Why I'm Feeling No Love For February

It has not been a pretty month for public relations, and I can’t say that I’m coming out of February unscathed. With the media’s telescopic focus on PR as a practice as a result of unsavory news coverage, my own practice has come under scrutiny, making me even more aware of the rippling effects of the media’s skew on an industry.

Jussie Smollett & Assumption

There are a few layers to this. First of all, the media called Smollett’s actions a “failed PR move”. I highly disagree with this, as this was not an organized move to pull publicity or value. It’s really called into question what PR really is and how the evolution of the practice is affecting society. For example, if it’s cool to be a victim, will people work to be seen as a victim and eclipse people with real stories?

The truth is, we can’t present this as a PR strategy at all. The media traditionally sensationalizes what people want to see to increase sales. While that is not the spirit of true journalism, it is a tactic for media outlets to make money and remain operational. While I am of the current belief that this was meant to propel his career and/or pay in some way, it is a poor personal choice more than anything. I mean, PR practitioners are calling this the end f his career, wondering what in the world would possess someone to take this kind of inappropriate action. We, as professionals, are trained in how to deal with crisis and communicating between barriers of sex, race, etc., but this is beyond reason and logic for any trained PR professional so we would appreciate it if you would distance ridiculous stunts like these from our actual practice. Thanks.

Secondly, while the world was trying to figure out what the hell was going on, the Internet took immediate notice that Smollett had hired a PR firm. People argued that victims would not need such intense PR, or even any at all if they were being truthful. This is a narrative that I ethically cannot support for many reasons, though the largest is on the principle of protection against the sensationalist media. Since media outlets have become increasingly more polarized and histrionic, certain groups of people are more likely to fall victim to their clickbait headlines and one-sided reporting. One instance, in particular, comes to mind, and that is the reporting on Christine Blasey Ford whenever she testified against her attacker as he was slated to become a Supreme Court Justice. Right-wing news outlets promoted hateful stories that made her claims seem like unfounded, dubious results of “nazi-feminism” while left-wing reports attacked those stories and brought them further into the public eye because they were what people wanted to talk about. There were rumors spread about her as her name was splashed on every front page in the U.S., and these rumors could have damaged her livelihood as a professor and citizen of her community. Public relations, which does have a crisis communications aspect, could have definitely been of benefit in this instance, even though Ford is the victim. So, before you cast your stones, think about how these people are being portrayed and what factors go into this portrayal. Is this a person of color? Are they poor or female? Are their claims controversial? You can’t assume that people who want to protect themselves are immediately guilty, especially when they know that the system is not— and may never have been— on their side.

Meghan Trainor’s Comedic Press Release

Yes, yes, it was funny, but I still can’t condone it. I’ve read very mixed reviews on the press release, but most “youthful” media outlets have found it to be a refreshing change of pace, calling traditional press releases boring. Well, yeah, sometimes news about our clients is boring, but it is so irresponsible to buy into this kind of stunt and expect it to become a norm or to even view it as a “step up” from the traditional because it is what it is: a stunt. People think that just because it did generate buzz around Trainor and “spoke to its intended audience”, it was doing its job. I would argue that this unsavory coverage isn’t something I would want surrounding this particular person’s brand. I mean, it’s being called the “horniest press release” people have ever seen, and the language is incredibly unprofessional, making Trainor seem less like a sophisticated businesswoman trying to make her mark in music and more like a partying pop star. Yikes.

Listen, I’m sorry that press releases aren’t always fun or exciting, but it’s our job as media professionals and gatekeepers to the public to make sure our output is informative and newsworthy. While it totally sounds dry, it doesn’t have to be. With the possibilities of awesome events, campaigns, and innovations, news and media can still be interesting, and it’s great, but we can’t keep depending on this stunt-based publicity to make stuff happen. People will lose that knee-jerk reaction once they realize the way their emotions are being manipulated, and it will lose its own inherent value in the practice, just like old school ads. It also demeans the industry and enforces this idea that “PR is easy”, as a PR professional did not actually write this release and it still generated buzz.

Personal Fallout

In my practice, I have had clients questioning my choices based on PR coverage this month. They have asked about how effective stunts and grand gestures would be for their brand, how I felt about Smollett’s actions, and whether I thought it was ethical for him to have hired a PR firm. They are loving Trainor’s press release, asking why theirs aren’t "like that”— I’m guessing they mean funny most of the time, but also maybe because it's written in “Millennial-ese”, I dunno. Every move I make is being scrutinized because my clients want to know what kind of PR professional I am. I’ll tell you. I am an exceptionally trained, results-driven PR professional who refuses to cater to the drama and fakeness that is the sensationalist newscape. I promise to deliver truth and quality to my clients, recognizing their histories and limitations, and I’ll do it professionally without the use of ridiculous, off-brand tactics. I’m also DONE with February and its shenanigans.

How do you feel about these events? Do you agree? Did I get it wrong? Let me know in the comments!