Thong, Friend, Hook-Up, and Bomb. Is PR next?

December 21, 2010

It wasn’t that long ago words like sick or friend meant something entirely different than what they do today. And while these evolved words often cause laughter at family gatherings, “Grandpa said he can’t find his thongs,” it’s not always a laughing matter. Sure a bomb used to explode, being sick was bad, and hooking-up meant getting together – socially. But were you aware that PR used to mean building relationships and actually talking to people – as in conversations – where your lips move and your fingers don’t? Word.

My big brother and I still laugh about the time, 30 years ago, when our Grandma Eve marched into the kitchen and exclaimed, “Your grandfather just pulled a real boner in the garage!” This was the first time it occurred to me that words often have multiple meanings. In our small, juvenile minds what we thought Eve meant was not at all what she was saying. She was trying to let us know that her husband just hit a shelf with his car, and all the boxes came tumbling down on the hood. Clearly this word had morphed from meaning: a blooper, a small mistake having an amusing effect.

Fast forward 30 years. A few weeks ago I overheard two kids at the airport comparing how many “friends” they had. I didn’t hear what Kid 1 said, but I heard Kid 2 claim he had over one thousand friends. Of course these aren’t real friends, they are not people he could call to ask for help, or whose home he could run away to if need be. He was talking about Facebook Friends; just another case of a bastardized word. Speaking of taking liberties with words, let’s talk about PR.

There was a time when to be “in PR” or to call oneself a PR person meant you were schooled in and skilled at the art of communication. The term PR used to connote a discipline wherein the practitioner could pitch any story (in person or on the phone), be a trade show media stalker, a toast master, and even deliver the occasional eulogy. You had to think on your feet, dance when needed, and rescue a client should they stumble. But something is happening that’s causing these traits to fade like Marty McFly’s family Polaroid and it terrifies me. What used to be a somewhat exclusive club, open only to those who could do it all, is now being infiltrated by posers who hang out at PRSA events and become fans of PR groups on Facebook. They hide behind keyboards and tweets, and do anything to avoid human contact where they might feel put on the spot or exposed. What’s happening to my beloved art? Will the next generation, the PR Johnny Come Latelies, even use a phone as part of their toolkit? Or will they feel like they’re ready to conquer the PR world after a six-month internship where they tracked coverage, then tracked coverage, and finally tracked coverage?

I’m not sure who to blame for this mess. Is it the Mega Agency that “grows” PR people like steroid injected chickens? Is it universities that gutted their communications programs? Is it a byproduct of technology? Maybe it’s all of the above. Whatever the reason, there is a generation of people coming into the field ill equipped to serve clients in a capacity beyond email or Twitter. So what can be done?

Schools, PR agencies, and corporations need to be mindful that creating great PR people requires exposure to all facets of the trade. But the responsibility rests not – solely – on those who teach and coach. PR newbies need to ask for help and demand they get the opportunity to experience the entire gamut of the PR spectrum. In other words, entry level PR people need to become all around good utility players. Perhaps one day this industry will have a real certification process and not rely on the totally worthless APR program.

At BPR we’re totally committed to carrying on the old-school PR methods that helped give legitimacy to the craft. We embrace crazy concepts like talking on the phone, personalizing notes to reporters, and even reading magazines. I hope 2011 gives rise to a new breed of PR folk and sees the restoration of what it really means to be a Spin Doctor. That’ll be something I can truly become a fan of. That will be sick.

Howie

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