This is how the world works

Getmepr

Remember when you were little and you didn’t understand how anything worked? Mommy, why is the grass green? Daddy, why does a pig oink?

Then you got a little older and you started to grasp the basics, but the big stuff still eluded you. Mommy, why are you and Daddy yelling at each other? Why is that lady kissing that other lady?

Then came adolescence and the years following that where, hopefully thanks to your education, you suddenly felt like you knew it all. Mommy, want to know why atoms behave the way they do? Daddy, can I tell you about the French Revolution?

Then one day perhaps you finished college and got out into the workforce. Now you really felt like you had the world all figured out. Not only did you know why Mommy and Daddy were yelling at each other, but you could launch into a lengthy treatise on male/female relationships and possibly tell Mommy and Daddy what they should have done differently to avoid those fights or maybe why they never should have gotten married in the first place (but then that would mean you would never have been born – existential crisis! i.e. you now know what “existential” means).

The rest of your years is a large swath we’ll call “adulthood” and during this time you are expected to work, vote, stay informed on major issues, invest, plan for retirement, etc., etc. You also have the option of getting married and having children of your own who will now ask you those annoying questions. Somewhere along the way to all that you’re supposed to figure out the greater of the world’s complexities. What does it mean to be a good person? How does business work and, by extension, how is money made and lost? What are my political beliefs and why do I believe them? Of course there’s the granddaddy of them all… What is the meaning of life?

Some thing of course you probably never spend time thinking about. For instance, how does something make it into the newspaper, on TV, radio, etc? Let’s start here. The key point is this:

Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren’t about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR firms.

Now, I didn’t learn this by reading this article(which I encourage you to read in its entirety when you have a moment). I learned it by interning at a PR firm. Every morning my fellow interns and I spent considerable time scouring both print and online media for any mention of our clients, the issues important to them, the business they were in or the causes they championed and much, much more. We would put together any and all coverage into nice, photocopied packets and distribute them to our account teams.

We also saw the actual day-to-day business of what PR people do and we participated in it. The firm I interned for was actually very involved in a lot of public affairs type work for corporations, political campaigns, associations, PACs, lobbyists, etc. So we were not pitching stories to reporters about the new Whatchit or Whoozit made by Firm A, but instead massaging issues. Building consensus. Staging town hall meetings. Writing letters to the editor on behalf of our clients. Giving the impression that Firm A cared about what the people in Firm A’s neighborhood thought. Giving the impression that Candidate B was the one you should vote for. That kind of stuff.

It was memories of those days that came back to me when I read this piece about Midwest Generation, a company that runs coal-burning power plants in Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. Midwest Generation was (and still is according to this) a client of the firm where I interned. In fact, on the morning of August 6, when this story was first posted online, an intern probably printed it out and included it in that morning’s packet. The gist of the story:

 

Together, the plants emit an estimated five million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The agency says particulate matter from coal-burning plants poses a serious public health risk for local residents.

On July 21, [Mayor] Daley spoke at the official opening of the nation’s largest urban solar-energy plant in West Pullman, a plant owned and operated by the Exelon Corporation. His pledge that day to use every means to combat heat-trapping gases drew applause from clean-air groups.

But the same groups question why the 2008 Chicago Climate Action Plan — which committed the city to sharply reducing its carbon output through sustainable development, renewable energy and energy efficiency — does not deal with carbon-dioxide emissions from the two coal plants. Public health authorities and clean-air groups say they are among the dirtiest for their size in the nation.

“It’s just strange the two largest sources of global-warming pollution in the city aren’t really addressed,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. “They’re the elephants in the room.”

 

I instantly recalled a situation that arose while I was interning at the PR firm that represents Midwest Generation. I was going about my morning news scouring and had found some sort of posting online that made reference to those evil coal polluters and how that week’s Critical Mass bike ride would go past the company’s downtown offices. I included it in the clip packet as per usual and thought nothing more of it.

Later in the morning though, I got a call from a Senior Account Executive on my team. Sounding somewhat frantic, she said that they would need me to go to the starting point of the bike ride and try to find out exactly what the riders planned to do. Not being familiar with Critical Mass at the time, I suddenly adopted the same concerned attitude. From the website where the listing appeared, it was obvious they were some sort of radical hippie leftists so who knew what they were capable of? 

And so, I was sent to spy on the riders and try to determine exactly what route they would take and what, if anything, was planned beyond just riding by. I was to report back anything I learned to that Sr. Account Exec. She would then report anything of note to her contact at Midwest Generation.

The starting point was Daley Plaza (near this for the non-Chicagoans) and it didn’t occur to me on the cab ride over that I would be a tad out of place due to 1) not having a bike and 2) being dressed in PR intern-wear which is a shade trendier than standard corporate office wear. Luckily it was Friday and thus I was in jeans, a casual top and even a jaunty corduroy cap. But I’m sure I was in some kind of nice shoes and even though you couldn’t see my hair too much under the cap, it was obviously washed and not dread-locked. Approaching the few riders that had gathered so far, I was nervous.

