Why So Sensitive?

IStock_000000517812XSmall“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

There are entire websites dedicated to jokes about the nefarious nature of lawyers.  Hatred of lawyers is a widely accepted vice in America.  Yet, enrollment in law schools is trending ever higher

The first thing people do when they’re in hot water?  Call a lawyer.  When starting an ambitious new venture?  Call a lawyer.

Calling a PR pro — whether it’s “a guy I know who knows someone at the newspaper” or a full-fledged agency — comes a close 2nd.  In hot water?  Call a lawyer, then call someone who can effectively tell your-side-of-the-story to the media.  Starting an ambitious new venture?  Call someone who can help you proclaim it to the media.

Of course, that’s not all that PR people do; it’s just what most folks THINK we do.  Just as there are all kinds of lawyers, there are many sub-disciplines to the PR industry. PR is actually not about spamming reporters.

So why do PR pros get so ruffled when someone (especially someone like a Scoble, a Jaffe, an Owyang or a Calacanis) says “PR is dead?”  Saying something negative about PR on Twitter, in a blog post or in a magazine article and you are guaranteed to get a high-volume, angst-filled response from practitioners.

IStock_000004553180XSmallHere’s my take: there are bad PR people just as there are bad lawyers.  Bad lawyers don’t care if you think they are evil.  Bad PR people probably don’t even realize that they suck, because they’re not bothering to listen for negative feedback in the first place. 

Both of these “bad pros” are blithely inept; they give no thought at all to the destruction they wreak on the reputations of their fellow practitioners.

Which means if you’re one of those people who get upset when influencers suggest that PR sucks, it probably means you care about your work; it probably means you’re doing good for your clients; it probably means that your work can stand as a bulwark against the slings and arrows of those peevish influencers. 

It probably means you shouldn’t get so worked up over all the negativity.  Do what good lawyers do: get back to doing some good.

Posted on: March 26, 2009 at 9:16 am By Todd Defren
27 Responses to “Why So Sensitive?”


  • Dana Smith says:

    I have to just chuckle at these overwrought diatribes. Who do these “journalists” turn to when they need to file a story on deadline? Who do they rely on to get a story first? Turn a rumor into a fact? While the power balance usually tips toward the media, it’s always fun to watch the scales shift the other way every once in a while. And when those pundits publish their books and try to get on GMA to pull product on Amazon? Yeah, you know who they call.

    A closing thought: Has Twitter not revealed more sharply than one could ever imagine just how much these same people thrive on and excel at self promotion?

  • Scott Gulbransen says:

    Great points made here. The “death of PR” has been greatly exaggerated for a while now. The bottom line is those who take the profession as a profession will continue to build relationships and do well for their clients or their company. So many of the so-called “experts” in social media today are devoid of actual proof to the points their making.

    At the end of all of this, as social media solidifies and matures, I have a feeling a majority of the so-called “experts” will have been as wrong as those who said back in the late 1970s that the VHS format could not survive against Beta-max.

    Boy, did I just age myself!

  • Carter says:

    Taking the “what counsel would we give to our clients” tack, I find it difficult to disagree with this post. One of the hard lessons the dawn of social media has burned into all of us [well, hopefully most of us] is that the Internet is forever. Anger and self-righteousness may be our first response, may even be a justified one, but there are enough cautionary tales spread across the blogatwittofacebooksphere to give us pause. Every time I have a discussion with a client about responding to a blog post or comment, the counsel usually involves an appeal to logic and restraint. I don’t think this post argues for silence, it makes the case for a grain of salt.

  • Kate HArtley says:

    I think this is spot on. The best way the PR industry can respond to this sort of criticism is by upping the overall standard of the work we do. There will always be bad PR people out there – more so than bad lawyers – while anyone can set themselves up as a PR person, and damage the industry in the process.

    Maybe there’s a bigger role for PR industry associations to play in accrediting the good ones by something other than a membership fee?

    In the meantime, good PR people can grab the opportunity to distance themselves from the bad guys, and get on with doing great work.

