I am exceptionally good at what I do. I know you won’t click away now. My arrogance has grabbed you. I work in public relations. They should do those Leno-style “man-on-the-street” interviews to ask people what PR people actually do. That would be entertaining; although I’m going to tell you what we do right now.
We persuade. We influence. We whisper. Like so many wizards behind curtains, we change narratives. The hidden quality is not accidental. I’m probably pissing off a few colleagues right now by giving this away. Many would prefer to be called “storytellers.” Like Mr. Rogers, only not. It is true, I have told stories in my career. I’ve committed acts of journalism. I’ve perpetrated information sharing that you later read in the New York Times under someone else’s by-line. I’m not suggesting I actually write the stories you read (well, most of them at any rate). I would, but I get paid more behind the curtain. In this neighborhood, perception is reality, and perception-changers are kings¹.
Some may wonder how I can do what I do with any sort of conscience. I’ve wondered the same. I will tell you that I’ve never willingly promoted big oil or pharmaceuticals or God-forbid Monsanto.
I’m a PR person, not the Anti-Christ.
The more astute among you may have noticed I used the word “willingly” to modify the past-tense verb “promoted.” That’s the tough part of living in the global society, of kicking it new school in America circa 2011. You can never be exactly sure what you’re promoting, or buying, expelling or ingesting. Everything is interconnected. For example, you may have read about the astounding ways that General Electric legally gets away with not paying taxes. This missing tax revenue might have been put to good use.
Just try not using a GE product sometime though. You’d probably have to throw out an appliance or two, forget turning on a light bulb, hell, the energy itself is probably connected in some way to a GE subsidiary. Just look at the astounding array of product groups (that’s groups, not individual products) for which they account. GE is just the best at tax evasion. All the other multi-nationals do it, too. I know for a fact I’ve committed a lot of public relations for at least one of those corporations. I won’t name them here. I like to eat.
Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men told a group of NYU students at a workshop on Friday that there are 19,000 corporations registered in a single office building in the Cayman Islands. There is not enough physical space on one of the islands to house that many operations, let alone one building. It is a giant scam, a ruse, and they sip blended cocktails at our expense. Or maybe just your expense, because I inadvertently promoted one of those 19k, and I will intentionally do it again soon because I like eating, and remember, I am exceptionally good at what I do. This is bad news for you.
Since I feel pity for you, I will share my secret, and it is, as I recently discovered, similar to the philosophy of Dave Bernbach, a titan of the advertising business. I learn all the rules so that I can strategically break them. I became an expert in “client expectations” and product marketing. Then, I did the opposite of the norm. I deliberately bent “best practices.” I crushed the playbook. I occasionally wrote decent messaging (that’s PR-speak for words that persuade you to buy stuff or ideas) by not reading my email every five minutes (I was literally marked down for the latter by clients). As a result, I had the best relationships with “the influentials.” My words were in the background of more “news.” My special projects were more often approved to go “direct-to-consumers.” In the end, I did and do these things not for personal glory (remember, what we do is hidden). I did it to sell more <product>. And you all fell for it. I fell for it, too. There is perhaps nothing more post-modern than defying convention in a way that reinforces conformity.
I’m trying to get out, and I say that with the twitch of an addict. I’m slowly climbing the credentialed steps of academia. I want to become a professor someday, and yes, I plan to teach public relations among other subjects. The first thing I will say to my PR class is that public relations is quite possibly the worst subject in which a student could major… if the point of a college education is to develop critical thinking skills². Of course, this is no longer the point. The university is a corporation, too. College is vocational school. There is nothing wrong with that except false advertising, and really poor placement rates. Humanities programs are getting violently cut from institutions across the country. This outcome is many years in the making. Even <muffled noises so you can’t hear> years ago, my undergraduate major, English, prompted responses like, “That’s nice, but what are you going to do with it?” (Btw, that do was dripping with upper-crust derision like Thurston Howell.) Thankfully, I found my first job the old-fashioned way: nepotism. Ah, from the depths of exploitation rise great capitalists. Well, I’m actually an Icarus capitalist. Hopefully, I won’t go splat on you. I got the wings on sale.
I am, at thirtysomething, an anachronism for subscribing to a life of the mind, for genuinely believing that a single course might be worth $5,000. Perhaps I’m a chump.
Perhaps I am the victim of some professorial cabal, working behind a clump of trees, conjuring ways to persuade me into massive debt.
All I can say is, the government can’t repossess my education… at least not until they come up with the technology for this purpose. (One could argue advertising is one such technology, and I would listen.)
I choose this path not because of some higher moral ground. The fact is I’m only good at writing and singing—communicating, if you will³. Since Disney didn’t hire me out of college to play Ariel at a theme park, I figured the QWERTY was mightier than my vocal cords. I tread here to someday make a difference, to write something or say something inspirational. I chose higher education because, pound-for-pound, professors are my intellectual heroes (including my mother-an adjunct in, wait for it, Communication!) I’ve managed to find individuals within the university system who buck the corporatization effect, sometimes even without tenure, and the latter chumps deserve extra admiration because they are truly breaking the rules†.
¹For those of you who know me personally, this is a terrible pun on my last name. My sincere apologies.
²Don’t get your knickers in a twist, PR grads. I’m trying to make a larger point. I know some PR majors capable of critically thinking my ass into next year. Besides, do you think I’d want to teach PR if I didn’t respect it on some level? <pfft>
³My ex would add “schmoozing” to my short-list of skills. As in, “Wow, babe, you really worked that room.” This has a vaguely prostitution-y ring to it. Thus the omission.
†Additional applause is also due to the PR people who continue to hire me for freelance work. Despite my ornery views, I think there is such a thing as good propaganda. My mentors and financiers will find it first.