Opinion

‘Bullshit’ PR lines and clickbait journalism give people what they want, not what they need

Blis' Andrew Darling discusses buzzwords, spin and why PRs should not be afraid to question their clients

May I talk freely and directly here? Yes? Good. Thank you. We are humans, not users. We live in a physical world as well as a digital world. Let’s not forget that.

I have been working for almost 20 years in tech, initially in tech journalism and then in tech marketing communications. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of things; I’ve worked with just about every personality out there, from control freaks to crazy passionate creative individuals; from amazing intelligent and sincere people (and there are many), to those who spout rubbish and expect you to buy from them.

I’d wager that most of you reading this have encountered all of these types and many more too. It happens. That’s the just a fact of life. But, during my two decades working in communications, I picked up a few lessons in how you can communicate well, avoiding the urge to spout hot air.  

Don’t be deceived by ‘big and shiny’

We live in a culture now of following trends, or the next big thing. An age of style over substance and being ‘on-message’, where those that shout the loudest demand most attention. There’s an old proverb that ‘an empty vessel makes the most noise’. It means that those with the least talent and knowledge usually speak the most, speak the loudest and create the most fuss; whatever it takes to makes their presence felt as much as possible. The phrase empty vessels is used in the analogy because in physics, empty containers do create louder noises than filled ones.

And it’s as true today as it ever was.  While there’s nothing wrong with claiming to be the best or the most innovative, or highlighting how many awards you’ve won or the size of the clients you work with, the real winners back that up with proof of concept and substance.

There are plenty of PR executives out there who may be out of their depth. They don’t counsel their clients and they don’t challenge them on ‘facts’. Clearly, senior execs from tech companies think their products and solutions are ‘game-changers’, ‘unique’, ‘best in class’, ‘disruptive’ and so on.

A good PR needs to question them while seeking validation and proof. Don’t be fooled by the flashy offices and the smooth presentation. Research them. Ask to see award-winning work. Don’t be afraid to trust your instincts. Ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that can happen’? You might lose the account, but do you really want to work for a client like that?

Honesty is always the best policy

The truth works. This sentiment speaks for itself.  You will undoubtedly come across people in PR who are loose with the facts or simply flatout liars. When you have experienced this as a journalist, you generally develop a finely tuned bullshit detector.

Working as a journalist means you don’t have to impress anyone other than your readers and probably your editor. You deal with all different personality types and all levels of seniority of executives within the industry so you learn to trust your instincts, and you don’t care about impressing them. Liars and exaggerators of the truth (commonly called spin doctors) are invariably discovered. And then it can get messy.

Be truthful. If you don’t understand something that your client is telling you, then ask. A good colleague or client will not think worse of you for doing so. And it’s always better to ensure everything is crystal clear rather than blindly moving ahead and ending up stuck. Be 100 per cent genuine and truthful because failure to do so can ruin careers and business reputations.

Publish and be damned

The trade press has its share of blame to carry too. The 24-hour news-cycle, online journalism, the need to publish content quickly and frequently has largely meant the days of ‘cut and thrust’ journalism have been replaced by ‘cut and paste’. The internet publishing beast has to be fed constantly and the pressure is on.

Trade press in the ‘olden days’, when print still ruled and the ad-funded publishing model still worked, gave journalists time to digest news releases from companies. I used to attend industry events and press conferences all over the world. I’d listen, ask questions, make copious notes, research the claims being made, examine what the company’s competitors were doing and demand access to customers to prove claims. Then I’d go out for the night and write up my stories on the plane home.

And then the internet happened

The internet’s intentions were good. Inventors and technologists had high hopes for a networked global community. They worked for decades toward a vision of seamlessly connecting the world’s people and information.

But they forgot something. The internet in the end was not designed to give people the information they need. It gives people the information they want. And sadly, there’s a huge difference.

I have seen many trade media sites simply republish press releases under a journalist’s byline without any comment or critical review or questioning. Headlines are full of listicals and clickbait search engine optimisation-driven keywords, designed to tap into the limited attention span of readers. They give them what they think they want.

But there are exceptions of course. There are still many solid, credible journalists and publications out there competing in a tough market where it is hard to monetise the truth. Let’s hope that the good ones will survive. For the world cannot run on fake news alone.

Andrew Darling is director of communications at ad-tech firm Blis and is based in Singapore

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