When PR Clients Face the “Smell Test”
The PR Professional's Job Is To Help The Client Face Reality
Previously I argued that propaganda is not a good use of organizational resources. In fact it is counterproductive, because today’s information consumer is savvy enough to seek alternative versions to any manipulated version of the truth.
But public relations remains useful. The profession can broadly be understood as “portraying the organization in its best possible light,” balancing truthfulness with a commitment to advocating their particular point of view. (See the values statement of the Public Relations Society of America.)
Sadly however I frequently find that PR efforts don’t live up to the values they should. And this isn’t because its practitioners lack expertise, although of course some do. Rather, nine times out of ten the fault lies squarely in the lap of the client.
Let me explain. Most of us, as consumers of information, can readily tell when something “smells.” In particular, the vicious U.S. presidential campaign of 2016 forced all of us into a graduate seminar on advanced political communication. Now, we are such a cynical bunch. No sooner does a piece of “news” creep into the headlines than the hordes descend to dissect it, criticize it, analyze it, and debunk it if at all possible.
But a kind of cognitive failure occurs when these same people turn into information promoters. When it’s somebody else’s kids, it’s easy to come out and say it: “That’s an ugly baby.” For their own product or service (child), no amount of praise is too high: “Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.”
How willing is the client to do a “murder board?” This is a somewhat scary but apt term for assembling a group of smart people to criticize the client before they go out in front of a public audience. I’ve participated in some of these, no-holds-barred, and they are a fantastic tool for the intelligent, organizationally and psychologically healthy client.
Clients who fail the “smell test” have no tolerance for criticism. And I have worked for other clients who were like this. It is the PR professional’s job to protect the client’s reputation by asking them the difficult questions, but these clients just didn’t get it.
Once I told a client repeatedly that their basic business model made no sense to me, or anyone I described it to. The response: “How can you ask that? Didn’t you read the brochure?”
Another client had a scandal brewing in the background. I asked about it. The response was: “Be careful with questions like that.”
One person threw a sheaf of papers in my face; they weren’t averse to talking about potential criticism, but only certain people were qualified to offer their thoughts about it.
Another yelled at me over and over again. The unspoken policy depended on a kind of “magical thinking,” involving “good news or silence.” All were expected to abide by that policy, even in private.
Now, the truth is that clients can get lucky; maybe a public blowback over their activities isn’t going to happen, or will never make much difference.
But that doesn’t change the nature of good work, or what the PR person is professionally bound to do for the client. And the #1 duty of the PR person is–to be blunt about it–to tell you that your shit actually does stink. Each and every time.
This is what I love about the TV show “Shark Tank,” where potential investors ask difficult questions of aspiring entrepreneurs. Often they’re mean, so mean it’s stinging. Yet to play along with someone’s fantasies of grandeur is worse in the end–not just financially, but emotionally as well. As people sink their entire selves into the businesses of their dreams.
Back to PR: It really doesn’t matter what you’re selling, be it products or services or ideas. The public is growing ever more sophisticated by the day. Especially in difficult economic times, in times of social turmoil, people are scrutinizing every word you say and every single thing you do.
More than that, they will actually distort the words you utter, they will portray your intentions inaccurately, they will string together unrelated items and they will concoct stories about you based on their worst prejudices and fears.
The world we live in is increasingly unforgiving. If you’re a stupid, dysfunctional client, you will find it impossible to squeeze by on lavish photo ops and press releases.