Gini Dietrich

PR Flacks and Spin Doctors: The Industry is Somewhere in the Middle

By: Gini Dietrich | April 15, 2014 | 
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PR Flacks and Spin Doctors- The Industry is Somewhere in the MiddleBy Gini Dietrich

I’ve been really sick. Strep throat, sinus infection, earache, fever, the whole nine yards (thanks, Canada!).

I typically wouldn’t mention it, except I couldn’t sleep last night because I can’t breathe. Rather than watch another episode of Law & Order, I decided to write today’s blog post at 1 a.m.

It started off with a princess living in a castle in a faraway land with her father, the king.

The king was an ethical man. Someone who all of the villagers admired and respected.

He had a downfall, though. The wicked witch, who lived in a neighboring village, called his ethics into question.

The king was Richard Edelman, the wicked witch was a journalist for the Financial Times, and the princess was me.

But when I read the post a mere four hours later, it was dumb. It seemed like a good idea at the time!

The genesis of the blog post is still good, even though the execution was terrible.

PR Flacks and Spin Doctors

In a recent story called, “Publicity is Free with No PRs,” Jacobs details the reasons many executives do not hire PR professionals.

  • Warren Buffett spurns spin doctors.
  • Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors, opts to do his own public relations.
  • Jon Moulton, a British private equity veteran, says he buys in PR expertise only very occasionally because he is “skeptical of the benefit” and it is hard to quantify the success.
  • A communications director of a listed European technology company says PR pros “do little apart from “add corporate-speak.” Such experts, he says, drum into executives the notion that they must espouse “an anodyne, flat colorless message.”

Of course, the creme de la creme is when the communications director said,

  • The greatest waste of money tends to happen when responsibility for public relations is dumped on a junior executive who is neither empowered nor capable of thinking for themselves.

It goes on to say that PR flacks are notorious for bringing on good clients and then handing the account “off to a child,” that we don’t understand our client’s businesses, or the good news never “filters through to the media.”

Spin Actually Does Suck

Richard Edelman responded with “A Fundamental Lack of Understanding.”

He addresses the four executives and their naysaying with four points of his own.

He says:

  • The fundamental role of the public relations counselor is to advise a client on policy and only then on communications.
  • The idea that we measure our value by measuring results in mainstream media column inches is to miss the reality that our programs are evaluated by sophisticated clients using the latest research tools on social sentiment, keyword analysis, and overnight pulsing of consumers.
  • To consider that the primary function of a PR person is to block access to a client is fundamentally wrong.
  • To describe the PR business as a waste of money is to miss the realignment of marketing priorities where earned media and social media actually provide the runway of trust that allows advertising to work effectively.

He’s right…and he’s wrong.

Jacobs also is right…and she’s wrong.

The PR Industry is Somewhere in the Middle

As this blog and the new book – Spin Sucks – details, we are not spin doctors.

It saddens me to know a man I greatly respect thinks our industry is full of liars and truth spinners. Perhaps I’ll send Buffett a copy of the book!

Here is a breakdown of the middle I see between both:

  • PR pros used to be hired to create an organization’s messaging and to provide media training so the executives never went off messaging. I say used to be because, in today’s digital world, the approved messaging no longer works. And yet…
  • Many large agencies bring in the big guns to close a new client and then hand off the account to young professionals. I’m not convinced Edelman doesn’t do the same, but Richard details in his blog post how he just managed a large media event for a client.
  • Sometimes the “good news” of a client doesn’t always filter to the media (though we can debate what makes news good and what does not).
  • Some PR pros do still consider themselves the middle men and won’t let journalists have access to their executives without their involvement. Those people tend to be known as publicists and not communicators.
  • Edelman gets defensive about media impressions and measuring in column inches. I hate to say it, but this is still fairly rampant in our industry. PRSA still rewards campaigns that measure these vanity metrics.
  • Social media and owned media have created an opportunity for our profession to grow outside of media relations, but many professionals still only do the latter. They may have social media as an add-on, but they don’t approach it strategically, opting instead to just tweet a client’s blog post.

But here is the biggest miss of both articles: PR isn’t just media relations.

PR is More than Media Relations

All of these “PR pros suck” articles always focus on the media relations aspect. They focus on the bad pitches they receive from so-called PR pros. And they’re right to do so…that’s what they see every day.

But what we do is so much more than that.

Today we create content, we build relationships with external audiences – including customers, we build your reputation, we have the hard conversation when something you’re about to do is going to hurt your reputation, we manage an issue…and the possibility of an ensuing crisis, we work with investors, we produce and host events, we generate leads, we convert customers, we even dabble in some advertising.

As my friend Rebekah Iliff likes to say, an entrepreneur or CEO absolutely can do those things and probably fairly well. But is that where he or she should be spending their time?

She says no…and I agree.

Spend time where you have strengths, but be very clear on what your PR team should be doing and how they integrate all forms of media.

If you know what you’re trying to achieve – beyond “get me on the front page of the New York Times” – you can leave the strategy development and execution to the pros.

Thanks to James Halloran for bringing Edelman’s blog post to my attention and to Rosemary O’Neill for the cartoon.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She also has run, built, and grown an agency for the past 14 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.