To be nice or not to be nice? That is the question

If you ever find yourself in a meeting with ad guys, policy wonks, media buyers and, of course, PR consultants, wait until the client cracks a joke. In fact, wait until the client says anything remotely amusing.

Being caught between a client and the industry that nice forgot (the media) isn't easy, says Kev O'Sullivan
Being caught between a client and the industry that nice forgot (the media) isn't easy, says Kev O'Sullivan

Actually, just wait until the client dispenses any comment with an ounce of levity to it, because I guarantee you it'll be that PR person or those PR persons who laugh first and probably loudest. Maybe even alone.

How do I know? Because for many years I was that early laugher. That fawner. That desperado. And I did it often and unapologetically.

But why? Simple, because I wanted to be liked. And to be liked, you should be nice. And members of the PR industry are nothing if not nice, right?

Caught between a client with a grievance, as well as a roster full of our competitors and the 'industry that nice forgot' – the world's media – we have no choice but to be nice.

Like all the best abusive co-dependent relationships, we stay passive and quiet and cordial to avoid being reprimanded. Or at least to buffer some of the inevitable reprimanding.

Caught between a client with a grievance as well as a roster full of our competitors and the industry-that-nice-forgot, the world's media, we have no choice but to be nice.

Kev O'Sullivan, creative director, FleishmanHillard Fishburn

But in an industry where the conversation around mental health is still too faint, a little definition and discussion around the parameters of nice can but help.

It may be that niceness may not be all that good for us.

So let's ponder that army of officious, clipboard-waving, no-nonsense PR people who "say it like it is" and "cut through the BS, man".

They stride into the office like Miranda Priestly or berate like Sean Spicer. They ain't nice and they ain't afraid of anybody. They're the real power players. The ones winning.

These characters, real and fictional, wrongly or rightly play a crucial role in the attack on "nice". They act as the warhead of that missile society has launched at nice people.

They ensure niceness is synonymous with the weak, the ineffectual and the uninteresting and it must be annihilated.

"Yeah, she's nice". Or my personal favourite, "he's nice enough". Nobody wants to be considered "nice", we say.

So nice is either essential for survival or utterly insipid. Is there an in-between?

Yes, absolutely. And it's our industry's favourite pastime; Passive aggression: declaring your disdain for a colleague by foregoing Likes, or at least providing them sparsely, asking rhetorical questions, especially with senior stakeholders in earshot or cc-ed in.

Or penning an opinion piece like this?

Passive aggression is a nice, natural response to the external factors squeezing our patience.

We can still maintain an air of friendliness while pushing for what we want. Gritted teeth, sharp-ish claws.

All while avoiding our biggest fear; conflict.

Or is passive aggression a more Machiavellian pursuit; one where we drive a deeper wound behind the veil of being a clever, civilised person? One problem, Machiavelli - most PR pros can spot passive aggression, no matter how subtle it's attempting to be.

As somebody with a very particular and peculiar relationship with "nice", I probably shouldn't be dispensing advice on the subject.

I am perfectly nice, in fact, effusive a large proportion of the time. That's until the occasional boiling point is reached - usually through the cumulative effects of too much niceness - and breakdowns, tantrums, pass-agg and, ultimately, regret can ensue.

There are too many people reaching too many boiling points for many reasons but I suspect being "too nice" is one of them, or because their colleagues aren't being nice enough.

What is the alternative to our industry's tortuous, contradictory relationship with nice?

It's probably a nice balance: Occasionally chilled, occasionally assertive, alongside some healthy self-reflection.

The other alternative is to stop laughing at the clients' jokes. Or at least wait until the media buyer's laughed first.

Kev O'Sullivan is creative director at FleishmanHillard Fishburn

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