Bylines, Surveys & Tweets: When Did PR Get So Boring?
This is a guest post by Nova Halliwell, a communications professional living in New York City.
My first taste of the working world came from the print shop my grandfather owned and operated since 1941. Like most entry-level jobs, there was hardly anything glamorous about my position as a “runner” – which, as the name implies, involved dashing from station to station to deliver materials, take away finished jobs, and, as my grandfather often put it, “not louse anything up.”
It was a thankless role to be sure, so when I turned 18, I welcomed the opportunity to operate some of the shop’s machinery. It was a decision that my grandfather seemed to regret almost immediately when he noticed, from two rooms away, that I wasn’t feeding an industrial shrink wrapper at maximum speed.
“That machine can go faster,” he said, waving me away. “I can tell just by the sound that you’re not doing it right.”
Of course, the real problem wasn’t that I lacked the coordination to wrap, heat and seal a set of five-tab binder dividers in one fell swoop. It was that I found shrink-wrapping three thousand packets of them to be mind-numbingly boring.
Life in the print shop was not for me – not like anyone ever suggested it should be.
PR: A Breath of Fresh Air
When I started my career in PR, one of the things I loved most about the industry was that every day was different. I could escort a tech executive to a taping at CNBC in the morning and write a set of key messages for an energy client in the afternoon. Things didn’t often slow down, but when they did, the next account or project was just around the corner. My job never got old.
Perhaps more importantly, most of the work I did was thoughtful. Sure there were press kits to assemble and coverage trackers to update – but there also were strategies to conceive, issues to anticipate and relationships to build. I was happy to see that the professionals who fared the best in the field seemed to be the ones who gave their work the most thought.
I liked PR because it was not a mindless machine. It was creative. It was interesting. It was as exciting as one cared to make it. And most of the people I worked with seemed to agree.
Enter the Great Recession
My grandmother, who worked along my grandfather in his print shop for the better part of fifty years, has a saying: “All good things must end.” In fact, it is one of two lines that she often says before leaving a party – the other being, “Someone bring me the dish from my Jello mold.”
Somewhere during the throes of the economic downturn of 2008, I had to steal her line. The work I once found so interesting in our industry had all but disappeared. All good things must end, indeed.
In my agency role, I noticed that budgets were slashed and positions were cut, but the scope of work expanded. Fearing the loss of an account, we all agreed to do more with less. The focus, it seemed, wasn’t on quality, but on quantity.
Creativity and originality were among the first things to slip. Where once we crafted an individual approach for every project large and small, now we recycled entire plans from one account to the next. Whitepapers were pasted into Word documents and called bylines. Surveys were re-fielded every year even when trend data had long since failed to produce anything of note. Worst of all, it still seemed to work.
The machine might have been running at maximum efficiency, but my workday was, once again, mind-numbingly boring.
There Is No Such Thing as a PR Factory
Perhaps my analysis is incorrect. Maybe it wasn’t that the industry changed – but just that I, a young professional, didn’t yet realize that upcycling was very much a part of the process.
That may very well be true – but I hope it’s not. Because if you agree with that logic, then you’re not only admitting that our work is formulaic now, but that it always was. And that’s a hard pill to swallow for someone who didn’t much care for factory life.
At the same time, I’ll concede that the most important part of any project is generating solid results. Whether the client asks for three national media placements or three thousand sets of shrink-wrapped binder dividers, it’s the job of the service provider to deliver.
Often times, PR professionals rely on a formulaic approach because the formula works. I won’t deny that many of the common tactics we use – consumer surveys, events, celebrity spokespeople, bylines – often translate into positive coverage. And I’m not suggesting we louse that up.
But lately there seem to be just as many times when our favorite tactics fall short. New data fails to generate interest because the topic is no longer relevant. Editors decline to attend an event because they already committed to another panel on the same day. A byline can’t be placed because it reads like a press release. (Coincidentally, it is a press release.)
The irony is that in the long run, coming up with a fresh idea takes exactly the same amount of time and effort as reinventing a stale one. More importantly, those projects are considerably more interesting to work on too.
If there’s a silver lining in our industry turning dull, it’s that this monotony will also end – just as soon as we put a stop to it.
We can refuse to rewrite and execute the same tired plan. We can get rid of our tired tactics that don’t produce meaningful results. We can get creative. And we can make things interesting.
If that doesn’t sound appealing, I may know of a print shop that’s hiring.
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