Several factors conspire to keep PR executives on a vanilla message.
At the risk of generalizing, I think it’s fair to say that most PR people enjoy working in the background. Like a baseball umpire, when we do our job well, no one notices us. We like it this way. So perhaps there’s something in our DNA that doesn’t want the attention that comes from articulating a fresh point of view.
The profession also attracts “pleasers.” We want to please our clients. We want to please journalists, our colleagues and the hipster with the half sleeve tattoo making our morning pour over. By the way, I put myself in the pleaser category.
As a result, we avoid the opposite of pleasing — pissing people off (alliteration rationalizes use of the “p” word).
Because a strong opinion will inevitably upset people who don’t share the same viewpoint.
Donald Trump serves an Exhibit A of this dynamic even as an exaggerated form.
The point is, the stronger the opinion, the more likely it causes a polarizing response. Yet, softening that opinion quickly changes it into the equivalent of white noise with zero value.
It’s called thought leadership, not thought followership.
Which moves us into the area of biting the hand that feeds us. God forbid if an opinion upsets potential clients — or worse — current clients. Here, the thinking goes that taking a stand is actually bad for business, that executives will shy away from agencies who express opinions counter to their own.
The same goes for journalists. We don’t criticize journalists for fear of repercussions; i.e., they won’t write about our clients.
I don’t buy into this. In a media environment where thought leadership is the only way to drive consistent media attention — unless you’re a consumer mega brand — PR counsels clients today to express opinions with the benefits far outweighing the negatives. Why should the equation suddenly go south when applied to the communications industry?
It shouldn’t. It doesn’t.
Furthermore, the rise of social media with a megaphone on every desk puts all of us on the same playing field. How this impacts society is above my pay grade. What I can say is PR is no longer relegated to the subservient ghetto. Thanks to social media, we’ve now got a path to peer-to-peer expression.
Rewinding the tape to 2010, you can see a perfect example of this when Adam Singer, who at the time worked for a digital marketing firm, wrote the post, “The Truth About Mashable.” He chastised the publication for resembling a content farm, writing, “They churn out content for the sake of churning out content.” Next, he served up the proof points that supported the premise.
If we express an opinion with the requisite rationale, our audiences will listen.
I’ve previously mentioned the Korean phrase 모단돌이 정맞는다 which loosely translated means, “the nail that stands out get hammered.”
We can’t be afraid of getting hammered.
It’s time PR takes the same advice we give our clients on what makes for effective thought leadership.