PR’s problems, 20 years later

I was near the end of my career as a PR guy when I wrote the essay below for the January 1992 issue of Upside. Since then Upside has been erased. Some bits of it still persist on the Internet Archive, but nothing before 1996. But I did save my own draft of the piece, and put it up here, back in the mid-90s, where it has remained all but invisible. So I thought it would be fun to surface it now on the blog, on the 20th anniversary of its original publication. Here goes:


Toward a world beyond press releases and bogus news

By Doc Searls

There is no Pulitzer Prize for public relations. No Peabody. No Heismann. No Oscar, Emmy or Eddy. Not even a Most Valuable Flacker award. Sure, like many misunderstood professions, public relations has its official bodies, and even its degrees, awards and titles. Do you know what they are? Neither do most people who practice the profession.

The call of the flack is not a grateful one. Almost all casual references to public relations are negative. Between the last sentence and this one, I sought to confirm this by looking through a Time magazine. It took me about seven seconds to find an example: a Lance Morrow essay in which he says Serbia has “the biggest public relations problem since Pol Pot went into politics.” Since genocide is the problem in question, the public relations solution can only range from lying to cosmetics. Morrow’s remark suggests this is the full range of PR’s work. Few, I suspect, would disagree.

So PR has the biggest PR problem of all: people use it as a synonym for BS. It seems only fair to defend the profession, but there is no point to it. Common usage is impossible to correct. And frankly, there is a much smaller market for telling the truth than for shading it.

For proof, check your trash for a computer industry press release. Chances are you will read an “announcement” that was not made, for a product that was not available, with quotes by people who did not speak them, for distribution to a list of reporters who considered it junk mail. The dishonesty here is a matter of form more than content. Every press release is crafted as a news story, complete with headline, dateline, quotes and so forth. The idea is to make the story easy for editors to “insert” with little or no modification.

Yet most editors would rather insert a spider in their nose than a press release in their publication. First, no self-respecting editor would let anybody else — least of all a biased source — write a story. Second, press releases are not conceived as stories, but rather as “messages.”

It is amazing how much time, energy and money companies spend to come up with “the right message.” At this moment, thousands of staffers, consultants and agency people sit in meetings or bend over keyboards, straining to come up with perfect messages for their products and companies. All are oblivious to a fact that would be plain if they paid more attention to their market than their product.

There is no demand for messages.

There is, however, a demand for facts. To editors, messages are just clothing and make-up for emperors that are best seen naked. Editors like their subjects naked because facts are raw material for stories. Which brings up another clue that public relations tends to ignore.

Stories are about conflict.

What makes a story hot is the friction in its core. When that friction ceases, the story ends. Take the story of Apple vs. IBM. As enemies, they made great copy. As collaborators, they are boring as dirt.

The whole notion of “positive” stories is oxymoronic. Stories never begin with “happily ever after.” Happy endings may resolve problems, but they only work at the end, not the beginning. Good PR recognizes that problems are the hearts of stories, and takes advantage of that fact.

Unfortunately, bad PR not only ignores the properties of stories, but imagines that “positive” stories can be “created” by staging press conferences and other “announcement events” that are just as bogus as press releases — and just as hated by their audiences.

Columnist John Dvorak, a kind of fool killer to the PR profession, says, “So why would you want to sit in a large room full of reporters and publicly ask a question that can then be quoted by every guy in the place? It’s not the kind of material a columnist wants — something everybody is reporting. I’m always amazed when PR types are disappointed when I tell them I won’t be attending a press conference.”

So why does PR persist in practices its consumers hold in contempt?

Because PR’s consumers are not its customers. PR’s customers are companies who want to look good, and pay PR for the equivalent of clothing and cosmetics. If PR’s consumers — the press — were also its customers, you can bet the PR business would serve a much different purpose: to reveal rather than conceal, clarify rather than mystify, inform rather than mislead.

But it won’t happen. Even if PR were perfectly useful to the press, there is still the matter of “positioning” — one of PR’s favorite words. I have read just about every definition of this word since Trout & Ries coined it in 1969, and I am convinced that a “position” is nothing other than an identity. It is who you are, where you come from, and what you do for a living. Not a message about your ambitions.

That means PR does not have a very good position. It’s identity is a euphemism, or at least sounds like one. While it may “come from” good intentions, what it does for a living is not a noble thing. Just ask its consumers.

Maybe it is time to do with PR what we do with technology: make something new — something that works as an agent for understanding rather than illusion. Something that satisfies both the emperors and their subjects. God knows we’ve got the material. Our most important facts don’t need packaging, embellishment or artificial elevation. They only need to be made plain. This may not win prizes, but it will win respect.

Are we in that “world beyond” yet? If so, how far?

At the time I wrote that essay, my company was morphing from a PR agency to a marketing consultancy, mostly because I had become tired of being hired to do BS, even if the stated ambitions were more high-minded than that. Then, as the Nineties unfurled, I became tired of doing the BS that was expected of  marketing as well, especially since the Net and the Web had come along and changed the communications environment for nearly everything and everybody.

Yet both PR and marketing continued to be funded by corporate demand for better BS — even when BS could be exposed and disproven far more easily and by many more people. Persistent oblivity to the obvious was one big reason why Chris Locke, David Weinberger, Rick Levine and I co-wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, and why much of the essay above was leveraged in the Markets are Conversations chapter of the book.

Now another decade has passed, and questions still stand. For example, Is PR still a synonym for BS? And, if not, how?

On the definition (or re-definition) front, the PRSA has floated three new definitions for PR, with the hashtag #PRDefined:

Definition No. 1:

Public relations is the management function of researching, engaging, communicating, and collaborating with stakeholders in an ethical manner to build mutually beneficial relationships and achieve results.

(Read the annotated version here.)

Definition No. 2:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that develops and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their key publics.

(Read the annotated version here.)

Definition No. 3:

Public relations is the engagement between organizations and individuals to achieve mutual understanding and realize strategic goals.

(Read the annotated version here.)

This is a serious effort, with much involvement by Phillip Sheldrake, whom I respect very much.

The main challenge, both for PR and for companies in general, is that individuals — both within companies and out in the marketplace — are going to be taking more and more of the lead in relations with the market’s supply side. Reduction in demand for BS by company brass will help that progress happen. But engagement will be the main thing. That’s why I vote for Definition No. 3, without the “realize strategic goals” clause (which is straight out of BuzzPhraser).

PR for most of its history has been less about relations with publics (a term only PR folk use, far as I know) than about relations between companies and mediators: the press, TV, radio and (more recently) “influencers” on the Web. The best people in PR and marketing have for decades been trying to move business relations in the personal direction. That is, toward the public itself, directly.

But will PR will still be PR when that happens? In other words, if somebody’s job is to help companies relate personally to customers, and to welcome customer input and leadership, what should we call that somebody’s job?

Bonus links:

3 responses to “PR’s problems, 20 years later”

  1. Oh, Doc! You bring back the bad old days. I sold my PR firm in 1996, just in time before I went nuts. “There is no demand for messages.” That says it all. Or maybe it’s this sentence that says it all: “The best people in PR and marketing have for decades been trying to move business relations in the personal direction. That is, toward the public itself, directly.”

    Thanks for writing this.

  2. Good thing you saved this. I used to live in Serbia in those days, so this brings back some memories!

  3. Good PR is never about BS; it’s always about helping others tell a good story. But you are spot on about the shift from publics to influencers and individuals. It’s something I tried to tackle in this speech I gave last year in front of an audience of potential new flacks (apologies for the title…need to fix it to better reflect the actual content):

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