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Top PR Pro’s Guardian Q&A Illustrates Familiar Industry Stereotypes, Challenges

In case you missed it, this week The Guardian ran a story penned by Nancy Brenner of MSLGROUP as part of its “A Day’s Work” series. Framed as a “Q&A” with an open comment thread, its headline consisted of a “what do you want to know?” offer to answer any questions readers might have about our industry. An interesting exercise, no doubt.

In the piece itself, Brenner recounts some of the more colorful stories from her time working for Fortune 500 companies and financial brands. Highlights include:

I sometimes compare working in PR to an emergency room.

I have chased reporters into the women’s bathroom to try to get their attention.

And:

I needed to find someone willing to suit up as Raggedy Ann & Andy in the freezing cold, for a minimum of money, and parade outside of the legendary building north of New York’s Madison Square Park to capture the attention of news vans.

But when I heard the Raggedy Ann & Andy toys mentioned as “a hot little Redhead” on television that night, I knew that I helped the client cut through the clutter and raise awareness for their product.

So…a little nutty, but par for the course at many firms. Here’s the thing, though: tales like these often confirm negative stereotypes held by those outside the industry. In the blog world we call it “troll bait.”

Unfortunately, the story’s comment thread had to be closed after it devolved into the usual collection of snark and dismissive “opinions.” Yes, we expected to see some smartasses ask disengenuous questions like:

What did you train as before you realized you weren’t very good at it?
And please don’t say Media Studies or I’ll harm myself.

And:

Wouldn’t Propaganda merchant be more accurate? Is the truth something to be lauded feared or embellished?

And:

What is your best example of covering up something a company has done?

Of course, readers also submitted some relatively mild questions about how PR has adjusted to the newly digital world as well as legitimate ethical queries like:

How do you feel about superinjunctions? Do you feel that it’s ever morally acceptable for a corporation to use the law to prevent unfavourable facts coming to public attention, even if those facts are true?

Brenner didn’t answer any of these, and moderators deleted a discouraging percentage of comments for more blatantly expressing disrespect for the profession. But the post raises that perpetual point about the PR of PR: why do so many give credence to such negative generalizations? And how important is it for us to convey what we know to be a fact: they’re either completely untrue or only true on certain isolated occasions?

Frustrating. There is some encouraging news to take from the story, though. Check out this thoughtful comment, which is very much worth reading in full:

Not sure how much this piece helps people understand PR. By making sound so gosh damn super exciting and dramatic you’re playing into the hands of the people commenting here that feel PR is both vacuous and ineffectual while being some massively evil form of mind control. It sure can be all of these things, but more often than not its a fairly practical pragmatic profession that – for sure isn’t saving lives – but is doing something useful. The truth is that most marketing managers who have to pay PR companies out of their increasingly limited budgets really wouldn’t do so unless there was some benefit.

The professional writers in who do this are very often PR people who are working to bridge the gap between what people inside an organisation understand and what the general public understand.

Thank you!

Do we contribute to these stereotypes by focusing on the craziest aspects of our jobs? Probably. Is Adrian right to say that “The profession would be better served by explaining more mundane and useful things?” Yes, though we regret the word “mundane.”

Looks like he just told us all how to give the public a more informed impression of the public relations industry. Thoughts?

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