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“Why I’m quitting PR” – an anonymous parting shot

A couple of weeks ago, somebody I’ve known in the industry for a few years, who’s both held senior positions here in the UK and in the States, emailed to let me know she was leaving PR. I think it’s a loss to the industry, but she very kindly agreed to write (anonymously, obviously) to tell us why she’s quitting.

I think it’s something all people working in PR anywhere in the world – and students hoping to work in the any field of marketing – should read.

Why I’m Quitting PR

That’s a really grandiose title; I may not be quitting PR for good, but I am, indefinitely, quitting the industry and certainly the job I currently hold at an exalted global agency in favour of unemployment and uncertainty. This is almost certainly an incredibly stupid thing to do, but it also feels very much like the right thing.

After over a decade working in agencies of various stripes, there has come a point where I can no longer put up with some of the industry conventions – or indeed some of the commonly accepted wisdom that strikes me as anything but.

Below are some of the things that have pushed me to resign – and which I think need fixing for PR to continue (begin?) to be taken seriously as a profession.

And to forestall the inevitable ‘well we don’t do things like that round here’ comments – yes, you do. Everyone does, to varying degrees. I have, you do, others will. Don’t despair, though – we can fix this.

1) The client is always right

Client says jump; agency not only asks “how high?” but also “out of which window?”. I get it – our clients pay our wages. That is not to say, however, that agencies should be bullied by, or dictated to, by clients – particularly when the client is wrong. As with all service professions, clients engage the services of PR agencies because they (or the individuals that work there) have expertise and insight that the client lacks; in which case, agencies, feel free to use that expertise and insight to advise the client rather than simply doing whatever they ask of you whether or not it makes any sense. You know what? It’s ok to tell a client that no, you are not going to issue that press notice because it’s not news, or that no one cares about their internal messaging, least of all the media, or that unless they make it funny/shocking/incredible, it won’t ‘go viral’.

There’s a difference between being a consultant and a chump, and it’s one that it seems is increasingly misunderstood by the PR industry. If all you do is what your client tells you, if you don’t challenge them or offer different perspectives, if you are not honest, then you are failing as a PR. Also, and this one’s for the moneymen/women – the margins on consultancy are better than the ones on execution, generally. You can make more money consulting for your clients than calling journalists – and consulting means, quite often, challenging their expectations and ideas. Amazing, I know.

2) Facebook

The standard argument as to why agencies do Facebook Pages (you can apply this to other social media platforms, but Facebook is the most ubiquitous so we’ll use it as the catch-all) usually runs something like one of the following:

– The client wants one

– Something, something, engagement, something

– If we don’t, the digital / marketing / ad agency will do it instead and get all of that lovely community management money

It’s incredibly rare that you will hear anyone – agency or client side, in fairness – answer the question ‘so, why are you on Facebook?’ with anything other than some bland guff about the need to engage with brand advocates online. This, I would argue, is not an adequate answer. Go and look at the posts on the Condescending Corporate Brand Page and then look at the things that you as an agency do for your clients. See the difference? If not, then you are wasting your time and the client’s money. And it’s not even like it’s that much money. As an aside, how many ABC1 demographic consumers (after all, everyone’s after those ABC1 eyeballs!) do you see interacting with branded Facebook content on a daily basis? Yes, that’s right. Think about why you are doing it for a second, please. And then stop; it’s better for everyone.

3) Celebrity

We live in a world where celebrity culture is all-pervading, and where the famous (and barely famous) will sell themselves to a brand or product for endorsement purposes at the drop of a hat. I don’t think that this is a good thing. In fact, I think it’s pernicious and unpleasant, and that PR is a large part of this problem. Can we stop it, please?

4) Po-faced seriousness

I don’t think it’s always been like this, but there seems to be an increasing sense of humor-vacuum in PR. When did we all lose sight of the fact that a good 80% of what we do really doesn’t matter? I know that we live in an age of digital permanence, but the old adage about ‘today’s news, tomorrow’s chip paper’ still holds true. Social media ‘crises’ come and go within the space of hours, with no one (other than people who work in PR) remembering anything about them at a distance of a week. The news cycle moves faster than ever. Whatever happens, good or bad, if it’s PR-led it will most probably be forgotten about in 48 hours. So stop taking it so seriously. Please.

5) Strategy

None of us know what this word means – or at least that’s the impression I get having heard somewhere in the region of 143 differing definitions of the term since I started my career more than ten years ago. Strategy, tactics, executions, messaging, blah blah blah blah… You have a business. That business has objectives. To achieve those objectives, it is beneficial to communicate certain things. Does it need to be more complicated than this? Really? I know we like to feel that our job is complicated and difficult, but it really doesn’t need to be half as complicated and difficult-sounding/seeming as we appear intent on making it. Let’s be honest – we can probably drop the silly long words and confusing three-letter abbreviations and we’ll all be happier.

I could go on, but I won’t. I don’t think PR is a bad, or even pointless, industry – I think that correctly applied it can and does have significant business impact and can be instrumental in shaping the fortunes of an organization. It can also, though, be a load of crap – and I have increasingly become convinced that the crap is currently outnumbering the good stuff about 4-1.

You lot redress the balance; I’m going on vacation.

