NY Times Permits Blog Rant Against PR

The sky is falling — again — on public relations. After my decades in this profession, I’ve heard it all (just not with this rancor); what’s old is new again. We are the scapegoats for every client and reporter wronged by a PR firm; why? Because someone has to take the blame, and it’s my belief there are not enough mentors and leaders to educate our very own.

This post is from my dear friend and tweep Jenn Whinnem who claims not to be in public relations at all — but when you write like this and sit in a corporate communications department, that’s, ahem, public relations. But, hey, Jenn? You can skin the cat any way you wish.

Here now is Jenn Whinnem sharing her reactions about public relations:

Last week the illustrious Gini Dietrich of  Spin Sucks fame tweeted that her blood was boiling over a New York Times blog post. “The Problem with Public Relations” by Bruce Buschel. Curious, I clicked over, and immediately saw what she meant.

First, let me admit, I am not a PR pro; Jayme thinks I am. I don’t fight her on it because Jayme is very persuasive. But when it comes to creating a campaign to engage the media and pitching reporters, I don’t know the first thing. (In her defense, I think Jayme only considers this a facet of PR; I consider it to be PR in its entirety). If you’re wondering, then, I’d define myself as a corporate communications pro.

Either way, reading this article made me wonder if the PR industry needs to do a little PR for itself, (although one person missing the point doesn’t mean everyone else misses the point). Who in the professional services industry hasn’t experienced a client or potential client who misunderstands what you do and how much that should cost? So you educate, educate, educate, and then they ditch you and go overseas for a cheaper replacement.

Let’s sum up what moved Mr. Buschel to pen his anti-PR rant. He opened a restaurant in the Hamptons, and hired not one but two successive PR firms to create “a pre-opening vuvezela buzz” and neither firm met his expectations. Understanding Mr. Buschel’s expectations, however, takes a little detective work. He claims he went for the PR approach because “advertising was too complicated and daunting and expensive” and it made his “head spin.” Yet later in the article he says:

“I have been dealing with ‘P.R.’ people for a very long time. It would be crazy to categorize all public relations people as crazy, so let’s just say that P.R. people drive me crazy. All of them.” ~Mr. Buschel

A very long time would predate his Hamptons experience…and yet he still chose to go that route this time around, despite the fact that PR people drive him “crazy.” Curious, isn’t it?

What’s also curious are his complaints that his PR firm wanted to…wait for it…taste the food. No! The PR people wanted some knowledge of what they were promoting? That’s an outrage! Mr. Buschel was clearly outraged too:

“That last one was the showstopper. Come in for a close-up. A ‘P.R.’ firm — paid to promote us — would kick into high gear only after tasting our food? And approving of it? And what if the food wasn’t any good, wouldn’t we need more ‘P.R.’, not less? What happened to the pre-opening vuvuzela buzz? Why weren’t the social media all atwitter with Southfork Kitchen forecasts? And if our ‘P.R.’ experts accepted only clients whose culinary endeavors met with their approval, why hadn’t they dropped half their restaurant clients?” ~Mr. Buschel

And yet, in the very next paragraph, without a hint of shame, Mr Buschel complains “What I have finally come to understand is that ‘P.R.’ people are paid to twist reality into pretzels and convince you that they are fine croissants.”

Yes. The very same person who says (paraphrase) “if our food is bad, won’t we need more PR?” – meaning, if my food is terrible, you will need to spin it so people will come eat it – then complains that PR people spin things. I was flabbergasted. I shouldn’t be, but I was, no, I still am.

The rest of the article is rife with examples of Mr. Buschel not understanding the PR process, including his descriptions of how incredibly obtuse his first PR firm was. They were so obtuse in fact that they helped him define his target audience, which anyone reading this post should realize is a critical activity. Knowing your audience is half the battle, even if it is as broad as they came to realize. As to Mr. Buschel’s gross misunderstanding of all things PR, normally I might fault his PR firm for not educating him, but based on the evidence, it would seem he’s ineducable. (Is that a word? Well, now it is.)

Unlike Gini, my blood didn’t boil. I laughed at the author and the article. Gini wrote about this post (and other things) here and examined the idea of expectations, generously including how it is our fault if someone doesn’t understand what they’re buying. At the beginning of this post I wondered if the PR industry needed some PR, itself. Reading Gini’s post, I’m reminded that we can’t do our jobs well without doing a little research and education first. The best way to fight the perception problem is to put on your consultant hat and discover those expectations. “What does success look like? What will be different if you buy our service? Can you give me a picture of what you see the end result being?”

This detective work goes both ways. The client can find out if the firm is capable of delivering on your expectations. And, the firm can find out if they’d be taking on a client who has insurmountable expectations and even prejudices against what you do. If your research turns up someone who believes you’ll make him crazy, I say take a pass.

