PR People Need To Calm Down

Ed Zitron 7 min read
PR People Need To Calm Down

Today I was introduced to probably the single worst thread on LinkedIn I’ve seen in a while, one that also does the job of explaining one of my core problems with the PR industry and the personas it attracts. The thread in question, written by a guy who runs a PR firm and does not appear to have done anything else in his life, refers to PR “routinely being ranked as one of the most stressful jobs in America, along with those who actively serve in the military.”

The study he’s likely citing is this one, which appears to be entirely based on their own assumptions and metrics, or it’s self-reported by people by asking them what they felt (it is not totally obvious):

CareerCast used 11 criteria, including physical danger, having your life at risk, having responsibility for other people's lives or livelihoods at risk and how much you work in the public eye or have someone breathing down your neck. Other considerations include the unemployment rate and job growth in a particular career, all things that could seriously add stress.

So, from what I can gather, people in different industries were asked how they felt about certain things and then guessing from that whether that meant it was a very stressful job.

Since I joined the PR industry, I’ve always felt like there was a bizarre level of gravitas that a great deal of people had - the endless discussion of what their job was, how hard their job was, how important their job was, and so on and so forth. While startup founders do something similar, they have at least built a company and done something that’s theirs versus being in PR and working for someone else, or building an agency and, well, working for someone else. This isn’t to say building an agency is no work, or that it isn’t building anything, but it’s a career that is inherently a conduit for other people’s success.

Which is fine! It’s totally fine, a valid and important job in many organizations and one that pays well and fuels the growth of many people and companies. Nevertheless, I have never witnessed an industry more packed with people desperate to continually repeat how endlessly important, stressful and convoluted their work is.

There is an industry-specific martyrdom that public relations has where they feel it’s necessary to describe themselves in terms that make the job sound harder than it is, one that I think is produced as a result of a group-experienced career choice remorse.

Ironically, this is created by the way in which PR is portrayed by the media, telling you that you’ll be in big, serious scenarios like massive events and crisis communication calls at 3AM because you’re oh-so-important, when most of it is document and email-based. It’s a job that is, at its core, not that impressive when you get to the actual day-to-day, and yet the introduction to the job by society and people writing books about it suggests that it’s this massive Power Broker-esque career choice.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen someone say something like “movies and TV shows like to play up negative stereotypes about PR people spinning lemons into lemonade,” but, again, the irony is that this entire thread is trying to do so. It is trying to create the mystique of PR people as these vast wizards of public affairs, irreplaceable archons of communication that are also writers, marketers, market analysts (??), social media experts and crisis managers.

Why Is This A Problem?

So, this isn’t just me laughing at a person saying something silly - this post is a symptom of a large problem in PR of creating smokescreens around the actual product and output of our industry. This thread’s responses are predominantly people saying “so true!” and “we really are like the military!” or that every day is, indeed, full of stress and chaos.

The reality is that a good PR firm or department should not be in a constant state of stress or flux. If there are tons of things going on it may be busy, but if you are constantly dealing with fire drills you’re either working for the wrong person or terrible at your job. PR loves to create amateur dramatics around their industry because they are constantly fighting to prove that they’re important and should definitely exist. This isn’t reserved for PR, but I’ve not seen an industry that is constantly fighting with itself to justify its existence.

I’ve gone over it before, but I think that the issue is that a lot of PR people don’t actually create that much value and thus are constantly trying to make their job seem like it’s very stressful and important. Saying stuff like “…we’re battle-tested…we’re agile…we’re calm under fire…” makes it sound like we’re on par with doctors, lawyers and people on actual battlefields, dealing with matters of life and death when more often than not we’re dealing with business-important but not society-important matters. The work is important, but if we were to stop doing it someone would not die or go to prison, a place would not blow up, etc.

It is inherently duplicitous - it does not exist to do anything other than make people in PR feel more important and sell vague services that involve ‘managing clients’ and ‘strategy,’ which means lots of phone calls and documents. It’s laughable to compare the stress of being in an active battlefield, or even going through basic training, to doing this job, and I have been doing it 13 years and been in many stressful PR situations that nevertheless do not sound as stressful as anything someone in the military deals with.

The reason this really bothers me is that it only exists to separate people from their money and reassure those that like to separate others from their money with spurious services that it’s good to do so. While I am sure within this thread there are honest people who just enjoy hearing that their job is important, I also think that an overwhelming amount of people in this industry need to have a reality check around where they stand in the world.

Take this post, for example. How in the world is this job as stressful as making sure planes land and don’t kill people? It isn’t, that’s why! And if it is, why is it that stressful to you? If you removed every air traffic controller from the world you’d have a true crisis - the inability for the airline industry to work - and if you removed every PR person from the world, you would not have entire industries grind to a halt, let alone national and international travel.

By creating this dramatic mystique around our industry we continue to mislead young people and mislead potential clients about the significance of the investment. And yes, the job is stressful, and it can be trying, and it can have long hours, but that doesn’t mean people need to “take it more seriously.” PR still attracts billions of dollars of investment - the only thing that threads like this do is continue the group psychosis of PR as the ultimate genius’ career.

It’s a refrain that mostly comes down to saying that PR is “undervalued,” despite it having billions of dollars of yearly investment and paying better than a lot of other industries where people do more meaningful work. I truly believe that significantly less young people would go into this industry and we’d have a better reputation if people stopped saying stuff like this in an attempt to make themselves feel better.

I think it comes back to the maxim of the smallest dog barking loudest. While any industry is going to have some thought leadership going on, I feel like PR has a bloated, ugly reputation that doesn’t exist to improve anything. There is little meaningful discussion of the profession, with analysis focused on “things to watch out for” and “helpful hints,” devoid of self-awareness of the many issues that we have as a profession.

To be blunt, a chunk of PR people want to both be seen as ultra-powerful brokers of the world’s communication channels and victims that are forever misunderstood and undervalued. I’ve been told (usually by PR people that hate me for saying stuff like this) that PR people “shouldn’t want to be the story,” but they absolutely do - they just also want to be the unseen hand of power that makes the world go round.

And they’re not. Which is fine.

If you’re so secure about how good you are at your job, you’re generally not talking about how good and important you are at your job. If you’re making a big performance about how important and stressful for your job is, who is it for? What party is benefitting from it?

PR needs to calm down. It needs to focus on doing stuff rather than whining about how it’s under-appreciated. Do good work, that’ll get you appreciated. People love it when you do stuff for them that they paid for that helps them. If you’re constantly finding yourself trying to prove your worth, well, maybe you’re not giving the many value.

And finally, it’s very funny to see him end it with “this is the way,” the mantra of the Mandalorians. Then again, I guess it makes sense to compare PR thought leadership to  a phrase from an ancient creed that nobody really follows anymore, sticking to very specific guidelines that nobody really understands and then eventually giving them up because they don’t really mean anything in today’s society and they’re a burden. Probably overthinking it.

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