For decades, police detective shows have dominated the airwaves. From Dragnet to Hill Street Blues to CSI, people can’t seem to get enough of the good-guys-catching-bad-guys formula. But a long time ago, a veteran police detective told me that most of those shows have no relation to reality. In fact, he said the most realistic TV police show that was ever aired was the long-running sitcom Barney Miller. With a dose of humor and very little drama, that show depicted what really goes on behind the scenes in the police world.
This same problem happens in the public relations industry. I can’t think of any TV show or movie that has ever depicted PR people accurately. What’s more, I think the way PR professionals have been portrayed in popular culture has not only hurt our reputations, but has also provided a very skewed concept of what we actually do.
So I thought it might be helpful if I spend a little time dispelling some of the common myths of the PR profession.
- Spin Doctors: In reality, spin is not in the vocabulary of most PR pros. You really cannot “spin” the truth anyway, because most editors and consumers of the media see right through it, besides a small amount of research on the Internet will tell the true story. Now, granted, part of our skills resides in helping our clients articulate themselves better, but not for the purpose of obscuring the truth. Rather, to help clients be as clear and cogent as humanly possible in their statements to the media. Truth is the best ally of a PR professional.
- There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute: In TV and movies, the publicist or press agent is usually engaged in a game of trying to fool or manipulate the media into favoring their client, or opposing their client’s competition. In the real world, our role isn’t to fool the media, but rather, to work with them to help them do their job. In fact, a recent survey of 750 journalists revealed that 75 percent of them actually find well-targeted news releases and pitches with high-quality content useful. Most journalists don’t disdain PR people carte blanche; they only disdain the bad ones. Instead, they often embrace a select number of PR pros to work with to help them develop meaningful content for their audiences.
- Controlling The Media: PR professionals don’t control what goes on the air. Rather, we provide content, information and material that are of value to those in control of what goes on the air and in print. If we do our job right, the news outlets get good material for their audiences and our clients get a fair shake as sources for that information. We don’t fool anyone. We simply help them with truthful, honest information.
- The Big Schmooze: Often, TV shows will feature PR people or executives meeting top reporters over a drink at a smoke-filled bar, bargaining with the reporter to give him a bigger story if he keeps some sordid detail out of the headlines. That went out with parachute pants and women’s blazers with big, poufy shoulder pads. In today’s world, the Internet moves news and communications faster than ever thought possible back in the days when boozing it up with a reporter might have kept a client’s name out of the papers. These days, reporters don’t have the time for a drink in the middle of the day; they’re too busy chasing the stories and making deadlines.
Moreover, this is the age of the 24/7 cable news juggernaut and Internet bloggers who get news tips online faster than any traditional newspaper or TV reporter ever could back in the day. Today’s equivalent of schmoozing is friending a reporter on Facebook and catching him online so you can chat to him about your story idea.
These days, your story and your information need to win reporters, editors and producers over on their own merits. The fact that you’re a buddy doesn’t carry much weight anymore. After all, most media folks have a few thousand friends on Facebook. You’re no longer in very elite company.
Those aren’t all the myths, but they are the ones that struck me as the most prevalent. Good PR professionals are honest. The “truth” is not only their friend, it’s their guide. Finally, there is so much media out there today that you can no longer schmooze your way into the good graces of influential news outlets. The news and the media move too fast for that and competition is greater than ever.
The tricks and schemes we see PR people pull off on TV and in movies don’t really have a place in the real world and serious PR pros—and their clients—already know that.