The Sunday piece by The New York Times, Spinning the Web: PR in Silicon Valley, sparked considerable debate in the industry, which PRWeek documented in our news analysis. The charges against the article generally went two ways: 1) It was a stereotypical – incorrect – version of what the industry does 2) It incorrectly hypothesized that everyone in PR favors Twitter and other social media channels over mainstream media for pitching and launch strategies.
As an editor, I found my own criticisms with the piece. Namely that it seemed to begin as a roundup of how PR operates in Silicon Valley but quickly slid into a one-sided profile of one PR pro. But as a journalist who has jumped around, from beat to beat, I know it can be hard for an industry outsider to paint an authentic picture of a field that you don't work in. But that's our job. That's why we interview, listen, and question those with expertise on our subjects.
And that's the real rub for the industry. Apparently the reporter wasn't convinced enough that PR is much more than spin. I don't think PR needs to sell itself so hard to the point where it's “saving the children” at every turn, or waxing on about its strategic role, but it does need to tell a better – and believable – story about the industry. We've said before, PR offers a legitimate business service, as do other consultants, such as HR, legal, etc.
Yes, there might always be criticism of the industry's role. Steve Boehler of Mercer Island Group points out in the analysis that will be the case, “Because marketers are always trying to influence people, there will some amount of pushback on being influenced.” And the industry shouldn't exhaust itself trying to stamp out words like “spin,” but there's certainly no reason for it to be so misunderstood, particularly when it is being covered in mainstream media more often, and trying to gain greater market share away from ad firms struggling to adapt to a non-print world.
When I joined PRWeek, I'll admit that I thought of PR as strictly publicity stunts and spokespeople, but I quickly learned it was much, much more. I learned that by speaking with those in the industry on a regular basis, as well as CEOs and CMOs that were investing in the discipline. And in each campaign story I edited or wrote, I heard more about the strategies and techniques of the industry.
It's one thing for industry insiders to blog and tweet back and forth, or for PRWeek to put out an analysis on our Web site, but that keeps us all ricocheting around the echo chamber. It's contingent on the industry to stop being shy or coy about what it's up to, and to start talking. Hiding behind the “consultant” mantle as a reason for not explaining what you do won't work either. There are good stories to be told about the industry, ones that demonstrate real business results.
I wonder if any of the industry's leadership, including agency CEOs, the associations, or a top-level in-house communicator plans to write a “letter to the editor” or an Op-Ed to the Times? That would be a good start.