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.