By Michael Willard
As a newsman early on, I thought public relations people were marginally okay, but I wouldn’t want my daughter dating one. Depending on ulterior motive, it’s doubtful I’d invite one for a beer at the local tavern.
I never wanted to be a public relations guy. Even today, after decades in the field, I prefer to call the discipline Public Accountability. It’s my re-imagined default term for PR.
Sometimes, though only rarely, PR folk were good for information. However, I was always suspicious of the details. It’s not that they lied. They just spoke in PR-speak.
This all might seem strange, particularly since I have belonged to this tribe now for 40 plus years, as well as being an ad guy. I am a veteran of international agencies. I have run my own PR shops in the US and Europe.
But, it seems almost daily stories break about some — in my view — nefarious assignment undertaken by a PR company, often an agency belonging to a giant holding company.
When I see a Presidential press secretary on television, I cringe, particularly over the last couple of years. When a flack is shown justifying pharmaceutical fraud, I want to give my employment as auto mechanic.
We learned a while back that Weber Shandwick was paid more than a half-million bucks by Michigan State to monitor (investigate perhaps) the young women abused by a team doctor.
When I hear about such stories, I want to regurgitate my grits and burn my official public relations card. But such a card I never had and never wanted.
Credentials for PR people are like the fluffy meringue on a lemon pie. It looks good and inviting for some, but it doesn’t add substance or even much flavor. It adds merely letters.
I prefer to employ those who have had sufficient combat work experience or else to train smart people who have common sense, energy, and curiosity. If they’ve ever waited on customers at Starbucks, it helps.
Somehow, after playing Russian roulette with several careers, most people call me a PR guy. I even wrote a book called “The Flack: A PR Journey” some years back. It is still available in English and in Russian.
I am proud of my news wire service heritage, and I never considered my work as a communications director for a US Senate Democratic leader or later for Gov. John D. Rockefeller, IV, to be in PR, though it was.
Over the years I have grown accustomed to the PR moniker, but prefer being called a novelist, a painter, a songwriter, or even a mediocre guitar player. I do not claim proficiency in any of those talents, though they do come with ample enjoyment.
It is not that I am ashamed of my career. I just don’t care for the nomenclature. Really now, turn it around: “Relations in Public” sounds like the title of a porno video.
In those many instances where the over-dog corporations have appropriated a social conscience, however, there have been untold community and personal rewards. It’s the part I like.
I daresay as a PR guy I have influenced more for the good than I did as a news scribe, though that is intangible and impossible to measure. When armed with a corporate budget, boulders can be pushed up the hill.
In my view, the common denominator for PR is simply common sense and knowing right from wrong. It is amazing how quickly these characteristics take a powder with CEOs during a crisis.
But, if someone wants to call me a PR guy, I can live with that — even proudly. Just don’t call me a spin doctor, because I wouldn’t know what end of a stethoscope to use.
And don’t call me a PR guru, because that sounds like something ugly. Don’t call me a PR maven either. That sounds like it should be in an Edgar Allen Poe rhyme.
Being in PR has very little to do with having an alphabet soup of letters behind a name, though such credentials are like chicken soup for a cold. They might not make you a better PR person, but they don’t hurt and impress a few people.
Many years ago I wrote that my definition of public relations was telling a CEO or politician what he or she already knows, but doesn’t want to hear, and doing so in such a way that they do the right thing.
I called it my White Sneakers definition. I have not moved from that opinion one iota.
(Photo: Walking with then US Senate Leader Robert Byrd on the grounds of the US Capitol Building)