This post has been a long-time coming, but I am writing it today because one of my professional PR friends just told me that I am “too principled” and that I should do whatever a client asks, even if I think it is a bad idea so that I can get paid for the work.
Sure. Thanks for the advice, but also…have you met me?
The idea of just doing weird, wrong, or wonky public relations in order to collect a paycheck or a client payment is the exact opposite of my work ethic and philosophy. The idea that this was suggested by someone who has worked in PR for roughly the same number of years as I have, is concerning. This was not some young whippersnapper who does not yet understand the complexity of professional ethics. Nor was it someone from another profession with no insight into the issues of trust and reputation that are facing our profession. This was, sadly, an experienced professional offering their best advice in the dog-eat-dog world of public relations.
Hunt or be hunted. That is today’s PR ethos.
I can understand that many people would drift toward the hunt or be hunted mindset with these current economic issues, but I have done this in some form for 20 years and we cannot blame Covid anxiety or the stress of remote work for this longstanding attitude that pervades PR. In recent years, I have worked as a freelance public relations consultant with small businesses, start-ups, and solopreneurs, while also working as a consultant to PR agencies. The bad habits and burnout that we all know to exist were an issue well before Covid.
One of the top posts from this blog is about burnout and it is not because I am promoting it. I posted it on social media twice after it was completed. It is a highly-read blog post because people are searching for the keywords “public relations” and “burn out.”
As an industry, we can blame Covid or the economy, but the truth is that these issues have been ongoing.
Every day since the beginning of social media, I have seen at least one journalist complain about weird, random, or ridiculous PR efforts. Everyone laughs it off like ha ha we are so bad at our jobs, but, hey whatcha gonna do? It’s like the “boys will be boys” response to the MeToo movement. People throw their hands in the air like, darn too bad there’s nothing we can do.
I once had an agency ask me to lead media relations for a client’s super niche pet product. They sent me a media list to review. It had 2,500 journalists in the excel spreadsheet.
I emailed back: I think someone sent me the main agency media list.
No: That’s the list for this product.
Me: It has 2,500 reporters, most of which are not even closed covering this topic.
Them: Well the CEO wanted the media list to have 25,000 reporters so this is progress.
Me, Silently: OK. Hold the f*cking phone! 25,000 people on a media list?
Interestingly, there were only 50,000 reporters in all of the United States at the time, and suggesting that the political reporters at the Columbus Daily Gazette need to get this dog food pitch too is ridiculous.
Them: Yeah, we just do what the boss tells us to do.
Sounds like the same sentiment as my PR friend.
Me: OK thanks for the insight.
I set up a meeting with the boss, who by the way makes $250,000 dollars a year as a base salary and they were paying me about $25,000 so I had a lot less skin in the game. However, it is a huge reminder that principles do not make you rich in the PR game!
In my conversation with the CEO, I reminded him that he hired me based on a blog post that I wrote called the Myth of the PR Rolodex. He found me. He recruited me. It was my strategic, relationship-based approach to the media relations that he wanted his team to learn. I was the model and I kid you not, when he introduced me to his team team he called me (and my fiancé heard this because it was on a conference call so I am not lying) his very own elite PR Navy seal!
He told the team that they might not understand at the beginning but that they could trust me to lead them anywhere. Wow. Quite the compliment right? My contract was canceled the next business day.
How did I go from elite Navy Seal to canceled contract over a weekend?
I pushed back on the 2500 person media list. I dared to question the age-old practice of spray-and-pray. I dared to suggest that just because you could include 2500 journalists on an email blast, perhaps you should not. I suggested that clients were paying the agency for a more strategic approach. If PR success was simply based on buying a list in spamming 95% of of the reporters on that list, then companies would just do that and not hire an agency.
He listened to my concerns but by the time the phone call ended, my email had been disconnected and all company intranet access had been suspended.
In this scenario, I was the a-hole. I was the one who was messing up his groove. I was the one who didn’t get it.
High principles, low employment.
Having been in PR for a long time, longer than I care to admit, because we all know that agism is rampant. I have grown children, of course I am not a-20 something, but the burn-and-churn PR world does not reward experience. It rewards obedience.
Because I am down as a PR professional who wants to talk about the issues in PR, people reach out to me. From Twitter, to Linked In, to my email inbox I receive questions about PR on a regular basis. The questions are rarely how do I do PR, but are mostly “Why?” questions, often I am simply a sounding board or supportive ear to someone who is struggling.
Recent conversations have been with PR friends as well as with strangers who see a post or comment or just reach out. (Which I love by the way! DM’s are always open! <3)
These chats have covered:
- Grave ethical violations: Such as agency heads directed staff to inflate potential media interest or potential media coverage.
