignorant bar manager at wine tastings. When we couldn’t figure out what snotty thing to say, we’d say “My, that was oblique without being obtrusive.” Although it didn’t really mean anything it always came across very well, especially when said with an expert twirl of the wine and an arched brow.
Let me get to my point before I get lost in alcoholic nostalgia. In her blog, Ms. Brown has captured the bias of many people out there regarding PR. A lot of people think we’re just a bunch of liars who will do anything to get a placement. Or, clever spin doctors that we are, we distort the truth to pull the wool over the poor unsuspecting consumer who never knew what hit him. Now, I’m not going to say there zero truth to this or that there aren’t some dishonest, conniving PR folks out there (as there are in banking, telecomm advertising, politics, management…..) As a publicist, it IS my job to present my clients in the best light possible to ALL their “publics” – whether it’s the media, the customer, the government, whomever. What strikes me as ridiculous is that most of the people who bash PR (like Ms. Brown) don’t seem to have any understanding of what it is exactly that we do. I’m not going to go into a lengthy description of what we do – if you’re interested the Princeton Review has a pretty good job description. I’d point out in particular their comment that publicists “.. must always be available for comment (even when that comment is “no comment”) and remain friends with the media, no matter how demanding the desires of both clients and the reporters on whom they depend.” That’s why instead of dreaming up Machiavellian ways to distort the truth for our own evil purposes, we’re most likely working the phone on a Friday night to get a client to a last-minute requested interview.
According to Ms. Brown, brands are abandoning advertising, which is “pretty transparent”, in favor of ” spin and PR.” I think the people fighting the cereal companies who make those nice little websites for your kids to play with – that also contain hundreds of brand impressions for their sugary breakfast foods – would probably disagree about the transparency of advertising. If you don’t know what an advertorial is, well it’s a very common practice where advertising is thinly disguised as an editorial story in a magazine. It’s a fact that advertising can bevery misleading – just ask all the people writing about the ethics of subliminal messaging in advertising. (Or you can watch this fun YouTube video for some examples too – note the extremely tragic music)
But arguing the ethics of advertising aside – regardless of what the general public thinks, public relations is usually pretty honest because basically, it’s pretty hard to pull the wool over the eyes of a CNN producer or an NPR correspondent. And guess what – you get caught in just one lie and those people will shut you out forever. Sure, do we write releases to show our clients to their best advantage – of course! Do we try to reduce the damage from a crisis and somehow turn it into a positive? Absolutely! Does Madonna’s rep lie to the media – probably, mainly because she can get away with it. The other 99.9% of us don’t have that luxury.