Earlier this week, I became fascinated as a journalist acquaintance of mine- Grace Dent- suffered a much publicised insult at the hands of a young PR executive with a too-happy twitter finger. The guy, in what we can only assume was a moment of alcohol-fuelled ill judgement, as well as somewhat startling boorishness, offered an opinion not worth repeating. In so doing, he sparked a controversy and became the latest misguided individual to make headlines for tweeting or posting something they shouldn’t have in recent weeks. He exemplifies all that is wrong with a generation of PRs raised on hi-speed, low-traction tactics.
What makes this story different from the spate of ‘troll’ tales is that this man works for Hill and Knowlton- a firm with whom Dent has worked, as she pointed out. For the sake of your sanity, if nothing else, you’d like to think that an employee of one of the largest and most famous Public Relations organisations in the world would understand the very public nature of Twitter, the current media appetite for troll-bashing, or at the very least would be loath to send a direct insult to an influential journalist with whom he or his colleagues might well discuss stories in the near future.
I have no idea what motivated him, but I’d hazard a guess that the culture of a PR megalith like H+K had something to do with it. I’ve got nothing against big agencies, and I’m not saying that they breed malice. Arguably, though, certain of their practices breed indifference and distance. In the Lower echelons of the big agency landscape, journalists aren’t contacts, sparring partners or friends. To our unfortunate Twitterer, Grace Dent the journalist is just a name, a faceless entity at the other end of an email who might occasionally provide his agency with some sought-after coverage.
We hear constantly about the alienating implications of digital contact- it’s often stated that, to the average teenager, a celebrity (or fabulous nobody) like Britney Spears or Rebecca Black is nothing but a target, fair game for cyber attacks. Even in the media world, we can’t lay the blame solely at the doors of H+K and their ilk. In world where bloggers and tweeters increasingly dominate the agenda- and use email to do it- one on one contact can seem irrelevant and pointless.
However, I can’t help but think wistfully of a time when a PR was someone known for their empathy, their ability to near-instantly connect with others. Perhaps someone needs to remind the big agencies that even at the lowest level a publicist will be judged not only by journalists but by clients on the closeness of their contacts, not their ability to scour Gorkana. If PR was a cold-calling industry, clients could hire a consultant and a telesales team.
‘Fools rush in’, then, not only to Twitter battles but to the very process of making contact with a journalist. However easy it might be now to take that initial step, the time invested in making a strong contact and building the mutual empathy that gets great coverage hasn’t ever changed. If anything, in a world of disassociated online connections, a well-chosen joke over the phone probably gets you further than it ever did.