After much cajoling and feigned concern for their cause, I was shown a route map. It did seem to go past the plants in the Pilsen area, but not the offices. It occurred to me that these people probably didn’t even know where the offices were. The PR firm certainly knew where to send their invoices, but these folks weren’t so clued in. See, if you Google “Midwest Generation” you won’t even find a company website. Apparently coal-burning power plants aren’t exactly keen on advertising themselves. 

In the end, nothing happened. The offices of the evil polluters/clients were left in peace and the plants kept right on chugging. This was in the summer of 2007. Yet today, 3 years later, the headline proclaims that the pressure on Midwest Generation is just now starting to build. The reporter dangles it out there that perhaps good old-fashioned political payoffs are to blame:

Critics attribute the lack of political support [for a city ordinance to cut emissions] in part to substantial political donations that Midwest Generation and its parent company, Edison Mission Group, have made over the past decade. They include nearly $50,000 to the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization of Alderman Danny Solis of Pilsen and more than $10,000 to the campaign fund of Alderman Ricardo Munoz (22nd Ward) of Little Village. The company has also donated to the Democratic Party of Illinois and the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee.

What the article doesn’t mention, but what you now know, is that Midwest Generation isn’t just paying politicians. They’re also paying PR people whose jobs are to protect the company’s image. 

Is Midwest Generation alone in doing this? Do only evil, sinister companies hire PR people? No. Every company save for the most impoverished start-ups hires PR people. 

It might also interest you to know that most of the people who worked at the PR firm I interned at were rabid liberals. No political work from Republican candidates or office-holders was on the books. At first I thought it was a matter of principle. But then I learned that most many PR people have no principles.

One of our other clients was BP.

So… now you know how the world works and you didn’t even have to ask Mommy to explain it.

 

21 Comments

  1. Anonymous August 10, 2010

    Spot on.

    Coincidentally, I’ve had several conversations recently on this topic. One was with another former PR worker (whose firm dealt almost exclusively with very high-profile politicians and political issues) who detailed how a PR firm deliberate uses the media.

    It’s the backstory that fascinates me and the lack of same frustrates the hell out of me. When the reader knows the whole truth and all the facts, then he can form a truly educated opinion. We snicker and sneer about idjits who spout over-the-top opinions (they make great copy, let’s be honest) and don’t accept responsibility for our role in forming what sometimes seems to be nothing more than an expected progression of some PR firm’s provided talking points.

    As an aside….at my first job, I sat next to the fax machine and the first time I saw a recently faxed press release rewritten (barely) as a news story I was appalled. I went with great self-righteousness and indignation to my boss and was given a treatise on how newspapers ‘really’ work. Sigh.

  2. Anna Tarkov August 11, 2010

    I think it’s important to mention at this point that not all journalists regurgitate press releases and not all PR people are unprincipled sneaks. As Paul Graham explains in his essay that I linked to, the onus is really on journalists to do the fact-checking and legwork even if their story idea originated from a press release. That said, it really is incredible how much ideas for stories come from outside the newsroom (and I don’t mean readers which is where the ideas should REALLY come from). Don’t reporters and editors have any thoughts of their own on these matters? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a reporter having an idea, a feeling or an inclination about a topic and then embarking on a rigorous search for truth to determine if their guess has any merit.

  3. Anonymous August 23, 2010

    While reading this article I was dying to find out the name of this PR firm, which I figured out by looking at Anna’s profile. That same firm had been the national PR firm for a former client of mine (we did local PR for them). They were just as bad as she described them, and this was to a supposed “peer” PR firm supporting THEIR client. Ugh. I had blocked their name out of my head years ago but seeing their name just brought up the memories as if they happened yesterday. I will say that not ALL PR firms are like that, however. I started as a journalist and then opened my own firm so I could do it RIGHT. After 15 years, I realized most clients just want favorable ink, not real PR advice. Glad I’m out of the biz.

  4. Anna Tarkov August 23, 2010

    Yeah, I specifically didn’t mention the PR firm’s name, because I didn’t want this to come up in their Google Alerts :) But I linked to their client list so it’s obvious.

    I do realize that there’s somewhat of a trend towards more…. ethical, for lack of a better term, public relations nowadays. But in the end, the PR professional works for their client and they have to do their client’s bidding. That’s the nature of the job. That means anything from pitching crap that the PR pro knows isn’t news and no one is going to write about to sneaky, underhanded tactics that are best to not even talk about.

    To sum up, I’ll quote Leroy Stick of the famous @BPGlobalPR Twitter account: “You know the best way to get the public to respect your brand? Have a respectable brand. Offer a great, innovative product and make responsible, ethical business decisions.”