36 comments
Kathie Manchester
Kathie Manchester

I work in IT but manage the social media for our company. In software development, as in any field, defining requirements before writing one line of code is the first step. And they have to be done as 'testable' requirements so that in testing the delivering product we can define if the requirement has been met. The next step for me is laying out what requirements can actually be met, whether in the first version of the product or subsequent versions. Sometimes this is based on time lines, resources and priorities for deliverables. Everything is documented. Then all parties agree and we start work. Now of course once the customer starts to see results, they want changes. Changes are usually built into the timelines. If something gets added to the project, outside of the original project (we call this scope creep), then everything goes back to square A and the project has to be re-evaluated. If timelines can be changed, then resources have to be added, another project may have to be put on hold or something has to give. This is continuously communicated to the customer. Some get it....some do not. So I do not think the problem is unique to PR. There are just some people who never do and never will 'get it'. Their expectations are unrealistic and there is nothing you are going to do to change that. In my field, I do not have the choice to say then I am not taking on that customer, BUT I may offer a different solution...perhaps we buy instead of develop (and then their hands are really tied because it will NEVER do everything they want it to do the way they want it to do it....) but they may be good because next time, they may get it (lesson learned right?). I think some of the 'taking all jobs no matter what' is because of the economy...is a bad client better than no client. In reality if it ends up hurting your brand or reputation, then pass the client. I think in this case, because there were choices of work with this guy or not, perhaps some research on the part of the PR person researching this guy and past experiences with him may have helped. I would also have to bet that in that very first meeting, there was some inkling of what he was going to be like to work with. I would have to bet there were plenty of comments made about past experiences and dealings with PR or advertising firms and how they never gave him what he wanted. That in itself would have set off red flags all over the place. If he does it to them, he will do it to you....sometimes no client is worth that.

READY2SPARK
READY2SPARK

Fantastic post! I absolutely agree with your last point that EVERY SINGLE BUSINESS needs to be picky about the clients they choose to work with (sorry I paraphrased your wonderfully eloquent paragraph). In fact, I just spoke about this to a crowd of small businesses yesterday. We spend countless hours lamenting over the stock we print our business cards one, what printer to buy for our office or which brand of water to stock our fridges with. And yet, many of us jump for joy the minute someone calls our office with a job. Why is it that we don't place the same amount of scrutiny on the engine that keeps our businesses running? Our clients.

Today, anyone can tweet, facebook status update, blog, create a video, write a review about our company. And others will use those reviews to help form their decisions on who to work with and who to stay away from. Work with enough people who don't get you, don't understand what you do, don't care and you're creating your own detraction engine.

READY2SPARK
READY2SPARK

Fantastic post! I absolutely agree with your last point that EVERY SINGLE BUSINESS needs to be picky about the clients they choose to work with (sorry I paraphrased your wonderfully eloquent paragraph). In fact, I just spoke about this to a crowd of small businesses yesterday. We spend countless hours lamenting over the stock we print our business cards one, what printer to buy for our office or which brand of water to stock our fridges with. And yet, many of us jump for joy the minute someone calls our office with a job. Why is it that we don't place the same amount of scrutiny on the engine that keeps our businesses running? Our clients.

Today, anyone can tweet, facebook status update, blog, create a video, write a review about our company. And others will use those reviews to help form their decisions on who to work with and who to stay away from. Work with enough people who don't get you, don't understand what you do, don't care and you're creating your own detraction engine.

Jenn Whinnem
Jenn Whinnem

Elissa, what a great point - "a veritable trail of people in his wake who never understood his vision." This does seem to be the underlying complaint, doesn't it? "No one understands me even though I fail to explain myself. Also, I rant publicly about those brave enough to keep trying to understand me, especially when they fail!" Thanks for commenting.

davinabrewer
davinabrewer

Hmm.. Good publicity is very valuable, I can get why that was the goal vs. advertising. Having read yesterday and more today, it's hard for me to call not the least of which is because I don't want to generalize and because I don't know all sides. It appears as though Mr. Bushel did contract firms with specific experience in the restaurant industry and yet, there's a disconnect somewhere - the expectations from both sides.

I know I'd have wanted to see concept menus, get a sense of the service and style of the restaurant, certainly its LOCATION (parking, amenities, destination features) and yes TASTE at least some unique creations of this Michelin chef before I signed on and starting promoting his work; not just for my enthusiasm and due diligence but also to do my job: targeting, marketing research, competitive analysis, etc. On the surface, it does look like there were stories to tell but the delays - for which Mr. Bushel accepts responsibility in other NYT blog posts promoting the restaurant - put a wrinkle on that. It would be hard for me to pitch an opening, then have to go back to reporters and editors to change the date again and again, not have pictures yet, no soft opening previews, etc.

