Do PR People Deserve Their Low Reputations?

Do PR People Deserve Their Low Reputations?

Article by: Jeremy James

Posted on: June 7, 2016

I started my career as a journalist. In those early days, I had an editor — an old-school newspaper guy with a drinking problem, a young girlfriend he knew in his heart he was not going to keep, and an eight-year-old Mercedes sedan he proudly pointed to as some sort of sign of accomplishment — who had an extraordinarily low view of PR people. We were not allowed to quote PR people by name. They were “a spokesman” (it did not matter if the PR person we quoted was a woman) and none of us ever filed a story quoting a spokesman that the editor did not berate us for failing to get to an actual source. It is not for nothing that PR people are called flacks, right?

In Episode 4 of the first season of the Netflix series “Narcos,” the drug lords are grappling with the implications of Colombia’s new law allowing extradition to the U.S. DEA agent Steve Murphy, who provides what New York Post writer Robert Rorke calls “mordant commentary,” says: “As for the Ochoa brothers — they went with a fancy PR firm. And got ripped off because, well, that’s what PR agencies do.” Not sure that’s true. Doesn’t seem like a sustainable business model. But it’s a good line. That’s what screenwriters do.

Ironic that a function focused on reputation should have a bit of a reputation problem — at least in the popular mind. But it’s not surprising. PR, executed at the highest level, is entirely contrived but looks completely natural to anyone on the outside. When I say ‘entirely contrived,’ I don’t mean falsified. I’m not talking about lying here. I’m talking about being very very deliberate in message development and delivery. My editor, back in the day, had a kind of ill-informed but intuitive grasp of this fact. He knew that a PR person’s job was positive spin. Disclosing truth was secondary.

Today, of course, when news and entertainment and politics have metastasized into merely individual aspects of the same unpleasant furball, everyone knows what spin is. Everyone knows anyone speaking in an official capacity for any major enterprise — whether it is business or government — is vigorously spinning some advantageous POV. Ripping off clients? Not so much. That’s just a screenwriter violating the rule of writing what you know.

So then PR people and the agencies they work for are a necessary evil, right? Well, I have seen a lot of really crappy PR in my life. I have heard a lot of really bad PR advice (though most of that has come from engineers who, being really smart in engineering, imagine they are smart on everything).

I answer my own question thusly: PR people are necessary because the people reporters want to talk to have jobs other than talking to reporters. The good PR people understand the reporter’s task, and are as much advocates to their clients for the reporters as advocates for their clients to reporters. (I can imagine people on the client side going, “Wait. What?” I will address this point in a future blog post.) I have only known a couple evil PR people in my life and, frankly, they practiced deceit because they were in deeply over their heads, had no idea what to do and were desperate and afraid.

In my experience, PR people come in three varieties: 1) the doe-eyed communicator just out of school who does most the work at large agencies (I will address this flaw in the traditional agency model in a future blog post); 2) the driven media relations soldier whose professional self-concept is tied up in landing coverage (these people are a treasure…and often quite monomaniacal about their jobs); 3) the smart, thoughtful people who live for strategy and substantive conversations with smart reporters. This latter category — yes, I put myself here (call me immodest) — hate working for badly run enterprises with also-ran products. Because, good PR people, while they absolutely are spinning, are spinning the truth. And it is hard to find positive things to push for badly run enterprises with also-ran products.

So, sure, there are plenty of PR people who have earned their low reputations — just as their are plenty of business executives, politicians…and husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends who deserve their low reputations. There are some reporters who aren’t worth admiring either. These are the ones who care only about drama and conflict and view every set of facts through the lens of sensationalism. Hate those guys. They are crappy reporters.

Without question, the power of effective PR is the resulting earned media for the client. Powerful earned media comes when you get a good, solid, experienced journalist (this is most of them) and a solid PR person with a good client. Both value each other. The PR person is not an annoyance to the reporter but a valuable resource. She or he helps the reporter do good work and the reporter writes (or records) a story that is (actually) accurate and fair.

And no one is getting ripped off.