The Flakey Flacks
By J. Michael Willard
A lot of us can hum at least some of the lyrics to Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, but few of us can sing it without it sounding like a wee hour barroom scrum around a tinny piano.
This is not a discussion about soaring heights of say an Andrea Bocelli — none of us are there — but more one of adequacy, rising to a respectable level over time to that of a wise guy when it comes to public relations.
I am talking about strategic aforethought in marketing ideas and not about the hawking of trinkets for quick sell or analysing the number of widgets on a shelf at Ace Hardware.
It is in this arena that pretenders abound, lurking often in the weeds.
Charlatans they are, though, in truth, most have good intentions, sort of like Barney Fife in the old Andy Griffith series.
I exaggerate? Perhaps. Think Sarah Huckabee Sanders for starters, but I could go on through the millennium naming names given sufficient breath.
From the look and sound of it, Ms. Sanders flunked the press secretary short course where the first thing you learn is don’t lie to the media. The second thing you learn — if compelled to prevaricate — is to call in sick.
No, that’s a lie itself. You quit. You can always flak for your daddy Reverend/former governor Huckabee’s various enterprises. This is not to slander Ms. Sanders, for our only acquaintance is through a TV screen.
However, I have known several of the brethren that set the Gold Standard in Press Secretary-dom:
Pierre Salinger (President Kennedy) with whom I worked at Burson-Marsteller; my friend and fellow Georgian, Jody Powell (President Carter) and my one-time US Senate staff colleague, Mike McCurry (President Clinton) . Each wore the title with dignity, aplomb and — this surely helps — a healthy dose of humor.
Oh, and to disuade any thought of partisanship, I add in Marlin Fritzwater, press secretary for Reagan and Bush №1 who spoke to my media team’s brown bag lunch some years ago.
In general, there are fewer barriers to launching a public relations career than there are to opening a Twitter account or being admitted as a Sam’s Club member for the purpose of buying toothpaste by the 12 pack.
In some respects, this is natural, even good. The public relations field is not science, regardless of attempts by some to brand it with catchy names such as image makers or perception management gurus.
Such hocus-pocus is cheap tinsel for the purpose of selling pseudo magic to a gullible prospect. I’ve been there. It’s not a pretty picture. It is Harold Hill of the Music Man without Mr. Hill’s ultimate redeeming qualities.
I have often identified with my white sneaker definition of the profession:
It’s telling a CEO or a politician what he or she already knows but doesn’t want to hear — and doing so in such a way you convey a feeling of Armageddon should he or she not take your advice.
My own journey to PR was the trajectory of a silver ball being flipped around in a pin-ball machine. It was erratic. It was a realm to which I — a committed newsman of the Damon Runyonesque variety — swore never to enter.
I remember pushing this guy’s grocery cart — bag-boys have to do that — across the parking lot of the old Food Fair Supermarket on south Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando. He said he was a PR guy for a florist association.
At the time, I was on the verge of landing a job as a cub reporter at the Orlando Sentinel by virtue of being an editor of the local junior college newspaper. The Sentinel was where I really went to college.
The longer he discussed his job, the more I sneered at him, realizing a tip was already out of the question. I swore I would never let such an individual date my kid sister, and certainly would not invite him to the local billiards emporium for a game of eight ball call pocket and suds.
But, we and times change.
There are some, including me, who have been in the PR field decades now. We believe it an honorable endeavor if one has a paladin outlook and wants to right wrong.
While this might seem self-serving, hold on to that thought while I retrieve my super cape from the closet. In other words, properly exercised, it can move mountains.
But, I worry about the profession. The other day I heard on CNN that there are five PR practitioners for every print journalist. Such is the mortality of newspapers these days.
How many of these folks want to practice dispensing common sense for a higher purpose. Or how many of this PR tribe are Sarah Huckabee Sanders wannabes.
(Willard is a partner with Willard Global Strategies and has served as communications director to a US Senate leader, a governor, and advised four prime ministers in Europe and numerous CEOs on messaging and media relations. He has written seven novels and eight non-fiction books, including the upcoming “My Time to Shine” about the former lead singers of the Temptations, Platters and Drifters.)