The Hard Sell and the Hard Truth

“Can PR be honest?” people outside the industry have been known to ask. Can it, as an industry, stand up and tell hard truths occasionally? There seems to be a suspicion that the industry takes in the less scholarly in the same way the clergy used to in centuries past. People prone to toe the party line.

My son Janek sometimes says to me, a little pointedly: “But Dad, you just sell stuff!” I tell my friends in PR and advertising about this and they recount similar stories. The people behind the PHD video (see clip below) have misjudged the next generation if they think that they will all gladly follow where marketing wants them to go. I have always tried my hardest to make my working life about more than just selling.

Yet it’s difficult when PR is in the process of change. I guess its understandable that so many PR firms are desperate to win and keep clients that their will to challenge is weakened. Take digital PR; so many companies find it easy to step into it but, without careful preparation, it can be difficult to handle on a day to day basis. Some do it very well, others stumble. Charlie Sheen is proof that any freak can draw a crowd – but his failure is also proof that you can’t polish a turd. A crowd can see into the heart of a brand and is more than willing these days to say if the emperor is wearing nothing at all.

OK, maybe it’s easy for me to say all this, you might think; but it’s not the beginning or the end of a career that’s tough – you can be radical then, especially at the start. It’s the middle and all the pragmatic running of a business that’s tough; business, personal and emotional stuff is all tangled up in one in the middle of a career. The only way to get through all this is to listen to your heart, rather than the seductive chatter of money. If more people had done that, Gaddafi would not have found it so easy to come in from the cold a few years ago.

PR needs to find a space for the maverick. Perhaps something more, if my son’s generation keeps up the radical position on selling and the angry reaction to PHD’s video continues. It should be seen as a warning shot. We cannot just pragmatically take the best bits of their protest and sell it back to them ad nauseum. PR needs to remember its past and use a little of the steel and edge that its early pioneers specialised in and apply that to the future.

Instead, PR seems to be blanding out, too often cravenly telling the client what they want to hear. It is of course risky to tell a client what they need to hear. Remember the story of the publicist hired for £5,000 a month to tell his client what he needs to hear, who is dropped after a couple of months. The publicist discovers that his client has moved to a firm that charges £2500 a month and which only tells him what he wants to hear.

Yet taking the risk has to be worth it if my son’s generation is to be believed.

It is time for attitude, heart and a sense of proportion instead of craven process. Sometimes PR needs to bare its teeth and just tell the truth.

One Response to “The Hard Sell and the Hard Truth”

  • Nick Bishop:

    I’ve never met a PR who doesn’t claim to tell clients the hard truth. Tough, unflinching, frank, brave, uncompromising, they’re all words I’ve heard agency staff repeat again and again when talking about their approach to advising clients. It’s not that PR folk don’t want to be honest and tough, it’s more we’re not so good at holding our line: if the client fucks himself, then it’s his reputation screwed not ours seem to be the thinking.

    How PR people flip-flop so quickly, and so easily, from tell-it-how-it-is advisors to that’s-what-the-client-wants fops I’m not so sure. Probably it’s something to with nuance, which along with lawyers we’re good at. Subtle changes in position can easily allow a sense of integrity to be retained.

    Be prepared to be unpopular sounds like a good mantra.

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