Parlez-vous bullshit?

One of the media's biggest issues with the PR industry is the lack of authenticity in its messaging. Alex Benady looks at why the practice persists and how PR professionals can keep it real.

Parlez vous bullshit?
Parlez vous bullshit?

A brief survey of the PRWeek inbox reveals that a brewer has placed guards around its new designer beer mug because it is so desirable that fans, yes fans, of the glass want to steal it.

Another company that makes photocopiers wants us to know that consumers are almost wetting themselves with excitement in anticipation of its incrementally enhanced technology.

And a surprising number of 'world leading' companies have written to inform us that they are about to become even more 'world leading' thanks to improvements in their supply chain, new senior executives or products. In several cases the cause of their global domination can be traced back directly to the charitable efforts of branches in Slough or Welling.

Hopefully you immediately recognised the above as examples of what is cruelly known in many newsrooms as 'bullshit', or as The Independent's Tom Peck called it in his email response to a PR: 'cosmic fucking wank'.

It is a phenomenon that reflects a wide spectrum of human fallibility, from mindless optimism, through stupidity, cupidity and banality to outright mendacity. But the common feature is a lack of authenticity.

There are no surveys or statistics on bullshit. No-one has ever quantified what proportion of commercial comms falls into that category. But journalists, PR practitioners and clients all agree it exists, it has always existed and there is too much of it.

The question is why? Why do so many companies that want to spread their news do it in a way that ensures it goes straight in the bin? 'I get hundreds of releases a week. So I just delete anything that sounds even slightly insincere,' admits one b2b journalist. Why do companies so often send out comms that provoke derision, active dislike or even hatred from the 'key opinion formers' they are trying to influence?

Curse of the optimist

There are as many answers to this as people you ask. Part of the problem is a failure to appreciate the personality type of journalists, says George Pitcher, partner at Jericho Chambers. 'PR people tend to be glass-half-full cheerleaders while journalists tend to be glass-half-empty critics. Their job is to question things and be sceptical on behalf of their readers.

'Most PR people know this in theory but don't fully understand how important this questioning culture is for journalists.'

As a result, what seems like charming optimism to some may be experienced as an insult to their intelligence by others.

Some say 'PR bullshit' is simply a result of PR people lacking confidence, leading them to try too hard. 'It's true, comms people are dramatically insecure, so they feel the need to talk up whatever it is they are championing,' says John McLaren, comms director at Akzo Nobel.

But probably the biggest single cause is what social psychologist Irving Janis calls 'groupthink'. It refers to the dehumanising phenomenon in companies and other groups, in which group values trump the individual's conscience or common sense.

'In the corporate world you have to be part of the team and subscribe to its values. So the pressure is always on for people to pretend to be something they are not and to fake positive emotions,' says Sandi Mann, a psychologist who studies emotional experience in the workplace.

She estimates that up to 30 per cent of our comms at work consists of faked positive emotions. 'When combined with the commercial imperative to sell, it's easy to forgot who you really are. When that happens its is very easy to become inauthentic and a culture of fakeness takes over.'

That is a relatively benign take on the question. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe puts it more harshly: 'Locked into the narrative of corporate self-interest, the values of the organisation and society become misaligned.' The result she says, is what we recognise as 'bullshit'.

The PR conscience

Nicola Green, Telefonica UK's director of comms and reputation, agrees - after a fashion. She thinks that lack of authenticity is often the result of the comms function failing to provide a proper challenge to the rest of the company - especially the marketing department.

'They (marketers) have a more emotional attachment to their products. And they tend to be much more insular in their views. The PR person must be the conscience of the company,' she says.

Although a straw poll of journalists suggests that they think the amount of bullshit has remained pretty steady over the years, experts outside the industry think it is on the increase.

The pressure for results in all walks of life - politics, education, commerce and, of course, comms - has led to an explosion of inauthenticity, says Mann. 'The world is becoming generally less authentic because people just don't have the luxury of telling it how it is, saying how they really feel these days.'

