Before I attempt to answer the above question -- and address what we can do about it -- I want to begin with a joke about public relations I found while googling. A mathematician, an accountant and a public relations officer apply for the same job. When asked by the interviewer “what does two plus two equal?” the mathematician and accountant say, ‘4.’ The public relations officer responds: “What do you want it to equal?”
Come on people, we’re not really that bad. Are we?
PR professionals might not think so, but it’s clear that many outside our industry share much of the joke’s sentiments.
I recently spent two days at the Online Marketing Summit in Miami and had the opportunity to chat with a number of marketing execs in the loyalty, mobile tech and travel industries. While we discussed their business and latest industry trends, I also endured quite a bit of PR-industry trashing.
I’m not oblivious to our industry’s plight. Reporters say we’ve “gone over to the dark side.” People call us spinsters. Just read the comments of this article about disagreements between Wikipedia editors and PR people who represent the subjects on the Web site:
"No one on earth has a more 'dishonest' relationship with ‘the truth’ than those in the PR profession. Their reputation as 'hired gun' liars and swindlers is legendary and well-deserved.”
But this was different. What threw me was that the majority of people I spoke with had negative things to say about their own PR reps. You’d think of all people, these “hired guns” would be immune.
When the public rants about PR pros they’re often thinking of the crisis-management outfits that help Big Tobacco or British Petroleum sell their oily slick propaganda.
But client complaints are a whole other matter. Most of the gripes I heard ranged from: “All they did was write press releases” to “they weren’t creative or strategic in planning,” or my favorite, “they charged a lot but didn’t do much.”
If this pervasive dissatisfaction is what I’m hearing in such a small group, I shudder to think what’s thought of us elsewhere.
So why are so many clients unhappy with their PR companies?
Perhaps, like any joke, there is a kernel of truth in their collective accusations. I can tell you this -- I founded ThinkInk in part because I too was fed up with PR firms stuck in traditional modes -- press release factories that failed to explain why a reporter should write about or quote a client. Releases like that don’t grow legs (and make for a future story) -- they grow wings and fly themselves headfirst into the nearest rubbish bins.
Of course, press releases are part of what we do. But where is it written that press releases must inevitably be a lower-evolved form of journalism? In the end, like journalists, PR professionals are storytellers too. Seen in this light, the press release is an adjunct fleshing out the story, acting as a reference with client facts laid out.
As industry insiders know, sometimes you have to bow to a client’s wishes if you want to maintain the relationship -- even if the result produces a bloated document whose contents could have been reduced by half. While that’s not the same as saying 2+2=5 or asking a client what we’d like the numbers to add up to, it’s a reality that sometimes is scarily closer than we care to admit.
We can poke, push and prod our clients to take risks -- to try new ways of getting their message out -- but sometimes a client is unmovable and we just have to “make it work.”
So dislike us if you want, but realize that sometimes it’s our paid job to turn mayhem into magic and with few resources to go on. But even so, my summit experience jolted me into the realization that there’s clearly a problem here -- one that affects the whole industry.
So in the spirit of curtailing that hatred, I want to start a PR community discussion. Let’s ask ourselves, “Why do they hate us? What are we doing wrong?” Let’s do whatever we must to fix the problem and make sure that in the future, our clients have more good things to say about us.
Let’s remind them that like an accountant and a mathematician, we too know that 2+2=4.