- Ageism: Senior professionals who cannot for jobs because 10+ job requirements mean we want someone with 10 years of experience, but if you have 25 years of experience, you are old and we do not want to. I know she is not exaggerated because I look really young and I have seen how people treat me when they find out my actual age. In this industry youth is the gold standard for the bulk of the employee base, with a few older white men at the top.
- Burnout: I have had Conversations about staffers being reprimanded for taking an actual lunch during Covid- “you’re home so just stuff some food in your mouth and keep working!”
- Interns: A paid intern who was also a student got fired for not being flexible which she said should and could not stay up late to work on something that was thrown at her after hours.
- Bullying: A mom with two small kids who was 100% available online during the working day was labeled unprofessional when her boss called her into a zoom meeting after hours because her kid was crying in the background. Don’t at me with the “oh, people who don’t have kids don’t understand.” The boss had kids too!
I once worked at an agency where people could bring, their dogs to work if they were quiet. It was very common to see a fuzzy creature curled up under a desk. I went to sit at a friend’s desk and said “Oh!” I looked down for a dog and it was her kid! She brought her kid and put him/her under the desk so she could work.
I said they should just go home. I was senior to her but not on that team. We had different bosses. She said she would get in trouble if she took time off.
Now I might be old, but this was not in the olden days. We had the Internet and email. She could have easily worked from home, but do you know #AgencyLife.
and I get that technology is great and it should be used to help people, but I hear stories where it really just undermines people.
We’ve all read about the meltdowns people have had on Slack or the inappropriate ways zoom has been used.
So you might be asking: If PR is so bad why do you keep doing it?
Believe me, I’ve asked this question myself. But it’s like this: weight loss scams are bad but I still believe in exercise. Shady used car tricks are bad, but I still believe in the automotive industry. There are lots of faux Fox News reports, but I still believe in journalism.
My goal is not to cancel all of PR. My goal is to make it better and to have us all working towards our highest ideals.
Go ahead. Laugh now. And queue up the Jerry McGuire manifesto quips. I get it. While I am singing Kumbaya and tweeting let’s be the change you want to see in the world, someone else is inking a lucrative client and laughing all the way to the bank.
But I just want to point out that in the end Jerry McGuire won. That movie has a happy ending!
So while my shouting into the wind may be futile, I still have hope. I have hope that PR agencies will address diversity and equity issues, I have hope that wellness and burnout will be taken seriously in PR. I have hope that strategic advice will become the goal for both clients, companies, and agencies.
The media world is shrinking.
Constricting newsrooms was an issue prior to Covid and layoffs continue to impact journalism. We can blame the hedge funds that raid newsrooms for profit or the numb masses who won’t pay for real journalism. Either way the pool of individuals who report stories, the professionals that are integral to the media relations function is shrinking. As practitioners we have to wean client companies off the idea of sending press releases or pitches to obnoxiously large media lists. It is ineffective, unsophisticated, and unprofessional. Journalists do not want random pitches and we cannot build successful relationships by knowingly and willingly pissing off half of our professional partners.
Journalists are not our customers and we have to provide a reasonable service to them. Yes, they want our highly developed, hugely targeted, well-timed stories. We are not doing that. 90% of pitches get blocked or deleted. It’s not because journalists don’t know a good story when they see one. It’s because we are pitching bad stories, at the wrong time, to the wrong people. We are addicted to the hype we are selling.
We need to stop feeding clients the BS that we can get them placed in high ranking news outlets based on our contacts. We have to demolish the Golden Rolodex and provide relevant, modern media training.
We have to educate client companies on how the media wins now, what the structure and content of a good story is and what they will need to do to make that happen.
I laughed out loud when a journalist made fun of the people pitching “thought leaders” en-masse after a big tech story broke. Every CEO is a leader by default and assuming they are not brain dead they have thoughts. That in no way indicates that those thoughts, after a news story has broken, is going to be highly relevant to a small group of journalists. Good reporters know what the word on the street is. They know when news is coming. They are not often surprised. Why pitch after? They likely have a bank of highly relevant sources based on the topic they cover. Client companies thought leadership pitched after the fact is not a news story for most journalists.
I work in B2B and tech so my PR view is different than a totally consumer review, but I cannot believe that if the top news out of Fashion Week is that orange is in fact the new black and everyone is covered in orange, that a pitch that says, “oh, by the way, our designer thinks that orange is the new black too” would get very far.
If you have read this far, you probably think that I am just a crank and that I need to back away slowly from the keyboard.
I am not a negative person, I just know that there’s a right way to do this.
And I may not have made the big bucks yet, but I am not going to change my “too principled” approach. I am going to continue pounding for the deed for diversity and inclusion and reforms. I am going to continue advocating for wellness and balance in our industry, especially for the newer professionals who feel they cannot push back. And I am for sure going to continue my one-woman media studies crusade because if we are going to continue to hold earned media as the gold standard and PR then we had better all understand how media and journalism works and be able to advise our clients appropriately.