Picture credit: Truly Graphics

  • After 16 years working in agencies of varying size, there are some points here that on the whole resonate loudly – in particular, strategy. I ran into a friend from school who I hadn’t seen for more than 10 years recently, to find out we had both spent the vast majority of our working lives in PR . “What we do, it’s not rocket science is it?” she said. I couldn’t agree more, but this desire to act more self-important is something I’ve personally noticed has been on the increase in recent years – and social media is just the latest tool to enable PROs to attempt to shroud what we do in some thinly-veiled mystery.
    And having left agency work earlier this year to work on a number of consultancy roles, I can safely say that becoming a “Why?-man” instead of a “Yes-man” is one of the most refreshing and rewarding things I’ve done. I think we all need to question both clients and ourselves a little more, then hopefully we can start to redress the balance somewhat.

  • Chump McGee

    Only 80 percent of what PR people do doesn’t really matter? Where do you get off? Ha.

  • BigBernard

    Who are you?

  • S

    To be honest, this is almost like someone has read my mind. I’ve been in PR now for the better part of a decade and I feel exactly like this. Hired by clients who then spend the entire time telling you they know better. I know many other PR professionals who also feel this way and all are on the edge of quitting the industry completely.

    • R

      I’d write a comment myself, but this sums up my sentiment perfectly so I’ll just steal yours instead.

  • Becky McMichael

    I think it was Microsoft that said “change the world or go home”
    I did the same in 2002…became disillusioned, left a big agency, set up on my own, loved it and then joined an agency with a totally new perspective. It happens to most people at some point….hope she finds what she’s after.

  • T

    This is interesting and raises some thoughtful points – perhaps a bit more detail would have made it even more insightful, but I agree completely about some taking themselves too seriously – we are not lawyers, doctors or teachers. We secure coverage, and don’t actually write the article or produce the VT! (this simple fact is often forgotten).

    My main gripe with the industry is that many agencies judge staff too much on style and not enough on substance, quite unlike most industries which judge on competency first. It is quite a shallow mindustry to work in where people have to be seen (at least in London) to live and breathe PR. Like you say, if we distil it down as to what we do this could actually be beneficial as it would create much more clarity when devising PR plans.

  • PR isn’t the problem, your job is. I love PR. I’m self-employed, but I’ve worked in-house for most of my career.

    We don’t all need to be running an orphanage in Calcutta or finding a cure for cancer. We must take the talents we have and put them to the best use we can. If that’s holding a large corporation to account to do the right thing, or being paid to make sure a client is presented fairly and accurately to its customers and prospective customers, then I’m satisfied with that.

    If you’re asked to jump and you jump without understanding why, you’re going to be miserable for sure. If you see bullshit, you must call it out, not flounce out.

    If you don’t understand what people mean when they say strategy, you must ask questions until you do or propose what you mean and then engage others in supporting it.

    The role of PR is more important than ever. It’s a licence to destroy shiftiness and create excitement and interest in new things. It’s an opportunity to ensure that those who ARE gifted at making things – whether that’s a new widget or an insurance product – get the success they deserve. It’s a chance to make sure that your client gets a fair hearing with regulators, government, customers, investors and so on. Also, it involves taking people out to lunch as part of the job. What more do you want?!

    • Dave

      As one PR person to another, I love the clear passion you have for the job. But honestly, she’s right. A lot of what we do is self justifying and in the big scheme of things, it really isn’t that important

  • Helen Trevorrow

    Loved reading this post because it is so true. However, what we can’t forget is that every job has downside and development of a thick skin is required to really get off on what is one of the most varied and exciting jobs on the planet. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, in PR I’ve found that the stresses are very stressful and the highs absolutely brilliant. I think we can tend to lose sight and work in a vacuum. Working in PR can be hilarious. Let us not forget that.

  • praizar

    It’s been eight months since this article was written. Any updates to share as I’d love to hear what’s happened to our mystery lady since writing this post. Personally I think PR, like any form of communication, is a vital role. It can be marginalised, it can be abused, but it also has the opportunity of helping people who would normally not be heard, and should be heard, have a voice. Not everyone is good at it, but if you are and you want to, perhaps put your core skills to use in an area you find personally or morally rewarding. Good luck on your new journey!

  • LT

    Also, is it just widely accepted in the industry that it’s not *actually* morally wrong to completely fabricate a complete lie in the form of a stat or a ‘trend’ and photoshop an image or apply a false name to a friend of the agency to get coverage? Because that’s why I left…

  • S

    This problem isn’t exclusive to PR but agency life as a whole. I’ve gradually being losing my love for the industry then, very recently, it just hit me – I am over it. I don’t want to go to another ‘all agency meeting’, I don’t want to have a meeting about a meeting about a meeting, I don’t want to spend three days coming up with one idea which consists of four lines on a page, I don’t want to go to ’tissue’ meetings or make 100 page PowerPoint documents. I don’t want to make sure I include x on every email, I don’t want to re-pitch for work I have already won, I don’t want to make crap work because my client wants me to…the list goes on. So, the outcome? Lets start a new agency; a new kind of place where straight talkers are welcome, where the ‘yes man’ is banned and simple, straight forward creative wins. I’m in!

  • LostinPR

    I feel this way, but am not sure where to transition to next. Any suggestions on where a person with almost a decade for PR agency exp can easily transition to? What sector or corporate role would be ideal? I was thinking about getting my MS in marketing, but wonder if it’s the same diff in the end.

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