I just stumbled into an online conversation that made me question how I feel about my career.
In the middle of a Twitter story about someone quitting their new job, this response caught my eye: “I understand. I used to work in PR but I gave it up because I felt like I was bullshitting for a living”. Being nearly three years into my own career in PR, this made me pause.
It’s something I’m sure many of us have heard before and I’m sure we’ll all hear again. It’s the residual effect of an old stereotype about ‘PRs’; that we’ll spin the truth at any cost to promote the clients or businesses that we work for regardless of the ethical implications.
It could be argued that this stereotype began with Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, who is largely considered to be the founder of public relations and was the first person to theorise that people could be made to want things they don’t need by appealing to unconscious desires. His 'Torches of Freedom' campaign saw him tip off the press that suffragettes would light up cigarettes during New York City's Easter Day Parade in 1928 - a time when it was publicly acceptable for men to smoke, but not women. This appealed to, and commodified, women's desire to be seen as equal to their male counterparts and conflated cigarettes with freedom. Bernays used the psychology of behavioural change to sell a product that we now know has vastly damaging health implications - something that would now be considered unethical. Essentially, smart bullshit.
Maybe I have been taught by mentors who have an exceptional moral compass and/or have been lucky enough to work for clients I can believe in, but bullshitting hasn’t been my experience of PR. Most of our time is spent just trying to help clients be more open, transparent and effective communicators.
Consider the effect that social media has had on customer service. With Twitter, Facebook and Instagram there is nowhere for businesses to hide from unhappy customers - complaints are out there for the world to see and can have a seriously detrimental effect when left unattended to.
Social media demands that businesses be transparent and engage in two-way dialogue with their customers and clients. We expect the businesses we spend with to engage with us online. We expect to hear their authentic voice. We expect answers and we want them now, too.
Social media is PR translated into the online world. At the heart of it all, it’s about effective communication, transparency and accountability. Of course it’s essential to tailor your online comms differently to other platforms to ensure you’re talking to the right people in the way they want to be spoken to, but that’s not bullshitting. It’s something we all do in every day life. We tailor our conversations with our friends differently to those with our family or colleagues. We read social cues to determine the emotions and attitudes of others and communicate with them in a way that feels appropriate.
Sometimes PR is about identifying what’s ‘newsworthy’, getting to the root of exactly what it is that makes something interesting or exciting and communicating that in a way that helps others see it too. Just like any good relationship we know that the relationship our clients or businesses share with their clients is built on trust. Trust and reputation have to be earned - there is no way to cheat or fast track your way to establishing this.
Maybe that person who felt they were bullshitting worked for a business they just couldn’t get behind. It’s pretty tough to be positive about something you don’t believe in (if you’re currently watching The Apprentice you’ll recognise this as a common excuse), but there is something to be said for summoning a sense of passion for your work, no matter how big, small or uninspiring it may be. There are always lessons to be learnt.
I’ve generally found that no matter how much or how little I know about a client at the beginning, I can always find something that makes their business interesting. There’s something they’re doing that their clients should know about. It’s our job as PRs to identify that and then help them shout about it in an honest, engaging manner. Anything that falls under the category of ‘spin’ stands at odds with the way I, and most of my peers, have been taught to practice. If it feels like bullshitting, you're probably not doing it right (and you're ruining it for the rest of us).
As PR moves into a new era of professional recognition with industry bodies like the CIPR helping us to define best practice, ethical standards and the way we can best help others understand exactly what it is we do, I see no room for the bullshit approach. Responsibility falls on all of us to maintain the highest ethical standards so that we can continue to dismantle the outdated stereotypes that throw shade on the useful and essential work that we do.