“Why I’m quitting PR” – an anonymous parting shot

By on Thursday, December 20, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, somebody I’ve known in the industry for a few years, who’s both held senior positions here in the UK and in the States, emailed to let me know she was leaving PR. I think it’s a loss to the industry, but she very kindly agreed to write (anonymously, obviously) to tell us why she’s quitting.

I think it’s something all people working in PR anywhere in the world – and students hoping to work in the any field of marketing – should read.

Why I’m Quitting PR

That’s a really grandiose title; I may not be quitting PR for good, but I am, indefinitely, quitting the industry and certainly the job I currently hold at an exalted global agency in favour of unemployment and uncertainty. This is almost certainly an incredibly stupid thing to do, but it also feels very much like the right thing.

After over a decade working in agencies of various stripes, there has come a point where I can no longer put up with some of the industry conventions – or indeed some of the commonly accepted wisdom that strikes me as anything but.

Below are some of the things that have pushed me to resign – and which I think need fixing for PR to continue (begin?) to be taken seriously as a profession.

And to forestall the inevitable ‘well we don’t do things like that round here’ comments – yes, you do. Everyone does, to varying degrees. I have, you do, others will. Don’t despair, though – we can fix this.

1) The client is always right

Client says jump; agency not only asks “how high?” but also “out of which window?”. I get it – our clients pay our wages. That is not to say, however, that agencies should be bullied by, or dictated to, by clients – particularly when the client is wrong. As with all service professions, clients engage the services of PR agencies because they (or the individuals that work there) have expertise and insight that the client lacks; in which case, agencies, feel free to use that expertise and insight to advise the client rather than simply doing whatever they ask of you whether or not it makes any sense. You know what? It’s ok to tell a client that no, you are not going to issue that press notice because it’s not news, or that no one cares about their internal messaging, least of all the media, or that unless they make it funny/shocking/incredible, it won’t ‘go viral’.

There’s a difference between being a consultant and a chump, and it’s one that it seems is increasingly misunderstood by the PR industry. If all you do is what your client tells you, if you don’t challenge them or offer different perspectives, if you are not honest, then you are failing as a PR. Also, and this one’s for the moneymen/women – the margins on consultancy are better than the ones on execution, generally. You can make more money consulting for your clients than calling journalists – and consulting means, quite often, challenging their expectations and ideas. Amazing, I know.

2) Facebook

The standard argument as to why agencies do Facebook Pages (you can apply this to other social media platforms, but Facebook is the most ubiquitous so we’ll use it as the catch-all) usually runs something like one of the following:

– The client wants one

– Something, something, engagement, something

– If we don’t, the digital / marketing / ad agency will do it instead and get all of that lovely community management money

It’s incredibly rare that you will hear anyone – agency or client side, in fairness – answer the question ‘so, why are you on Facebook?’ with anything other than some bland guff about the need to engage with brand advocates online. This, I would argue, is not an adequate answer. Go and look at the posts on the Condescending Corporate Brand Page and then look at the things that you as an agency do for your clients. See the difference? If not, then you are wasting your time and the client’s money. And it’s not even like it’s that much money. As an aside, how many ABC1 demographic consumers (after all, everyone’s after those ABC1 eyeballs!) do you see interacting with branded Facebook content on a daily basis? Yes, that’s right. Think about why you are doing it for a second, please. And then stop; it’s better for everyone.

3) Celebrity

We live in a world where celebrity culture is all-pervading, and where the famous (and barely famous) will sell themselves to a brand or product for endorsement purposes at the drop of a hat. I don’t think that this is a good thing. In fact, I think it’s pernicious and unpleasant, and that PR is a large part of this problem. Can we stop it, please?

4) Po-faced seriousness

I don’t think it’s always been like this, but there seems to be an increasing sense of humor-vacuum in PR. When did we all lose sight of the fact that a good 80% of what we do really doesn’t matter? I know that we live in an age of digital permanence, but the old adage about ‘today’s news, tomorrow’s chip paper’ still holds true. Social media ‘crises’ come and go within the space of hours, with no one (other than people who work in PR) remembering anything about them at a distance of a week. The news cycle moves faster than ever. Whatever happens, good or bad, if it’s PR-led it will most probably be forgotten about in 48 hours. So stop taking it so seriously. Please.

5) Strategy

None of us know what this word means – or at least that’s the impression I get having heard somewhere in the region of 143 differing definitions of the term since I started my career more than ten years ago. Strategy, tactics, executions, messaging, blah blah blah blah… You have a business. That business has objectives. To achieve those objectives, it is beneficial to communicate certain things. Does it need to be more complicated than this? Really? I know we like to feel that our job is complicated and difficult, but it really doesn’t need to be half as complicated and difficult-sounding/seeming as we appear intent on making it. Let’s be honest – we can probably drop the silly long words and confusing three-letter abbreviations and we’ll all be happier.

I could go on, but I won’t. I don’t think PR is a bad, or even pointless, industry – I think that correctly applied it can and does have significant business impact and can be instrumental in shaping the fortunes of an organization. It can also, though, be a load of crap – and I have increasingly become convinced that the crap is currently outnumbering the good stuff about 4-1.

You lot redress the balance; I’m going on vacation.

Picture credit: Truly Graphics

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