    And in case you want to read where this appeared, here it is: http://m.gizmodo.com/5553988/meet-leroy-stick–the-man-behind-bpglobalpr

  5. Anonymous August 23, 2010

    Making the claim “most PR people have no principles” is a pretty hefty charge. What are “principles”? I have to ask because some might accuse you of lacking principles given the content of this blog post.

    For example, you’re likely in violation of the non-disclosure contract you probably had to sign to intern at the firm(s) by disclosing all of this.

    Moreover you included a cartoon in your blog post without the approval of the source (basically committing plagiarism by misappropriating someone else’s intellectual property). Some might call that unprincipled.

    Principles are subjective, and saying “most” or even a majority of PR people have none is an unfair characterization because it relies on your very limited firsthand experience and because it assumes everyone agrees uniformly on what principles are absolutely right and which are absolutely wrong.

  6. Anna Tarkov August 23, 2010

    Let’s dispense with the allegations first.

    I didn’t sign a NDA at this PR firm. If I had, I wouldn’t have written this.

    You’re right, I have used the cartoon without obtaining permission from CartoonStock.com and yes, that might be viewed as unprincipled by some people. I own up to that.

    Finally, I didn’t say that ALL public relations people have no principles. You’re also right to point out that “principles” might differ in definition from one person to the next. That said, I’m certain there are quite a few people operating PR shops who don’t even comply with the PRSA’s guidelines, assuming they have some that are codified.

    However, you are also correct in saying that “most” signifies a majority. I have changed it to read “many.”

  7. Anonymous August 23, 2010

    Sadly, there are unprincipled PR people, politicians, scientists, business leaders, police, bloggers and in any other profession including journalism. Look at recent high profile plagiarism cases at several big media outlets. It’s certainly not unique to PR. But MOST good PR people, like those in any profession, care enough to call out those who discredit the profession. I wish you had been fortunate enough to intern at a firm guided by high standards. There is so much good work, for great causes and organizations, that gatekeeping the few bad apples is mostly futile. Like most things, PR can be a powerful force for good or if used by unprincipled people a shame on all good citizens.

  8. Anna Tarkov August 23, 2010

    Jeff, that’s very well put and I agree completely. I’m very curious though about the “high standards” that you say many firms are guided by. Are there actually agencies that will refuse work from huge clients who aren’t in line with the ethics/morals/values of the agency or their leadership?

  9. Anonymous August 24, 2010

    Do the people that work at the coal power plant lack principles?

    Do the local residents that use the power it creates lack principles?

    Then why does the PR firm – a small part of the chain – lack principles? Does the PR firm work for any charities? Maybe not if it’s as bad as you say, but would that counteract the immorality?

    Political donations are illegal and immoral, but that’s not what you are accusing the PR firm of here.

    Deliberately misleading local residents is immoral, but again, that’s not what the PR firm did.

    PR is – whether you like it or not – about getting the best possible story out for a client. That’s it. The worst you can charge is that they muddle debate on behalf of a client, which is bad.

    But PR firms aren’t allowed to lie, and if the journalist thinks the press release is incorrect, they don’t publish it.

    Or better, they investigate it.

    BP and this coal power station are all our problems, because we all use power. To blame any facet of that on PR is short-sighted, simplistic and cynical.

  10. Anna Tarkov August 24, 2010

    Do the coal plant workers lack principles? I really can’t say for certain and of course it matters as to which workers we’re talking about. The ones at the bottom are just trying to get by and likely don’t have many employment options so I’m inclined to give them much more of a pass than upper management. That management might be lacking in principles, yes. But then their principle is profit as is the principle of almost every company. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that in a sense. This is the nature of our capitalist system. Principles don’t have much of a place.

    As for area residents using the power they produce, I don’t know that they do. The article said that a lot of Midwest Gen’s power is exported out of state. It’s possible that the surrounding area gets some of it, but it doesn’t sound like it does. Even if it does, it’s ridiculous to claim that residents share in the guilt because they turn on the lights at home. A person can only be guilty of something if they have CHOICES and OPTIONS. Other than candles and oil lamps, what are the other options for an American who wants to have light in his home?

    Political donations are by the way neither illegal nor immoral in and of themselves. There are laws governing them and yes, sometimes people and companies break them, but that wasn’t indicated to be the case with Midwest Gen. What IS true is that Illinois has some of the weakest campaign finance laws. That’s something that would be great to have changed, but it’s a matter for another discussion.

    I don’t know if the local residents were ever misled by the PR firm in this case, but I can tell you that they were in the cases of other clients. So when you say that PR firms aren’t allowed to lie, I’d like to see where that’s written.

