Should PR be about selling a product at the expense of the truth?
Amid the self-congratulatory back-slapping of the ‘Pubbies’ – America’s annual PR awards show – there was much talk of a brave new dawn.
Richard Edelman, the biggest cheese of US PR, has seen the future and it is the blog.
Edelman’s firm took in a cool $260m (£150m) last year, while the industry raked in $3.4bn in 2004 rising to an estimated $5.2bn by 2009.
According to Edelman, we – the PR fraternity – don’t have to worry about journos picking apart our press releases and checking our facts any more. We can counteract negative stories in the press simply by posting the real story on a blog.
“If The Wall Street Journal goes after a client, we don’t have to accept that anymore,” he announced to the 1,000 PRs chowing down on truffle polenta at Manhattan’s trendy Tavern on the Green.
“Let’s post the documents we gave the Journal; let’s show the interviews the newspaper decided not to show.”
What he meant, of course, was that PRs can spin their clients’ interests on a blog without any interfering journalists messing up their message by checking the validity of their claims. Especially as none of us believe what we read any more.
“PR,” Edelman declared, “plays much better in a world that lacks trust.” And, he might have added, pays better.
The less the public believes, goes Edelman’s thinking, the better that is for his – and my – business.
Me, I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m too cynical – or maybe I’m not cynical enough – but I’ve never seen PR as being all about selling a product rather than telling the truth. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to think the two are not entirely incompatible.
No one has a monopoly on truth and nor should they. As we all know, the truth is relative – even in PR. And the truth is that PRs, just like the journalists who sit on the other side of that information superhighway, are obsessed not so much with The Truth as The Power. Edelman’s only angry because the media, as the conduit between his message and the public, always holds the ultimate power; hence his new-found enthusiasm for the blog. But who reads blogs anyway?
Still, it was not all doom and gloom at the awards. The prize for student of the year went to Tara Burnham, 21, whose winning pitch for a cruise line involved putting a positive spin on a (fictional) story about a ship that hits a 60ft whale.
“I said we should be as straightforward as possible,” she declared, controversially, “because whatever we hide is going to get us in the future. People would trust us more in the future if we told the truth.”
Whether Mr Edelman offered her a post upon graduation was unreported but I’d rather take Ms Burnham’s youthful idealism over his world-weary cynicism. In fact, if anyone knows her number, put her in touch. We might have a job going.