Paul Holmes

US PR programs lag behind European ones because of unwillingness to be provocative

US PR programs lag behind European ones because of unwillingness to be provocative

I'm in the middle of judging my first-ever European awards competition, and it's interesting to compare work there with the entries I receive to my awards program here.

Because while the Europeans appear to be behind the curve when it comes to measurement - most evaluation stops at detailed analysis of press clippings - there's no doubt in my mind that the overall level of creativity is higher on the other side of the Atlantic.

One reason is that most programs in Europe are conducted on a smaller scale, which means the stakes are not quite as high and clients are more inclined to take risks. Here, it seems to me, clients exert pressure on firms to employ strategies that are tried, tested, and at minimal risk of failure.

Another is that the European media - particularly in the UK - are considerably more cynical about business stories, sometimes to the point of outright hostility. That means European PR practitioners have to work extra hard to come up with a creative idea that makes even the most jaded journalist sit up and take notice.

But I think the most interesting reason that European PR programs seem so much more fresh and creative is that a climate of self-censorship exists here in the US that prevents many companies from signing off on efforts that might conceivably cause offense. The atmosphere of political correctness stifles creativity because many bold ideas are bold precisely because they run the risk of being taken the wrong way.

In America's hypersensitive contemporary culture, there's someone ready to pounce on even the most innocuous faux pas. A few years ago, practitioners of the Wicca religion threatened to boycott an insurance company over the unflattering portrayal of a witch in a public service ad. Another company used Handel's Messiah as background music in an ad and was attacked by Christian groups. Animal-rights groups have complained about the indignities suffered by the Aflac duck.

And there's always a reporter willing to take the complaints of a handful of people with no discernible sense of humor and turn them into a story about corporate insensitivity.

But the right never to be offended has yet to be enshrined in our Constitution - unlike the right of companies to say what they want. The question is, should companies exercise that right? Might it not cost them customers or create a PR crisis?

Communicators will need to judge that on a case-by-case basis, but the fact is that the best companies stand for something, and anyone who stands for anything runs the risk of causing offense. The alternative is an array of gray, indistinguishable corporations without character or personality, all of which stand for nothing.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 18 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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