    Finally, yes, this PR firm did also represent some worthy causes. I suppose in some twisted way, that could be considered a counterbalance to clients like these. If that helped them sleep at night, great. But it wouldn’t be good enough for me and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t stay in the PR business.

  11. Anonymous August 24, 2010

    You are precious. You use a cartoon without paying for it, but complain that the news is just regurgitated press releases. The reason the newspaper regurgitates news releases is because it cannot afford a staff because people won’t pay for content. So, you are precious.

  12. Anna Tarkov August 24, 2010

    “PR Guy,” you are equally precious. I didn’t say anywhere that all news is regurgitated press releases. Show me where I wrote that.

    The cartoon being used without asking for permission is something I owned up to already in a previous comment.

    As for people not paying for content, that is wholly inconsequential to this particular discussion. If you cannot stay on topic, then I will delete your future comments. Thanks.

    By the way, way to own up to your own identity by using “PR Guy” to post your comment. Classy.

  13. Anonymous August 24, 2010

    In response to Anna’s question: “Are there actually agencies that will refuse work from huge clients who aren’t in line with the ethics/morals/values of the agency or their leadership?” the answer is YES.

    As a public relations professional for the past 18 years, I have worked with large agencies, small agencies and on the “client side.” Currently, I operate a small consulting firm and I choose to work only with clients in whose products/services I can believe in and feel good about representing.

    Granted, it is probably easier to do this if you are in a small shop or are an independent consultant than if you work for a large firm. Even then, if you happen to work for a large firm that has a client you abhor, you can always ask to not work on that client’s business.

    After all, as an agency leader, I really don’t want a team member working on an account if they can’t be fully engaged in the work because it is against their beliefs or principles.

    Stereotyping any group whether by profession, race, religion or any other reason is simply a sign of immaturity and ignorance.

  14. Anonymous August 24, 2010

    The key point is this:

    Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren’t about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR firms.

  15. Anna Tarkov August 24, 2010

    Barbara, I appreciate you using your real name and giving a reasoned and sensible response. I’m thrilled to hear that agencies of all sizes do these things. And I’m sure it’s never detrimental to anyone’s career, especially if one is an intern with no connections and no experience. I’m sure it never leads to someone else being promoted. I’m sure it never leads to, if the time comes to lay people off, someone being laid off because they declined to work on a certain project. That’s all great to hear.

    As for stereotyping, in case I wasn’t clear before, I do not believe all PR people to uniformly possess any negative characteristics. I do not believe that of any profession, race, ethnicity, etc. This was simply a commentary on how things work below the surface. Many people who are not in media or PR have no firsthand knowledge of these types of things. All this was meant to do was crack open that door just a little.

  16. Anonymous August 24, 2010

    Anna, do I detect a note of sarcasm in your reply? Hmmm.

    Sadly, I am positive there are cases in which a person who asked not to work on an account was passed over for promotion or laid off. The responsibility of those decisions fall squarely on the shoulders of those who are supervising that person.

    Perhaps it is just me, but I would applaud the person for having the fortitude to stand up for what they believe–or don’t believe. Then again, I have spent much of my career being a mentor and champion for my staff. Put simply, I care. Many who have worked for me would attest to this attribute.

    As far as how things work, you are right. Much of what is reported in the news is generated by public relations. As a former journalist myself, I don’t feel this is necessarily good or bad. Though I was taught in J school that PR folks were bottom feeders, I prefer to look at the relationship between journalists and public relations professionals as a symbiotic one.

    It is my job as a public relations professional to provide relevant content ideas and the journalist’s job to ask the questions that will result in a fair and balanced story. Each party has a responsibility to ensure the relationship is a healthy one.

  17. Anonymous August 24, 2010

    Ah, pay the writer (http://www.annatarkov.com/pay-the-writer), but not the cartoonist…

  18. Anna Tarkov August 24, 2010

    I think I can safely say that if both every journalist and every PR pro was like you, we wouldn’t have the problems that we do. I defer now to someone I respect deeply, Steve Buttry, who has also recently written about PR people and journalists here: http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/a-public-relations-rookies-handling-of-the-tbd-launch/ Rest assured Barbara that you’re not my only example of a good PR pro. I can count the others on more than one hand. Overall, I think we are moving to a time when all businesses will hopefully see the benefit of behaving ethically; benefits that will accrue not only to their public image, but to their bottom line as well.

  19. Anonymous August 24, 2010

    Thank you Anna, both for the compliment and the interesting discussion. Let’s hope all of corporate America sees the value behaving ethically brings to their reputation and their bottom line.

  20. Anonymous August 24, 2010

    I’m going to say that “most former PR interns have no principles” instead. 😉

  21. Anna Tarkov August 24, 2010

    Touche Alex. But then again, how was I being unprincipled? I already stated that I didn’t sign a non-disclosure agreement.

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