I go back to expectations and like you wrote Jenn the detective work goes both ways. Service providers should ask, clients should offer details on: "what do you want, when? How? What will you contribute to help, what do expect to see in 2-4-6 months, where? Are you wanting an integrated PR campaign (defining what that is) or strictly a media relations, publicity push (educating as to the difference)?" Clients should ask (and providers should be clear): what a firm CAN and CAN'T deliver; knowing what you WANT is helpful but not always be realistic; addressing NEED may better help the business and its promotion, help both parties define strategy, measurable, attainable goals, the tactics for a successful campaign. Everyone needs to sit down figure out of they're a good fit; I know I'd probably not work with anyone who considered me a PR flak. FWIW.

Erica Allison
Erica Allison

Wow. Just when I thought the discussion couldn't get any better...great post, Jenn. It takes all kinds and there will always be misfires, but do we really all deserve a public rant in the NYT? Really, does that help the situation? It certainly did not make the 'ranter' look better and confessing that his food wasn't deemed good enough to promote really doesn't do him any favors. I represent a Chef/restaurateur and you can bet if I didn't love her food, I wouldn't represent her. Hey, look who just dropped by...Mr. Buschel! I'll stay tuned, for sure.

Bruce Buschel
Bruce Buschel

I can help, Ms. Soulati,

"…and yet he still chose to go that route this time around, despite the fact that PR people drive him crazy. Curious, isn’t it?"

Not to me. Good PR is priceless. I thought I had found a good PR firm. Would you agree that some agencies are less than brilliant?

"What’s also curious are his complaints that his PR firm wanted to…wait for it…taste the food. No! The PR people wanted some knowledge of what they were promoting? That’s an outrage!"

The reality is this: after collecting fees for several months, when the opening was finally upon us, the firm said they had to taste the food before getting excited. We didn't have any food. We were not yet opened. Don't you think they could have said that a lot sooner in the relationship? And what if they didn't care for our food? Then what? Would they return their fees? Leave me high and dry? Remain unexcited? No one wants
an unexcited flak. The second firm did indeed taste our food and they wanted to change it -- found it too complex, too refined, too expensive. But they wanted to keep the account. Curious, isn't it?

"They were so obtuse in fact that they helped him define his target audience, which anyone reading this post should realize is a critical activity. Knowing your audience is half the battle, even if it is as broad as they came to realize."

Did you read the article? I don't believe it says any agency helped define the target audience. I would not open a restaurant without knowing my audience.

"As to Mr. Buschel’s gross misunderstanding of all things PR, normally I might fault his PR firm for not educating him, but based on the evidence, it would seem he’s ineducable. (Is that a word? Well, now it is.)"

Experienced is another word. I have owned a newspaper, ran a radio station, worked for national magazines, written books, and produced a series of television shows. I know a little about public relations. If public relations industry has poor relations with the public, how good can it be?

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

I think it's also important to note this guy is a really bad guy. He's also written "You are a douche of the first order," "100 things restaurant staffers should never do," "Don'ts for waiting tables" and a bunch of other stuff that clearly makes him one of the most difficult people to work with. He's one of those people who is successful in spite of himself. I've never understood how you can employ people when you manage that way, but people do it...and so does he.

The reason my blood was boiling is because of his broad stroke of generalizations on all of us. And because not everyone will do their research to see he's actually the biggest DB of all. As someone commented on Spin Sucks, it's like saying all restaurants in the Hamptons suck because of their experience at his.

If you have the space in the NY Times, why wouldn't you use it to educate small business owners on what to look for when hiring a PR firm? And educate PR pros on how to set expectations and work with clients who've never done PR before?

He's a not-nice word.

P.S. I'm with Jayme...you're in PR. Corporate communication is one facet of public relations, just as publicity is and events and crisis and rep management and employee comm.

Taqiyyah Shakirah D
Taqiyyah Shakirah D

I commented on Gini's post rather lightheartedly, seeing it as more of the same negative image most have in mind, and still (like Mr. Buschel) hire them. I'm pretty sure if he wants to continue to avoid my kind because of the complication and expense, he'll probably give it another go, too. So it stung, but it's also a rant, and a pretty transparent one. Later, though, Gini kindly commented on a blog post of mine and I think she hit it on the head when she said, "I also have a service business so I respect people who sell their brains. It’s hard for people who sell products or widgets to understand that." I agreed, "We speak very different languages using the same words."

SteelToad
SteelToad

... "what if the food wasn’t any good, wouldn’t we need more ‘P.R.’, not less"

Um, no, if the food isn't any good then what you need is better food not more PR. While this 'gentleman' claims to have a lot of experience with PR, he apparently doesn't know what the 'R" stands for. Relations implies two way communications, saying what you want to have said, AND understanding your target audiences reaction to your message.

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