Weasel words

I’ve been planning on writing something about being in public relations/communications for a while. It’s a very sensitive topic for me, because my job, despite the fact I’m too sick to do it at the moment, is responsible for a large part of my identity.

Like many jobs – journalism, law, politics – PR comes under fire for the presumption that it, and the people that do it, are unethical. That we’re ‘sharks’ and ‘spin doctors’ and ‘hacks,’ who twist the truth for financial gain.

Last night I read Stephen Judd’s blog about a recent social media product campaign orchestrated by a PR company, and how he felt that it took advantage of the relationships he had with people on Twitter.

He says that PR campaigns are often deceptive. I think they are subtle. We’re working to promote our clients, not ourselves, so our involvement is rarely obvious. Word of mouth is still the best advertising there is. If we can close the gap as much as possible between our client’s product and the consumer, we will. If we can get free endorsement, we will. The product should be good enough to ensure that happens.

I understand the sense of having been conned, but I don’t think that the PR company, the client, or the consumers who spread the word did anything wrong. As I understand it, people received the free item, with the hope that they might talk about it in a positive way. There were no rules forcing them to do so.

I don’t object to the article overall. What I do object to is the bit where PR people get called ‘weasels.’ Perhaps I shouldn’t take it personally, but I put up with this every. single. day on Twitter. I’ve been called bloodless, a soul-sucker, not a real person. It really starts to grate.

Yes, of course, not all PR people are ethical, just like any other role. But the days of spin doctoring are gone, at least in the private PR sector. (Government communications is another things altogether. I worked in that too and I wouldn’t go back). There is way too much exposure and public accountability for it to be any other way (as seen in this incident). The journalists we deal with every day aren’t stupid. We don’t play them for fools.

Personally, I hand-pick my clients because I believe in their stories. I research them,, and I would never work with anyone whose business was unethical. I work with them because I genuinely like their products, and I want to help share that message. For me, PR isn’t about withholding or obstructing or manipulating. It’s about creating conversations and connections. We’re a link, a firestarter, and one that is often more powerful if it’s not seen.

Perhaps some of it is just ignorance. I do know that when I decided to go into PR, people said I was “going to the dark side.” When I first started telling friends I was a Communicators Advisor, they thought it meant I answered the phones. And even now, when I say public relations, people either think I spend my days getting clients off the hook for having done terrible things, or they have no idea what PR is.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. Working in the background allowed myself and a colleague to be part of saving a school this year. Yes, PR isn’t all just selling products, in fact, we play many advocacy roles. In this case, the client was the school board. Our stakeholders were the children who desperately needed that school to stay open. Without PR – and especially without PRs and journalists working together – we wouldn’t have won.

I’m very lucky to have the relationships I have with journalists now. It’s an even playing field. We both know what each other is trying to achieve, and often it can be achieved more effectively if we work together.

Yes, I admit that sometimes there is a level of deception that is a byproduct of our need to work behind the scenes for our campaigns to be effective. And I understand why that would not be comfortable for some people. But the trade-off for this subtlety can be very high. Plus, this is endemic. If you’re going to interact with media, any media, you’re going to be marketed to.

I’d just really prefer not to be called a weasel for doing the honest work that I love.