PR isn’t about polishing turds

Shit! You Work in PR? Not that old chestnut again. Isn’t it time to move on and say something different?

Last Thursday in Sydney at the CommsCon Awards, the night to celebrate the best of the PR industry’s efforts over the previous 12 months, we were yet again subjected to the narrow view of the discipline. This time through the moderator on the night, journalist Joe Hildebrand.



Whether it was black humour or not, the message in Joe’s speech was fixated on the art of spin – cover up, manipulation, hiding the truth, trying to make the negative look positive, and so it went on. If you want to see what Joe had to say, he published his edited speech in the Daily Telegraph.

I have worked in public relations for almost 20 years and did not find Joe’s attempts of humour remotely funny. But that’s not what bothered me. What did was his opinion that we, public relations professionals, spend most of our time trying to polish turds. That, quite frankly, is a turd.

Back in the 90s we were called Hemispheric Communicators. Like the half crest moon, we were told we only focus on the bright side and keep the dark side hidden.

It’s now 2014 and spin is so yesterday. The idea of trying to dupe people just doesn’t work. To echo what many said after his speech, I thought I too would offer an opinion from the “dark” side.

Now, we’ve heard it all before – PR people and journalists operate in a symbiotic relationship. We need them and they need us. But whether we are there for one another when it matters; well, that depends. Of course, it has to be a story. But it also comes down to honest, working relationships between the two professions.

But the point often missing in the “public relations and spin” rhetoric is this:

Firstly, communications professionals do not come to work and spend the day bombarding journalists with phone calls (or emails). Secondly, we do not try to spin or distort facts. Thirdly, we do not hide when the turd hits the fan. On the contrary, in a crisis our counsel will be the opposite – communicate. After all, the conversation doesn’t stop.

The truth of the matter is public relations professionals do so much more than media relations; and when we do that, we are definitely not spinning. That is best left to cricketers.

As Bob Dylan said in 1964, “the times they are a-changin”.

With the Internet of Things now a fabric of our digital lives, the way people search for and consume information has and will continue to change. For those in public relations this has cemented our role as story tellers. We have always been in the business of conversations and the web and social media gives brands the opportunity to speak to, and listen to, their audiences.

I would argue that the attraction Joe noted in his speech for reporters to leave journalism and become communications professionals is not a retirement move; rather, it’s because they have a passion to tell stories, and they can see the splintering effect technology is having on traditional news and the opportunities it is creating for them to work brand side. Can you blame them given the shifting media landscape and the rounds of redundancies?

That aside, a common ground for both communications professionals and journalists is a story – and a story needs great content. It also needs to be a story.

That’s why everyone needs to get over the “spin” thing. Those days are long gone.

The best PR is anti-spin. And that is what the CommsCon Awards were celebrating last Thursday. The best the industry has to offer. There certainly wasn’t a turd in the house and the only thing being polished was the silverware.

Graham White is group managing director for Howorth


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