Pitcher argues that this is in part due to the increased commercial pressures resulting from five years of economic stagnation: 'The tide has been rising because the simple process functions of message delivery have been squeezed by the economy and technology.'

As a result clients are taking a lot of comms tasks like messaging in-house and making a mess of it, especially in the financial sector. 'It may not even be the comms function doing the communicating any more,' says Pitcher.

And then there is the question of social media. Some say that a changing mediascape with looser management controls and real-time responses has unlocked a flood gate of fakery and taken inauthenticity to hitherto undreamed of levels.

But it is a slightly different, more complex form of inauthenticity than the classic PR bullshit of old, says the social media director of a Fortune 100 firm.

'Social media were supposed to strip away the meaningless clutter of the mass media era, exposing true brand affinity and advocacy,' he says.

Instead, he argues social media marketing strategies have encouraged brands to post 'any meaningless thing' in pursuit of a comment, like or share.

In other words, inauthentic companies are provoking inauthentic responses from consumers who really do not care. Yet the companies wilfully treat these responses as real. It seems that bullshit has gone interactive.

Does it matter? 'The irony is that none of this actually helps brands - just as inauthentic fans cannot create authentic engagement, neither can inauthentic engagement build authentic brand value,' says the Fortune 100 director.

Keeping it real

So what is the solution to inauthenticity? When it comes to social media, some firms may be trying foolishly inauthentic things. But the consequences of inauthenticity are now so rapid and so dire that they are finally learning to keep it real, says Victor Benady, digital MD at Grayling.

'Social media are changing the PR world beyond recognition. So I think bullshit is on the way out,' he says. 'If there are fault lines in your message you are very exposed in social media and you will be found out within minutes.'

The implication is that a cultural change kick-started by the online world will spread through the entire company, exposing its 'groupthink' to the reality check of instant consumer reaction.

Increasingly the comms world uses the metaphor of individual behaviour and relationships as a guide to how companies should behave and communicate.

Psychotherapist Steve Kirby, who has written about the impact of telling lies on personal relationships, points out that 'deep and meaningful' relationships can only happen if people are authentic.

'Inauthenticity in the individual is often a sign of low-self esteem. It's about presenting a public image that is deemed socially respectable.

'The key to authenticity is the preparedness to make yourself vulnerable. To admit that everything isn't perfect.'

Apparently it is an evolutionary thing - the equivalent of an animal baring its throat to show it is not a threat. In nature it is known as an appeasement display.

And that, of course, is one of the hardest things to do in business.

A taxonomy of bullshit

1. Use of adjectives and adverbs

This is bullshit 101. If your release contains either, prepare for instant loss of credibility.

2. The absurd false premise

And now the product the world has been waiting for ...? A revolution in hairdressing? Get real.

3. Inappropriate jargon

Sometimes technical language is OK. It can even be useful in a technical setting. But often jargon is a verbal code developed to exclude outsiders.

4. Weasel words and sentences

'I did not have sexual relations with that woman,' said Bill Clinton. According to his limited definition of 'sexual relations' he may have been right. But we knew he wasn't telling the whole truth, didn't we?

5. Withholding or partial information

You may be pitching for the global X account. But that is only because its rivals Y Corp sacked you.

6. Allowing smaller truths to obscure larger ones

Your new product might be an ethical wonder. But if you had to bulldoze an entire Chinese village for the new factory, it is not so ethical, is it?

7. Poor targeting

In itself this is not bullshit. It is just that if you send a beauty release to the gardening correspondent, it is so irrelevant they will consider you to be a bullshitter. Strangely, this is the journalist's greatest lament.

8. Fake intimacy

Pretending you are old mates. No you aren't. You met once at a press conference.

9. Self-obsession

You are not the centre of the universe and some minor improvements in your product formulation have hardly changed your product, let alone the whole world.

10. The so-called 'exclusive'

Sell in an exclusive 'making of the film' when every other outlet has the film itself and you will incur the undying hatred of the journalists you courted. Ditto 'industry exclusives' when the story has been in the nationals or other press.

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