This articles first appeared in Marklives.
When chatting to a young entrepreneur the other day, he casually mentioned about how he had never considered using a PR service to launch any of his businesses or products because PR was “expensive and all PRs were liars and spin doctors”.
How sad that our industry is perceived as such, when, out of all of the communications streams, ours is the one that relies the most upon trusted relationships, and the one that can offer the most bang for the buck.
And, yet, it’s not surprising when we look at the evidence.
I can think of many times, back in the day, when I had to harness my growing shame and dread in order to hound a poor journalist to try and get her to write a glowing report on some rubbish product or other we had been paid to spin.
One highlight that springs to mind was a catalogue that featured, wait for it, other catalogues, that I was tasked on getting media coverage for! And then there was that other time I sent a beauty journalist to try out an “amazing new spa”, and she returned, horrified, telling tales of change rooms that smelt of poo; crusty dirty bathrobes; and dodgy, dusty, fake plastic fruit arrangements as décor.
The shame of it all.
No wonder the poor editors at the other end of the phone, hounded by hundreds of breathless, eager young PRs, grow more and more brusque and irritable when taking our calls.
This is not limited to consumer products and PR. Corporate clients take this up a notch, insisting that their dull sustainability measures or photos of big cheques being handed over to grateful impoverished charities are headline news or front-page features. And then there is the opposite, when we desperately spin tales and webs of confusion in order to keep bad news out of the public domain.
What a sad state of affairs, as our reputation as an industry of lying spin-doctors becomes ever more entrenched.
So it’s been a relief to start my own business and make a few rules of my own. Joining the first hard-and-fast rule (that I don’t work with or for horrible people or people who have bad attitudes), is the second, but equally important one — that I don’t work with any brands or businesses that I don’t fully believe in or like.
For how can I market something if I don’t believe it is the best thing since screw-top wine bottles were invented? And how can I sleep at night if I am responsible for spinning a web of deceit about a business that is doing something that I have fundamental moral issue with?
It doesn’t stop with choosing the right people or brands to work with, though. There are times when we need to take a step back and question whether what we are doing or selling is really relevant.
I’ve been working on a content strategy with a corporate recently, where we were looking at and reviewing all of its streams of communications — from its B2B newsletters to consumer-facing magazines and social media streams. It was wondering why its “levels of engagement” were low, when it spent so much time and money telling all sorts of fascinating stories about the business in prettily designed pages.
So it took some guts for it to realise, and address, that it had been playing to egos internally, allowing every bit of work or achievement (from new internet cables to energy-efficient light bulbs, I kid you not) take pride of place in every piece of external communication.
It was only when it could take a step back and ask what people wanted to HEAR, rather than what it wanted to SAY, that thing suddenly became exciting.
So, as a PR consultant, the learning is clear. Work with people and brands that you love, and that value you as a consultant rather than a service provider. You need to believe in what they are all about, and yet be able to step back and question when something feels wrong.
It is only then that we can begin to address this issue we have of being “lying spin doctors”.
Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.