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A few years ago, Washington Post humorist Gene Weingarten wrote a column about a tongue-in-cheek bet with a colleague that turned into a sociological experiment. Call it public schadenfreude: They would gauge the desperation of PR supplicants by offering glowing product coverage in exchange for humiliating personal stories.
"I phoned 15 PR people," Weingarten reported, "nine of whom leaped at the chance to mortify themselves in print in return for a few meager lines of positive ink for their clients. (I chose only the most embarrassing). One Atlanta publicist told me an elaborate tale about the time he came to work as a deejay at his college radio station and was so inebriated he threw up on the air. When I asked him the name of the school, he began to hem and haw, and finally admitted he had made the story up. Understand this: He was ready to debase himself for something he didn't even do."
Weingarten delivers the piece as wry rather than angry, but you don't have to be a literary scholar to see through his feigned sympathy for "the poor, desperate PR people." His desire to see these hapless PR people "debase" themselves just to get some press highlights the growing peevishness of journalists about what they view as ongoing assaults from publicists. What we have to realize, though, is that Weingarten's article—while insulting to us "desperate" PR folks—is also indicative of the very real frustration that arises when writers and editors are flooded with wildly off-target mailings and indiscriminate pitches instead of precise, newsworthy material.
The "flacks" (the origin is unknown, Webster's says, for this slang for PR people) and "hacks" (writers, particularly those pumping copy out on deadline) who traffic in business and technology media have been fighting a particularly feverish war since the New Economy boomed in the late '90s. When self-proclaimed "innovators" were emerging almost daily and start-ups were thriving, the public relations industry experienced a similar boom. With so many new companies and products on the market fighting for public exposure, suddenly there was a much greater scramble to get the attention of the press. More and more companies retained more and more PR firms to fight for mentions in the same outlets, and therefore PR people were trying harder and harder to get journalists' attention. So journalists came to feel overwhelmed by all the flackery—which, even as the economy has since slowed down, shows no real signs of letting up.
Writers are particularly ruffled by the proliferation of press releases and story pitches stuffed with gimmicky buzzwords, and the beef presented by the journalists is unquestionably legit in this case. There's already enough friction between PR pros and writers like Weingarten that stems from indiscriminate, mass pitching—let's be reasonable, how often is a paper like The Washington Post going to write about your new-and-slightly-improved widget-inventory system? Throw in meaningless buzzwords and the problem doubles. Who wants to read a hyphen-littered, uninformative piece of spin loaded with invented syntax, hyperbole, and marketing jargon? (People who choose to work as writers, believe it or not, tend to value clear sentences and words with real definitions. Imagine.) Words and phrases like "thinking outside of the box," "ease-of-use," "shifting the paradigm," "leveraging," and "category killer" (to name a very few) are verbal filler, sugary shorthand meant to disguise the haste with which the pitch or release was put together—and, more notably, the flack's lack of actual usable technical or financial knowledge.
And it's not just the journalists who are fed up. On a site called The Buzz Saw, journalists and PR professionals alike weigh in on their personal buzzword bete noires, the most irksome "vapid verbiage" that crosses their paths in the form of PR pitches on a daily basis. The site, a blog that's regularly updated, can be self-important, but no one argues it's an entertaining and constructive guide on what not to do in the field of client promotion, and I've recommended the site to my own colleagues (and those to whom I lecture on PR) for five years. "I'm sure you aren't on buzzkiller, busted for lazy language," I say with a wink.
In order to ease some of the tension, flacks should in fact heed the advice of their own. When contacting journalists, talk like a real person, and talk fast because they are usually busy, and without apologies. Avoid corporate-speak and instead use clear, specific language. Even if the buzzwords come directly from a client—and they often do—you're not serving your clients' needs by using ill-defined phrases like "best of breed" or "killer app" or "reality television." When you load your email pitches with PR cliches, you might as well be typing "reject me" directly onto your release. (Some reporters actually install software that locates buzzwords in your correspondence and lobs it into a specially concocted junk box!)
PR clearly plays an important role in the media, we all agree. Yet PR pros should be charged with generating buzz, not buzzwords, and this comes down to finely honing your message—not bombarding the clearly already sensitive Weingartenites. Think before you pitch, and particularly before you use words that you know make no sense.
Of course, Weingarten must have felt better after hearing the stories publicists were willing trade for coverage.
PR rep Lisa H. Morrice was only to happy to let Weingarten know her husband had dumped her for a younger woman; Weingarten lived up to his end of the deal and reported that her client, "a manufacturer of trimmings, fabrics, and decorative accessories," had opened a new store in Rockville, Maryland. Tom Coyne, a self-described "husky" flack recounted the time his pants split wide open during a PR event involving 50 little boys (all pointing and laughing, of course) so that he could get a mention for In the Company of Dogs, a catalog selling apparel for your pooch.
And Alicia Levine, trying to get coverage for—of all things—an online gift store (how quaint in retrospect), provided this tale in exchange for a brief mention: "In my sophomore year of college I was on an intramural basketball team, and I was up late the previous night, too much partying, and there were about 100 or 200 people in the stands and as I got out on the court, I had those Velcro pull-off pants? And I pulled them off? And I realized I forgot to put underwear on." Weingarten suggested that really wasn't so bad, what with a pair of shorts under the pants. "I was butt naked from the waist down," Levine said.
It's true these particular flacks were easy targets—is it really worth publicly sharing your shame to get a press mention for some dog clothing?—but Weingarten also seemed to revel in the humiliation. Does he really hate publicists that much? Not at all, it turns out. "I get all my best stories from PR folk," he once told me with a shrug.
So let's work, PR types, to remind hacks why they like us—for the great stories we can help get them—and not why they sometimes don't!
Richard Laermer is the CEO of RLM PR, a full-service public relations firm with offices in New York and Los Angeles, and author of Full Frontal PR: Getting People Talking About You, Your Business or Your Product (Bloomberg Press, 2003).