PR people need to start loving themselves, and each other, said Kev O’Sullivan, ECD at FleishmanHillard Fishburn in a tub-thumping keynote at PR360.
"We’re all suffering from a kind of sleep paralysis, that nightmarish condition where you wake unable to move," he said: "Worst of all, you can’t talk. You cannot open your mouth."
"After 16 years in the PR industry, sleep paralysis is pretty much the only thing that’s comparable to a regular feeling I have in my job. This idea that you can see everything that’s going on around you, that you want to do something, but you are absolutely paralysed."
"This is crazy. I know for a fact that PR is true power. I’d go as far as to say it is a super power." He explained that successful people, from film director Ava DuVernay to American president Donald Trump, have kept PR and PR skills at the heart of their achievements… for good or ill. PR can drive sales, PR can raise awareness of serious world issues. "This is quite a currency. Shining awareness on issues changes the world. It is real power."
But there’s a problem: "Even though we are changing the world, the world doesn’t seem to like us very much. And it isn’t just because of Bell Pottinger and ’oh, the dark arts’. I wish it was that! It sounds interesting and powerful! Actually it’s because the world thinks we’re insipid and fluffy and a bit pointless. The world puts us on the bottom of a list of a load of other different types of agencies that I know we can do better than. But we’re still there."
He explained that PR people will blame everyone for this – the creative agencies: "You get all the good briefs"; the clients: "You dream killers"; the media: "Two or three decades of Absolutely Fabulous being our primary representation is just upsetting."
"I blame all these people and I don’t feel any better about this situation." He presented a quote from writer AA Gill: "‘I think PR is a ridiculous job. They are the head lice of civilisation.’
"It is actually kind of hurtful."
But these perceptions are not the real hurdle. Why are we so low and sad, why are we not meeting our full potential? The real hurdle is PR people themselves. O’Sullivan explained that a psychiatrist had said to him it’s common knowledge people in the PR industry have the lowest self-esteem in the world.
So, how can we fix our self-esteem issues? O’Sullivan headed to the therapist’s couch again and received five recommendations on how the PR industry can reach its full potential. Here they are:
1) Definition. "We are having an identity crisis." What are we? Marcomms? We all have a different language and it’s a mess. Each of us needs to find one simple line about what we do for a living. Simplicity is key. "Stop defining the industry and start defining ourselves as individuals."
2) Take pride in ourselves and each other. "We can be snide about each other’s work and what we do. The best example is ‘Floating something down the Thames…’ We say that with such acid in our voices. Have you ever seen something float down the Thames? It is amazing! It is beautiful, it is photogenic, it has a massive impact on products. That’s awesome." If you want greater self-esteem, help others find self-esteem as well.
3) Measurable impact. Research and analytics people are important, demonstrate the difference that we as people, and we as an industry, can actually make.
4) Stop comparisons. "How much time do we spend comparing ourselves to management consultancies or creative agencies? Of course, we can use the great thinking and artistry from those industries but PR is pure power. We can grow from the inside."
5) Don’t be afraid to leave. "If you can’t find self-esteem and pride in this industry, if you can’t reach your potential – then get out. The skills you develop in PR are so applicable to so many things in our world that you can make that amazing difference elsewhere – this will allow the people who are confident and who passionately believe in this industry to help it thrive."
O’Sullivan finished with a rallying call. "Is PR any good? PR is really, really good. PR is incredible. PR is magic. We just need to believe it is."