    • Simon Mason says:

      While I think PR industry associations could take a lead in accrediting practitioners on the basis of qualifications and experience, this could lead to a staler industry. The relative lack of regulation leads to innovative/risky/edgy campaigns.

      In any case even strict regulation would not stop the potshots – how often are lawyers referred to as sharks, or accountants a bean counters?

      The changeover from offline to online PR and Marketing is causing the industry some pain but far from killing it, it is revitalising it and bring the best practitioners to the fore.

      Those who love blasting pitches to bought lists of journalists seem unlikely to retain good clients for long – as the results they get diminish year on year.

  • Jeff Grass says:

    Good point, Todd! We should all relax and have confidence in our abilities/skill-set and what our field has to offer. Much like in a competitive sport, we should just keep our eye on the ball and not lose focus of our goals.

    Thanks for reminding me … keep up the good work!


    • Jeff Grass says:

      Just to add to my earlier comment – While I agree with you, I must mention that these negative comments surrounding the PR industry are not new. The practice has a lot of work to do in regards to public perception.

      Maybe we need to practice what we preach. A lot of PR people get frustrated and on the defensive when it comes to explaining the importance, relevance, and function of their industry. It may not be the best way to handle tough criticism, but it is not unjustified.

      For an industry that has trouble defining itself (just ask a 10 practicioners to define PR and you’ll get 10 completely different answers), it is that much harder to justify its seat at the “table.”

      Just some food for thought … later!


  • Tim Allik says:

    There will always be the people who take pot shots at entire professions. I chuckle when journos do it because opinion poll after opinion poll show theirs to be the least regarded profession of all. The average Joe thinks of a blogger as a guy sitting in his parents’ basement in a dirty T-shirt munching a bag of stale Doritos, so there’s no solace with that label either. Career stereotypes are good punching bags for lazy times. Just do it in private or people are going to judge you and the way you think in an indelible sort of way.

  • I think a reason a lot of PR practitioners get so upset by the comments from these pundits is because in many cases, we are Type A workaholics who define ourselves by our careers.

    We spend the majority of our waking hours striving to do good work for someone else and outside of our paychecks, our big takeaway for that good work is “the satisfaction of a job well done” – unlike the Scobles, Owyangs and others who get paid handsomely for what they espouse.

    When you (the collective) becomes what you do and then someone comes along and says the collective is doing it poorly, it can become a testament on who you are regardless of whether you individually are to blame for the collective label.

    And as we all know, no one wants to be told they’re not good. So yeah, we shouldn’t take it personal, but we do. And I don’t think for a moment that the pundits intend it to be any other way.

  • George Snell says:

    As one of those PR people who called Scoble out for his anti-PR “wine & dine me rant” and engaged in a bit of back and forth with the Scobleizer – allow me to explain my point of view.

    (BTW – you can read our remarks here: http://tinyurl.com/d9jy9j).

    Please note that I pulled out when Robert started to get personal.

    However, I’m a bit surprised at your take on this one, Todd. When a brand or industry is criticized (and criticized unfairly) on social media platforms, we counsel our clients to get involved in the conversation. To set the record strait. The important thing, we tell them, is enter into the conversation.

    But when its about PR – are you saying we shouldn’t do this?

    I don’t believe I was being sensitize – I was a newspaper reporter too long to not to have hide like skin (and others can judge by my comments). But calling out pundits who unfairly label us lame spammers needs to be corrected. At least in my book (or maybe I should say “in my blog”?).

    But, as usual, I do appreciate your view.

    • TDefren says:

      Matt, George – I am not saying that we should “just ignore it,” rather, that we need not get overwrought about it, either.

      A spirited defense now & then is appropriate; constant handwringing over every incident is not productive.

  • matt john says:

    Wow, there are a lot of great points here!

    It is true that we may get worked up when people harp on our profession and it’s easy to say that we should be the bigger wo(man) and let it slide. True, that would be the most virtuous and Ghandi-like method.


    I happen to think that we should stand up for ourselves against the Scoble’s and Jaffe’s of the world. Without the people engaging these folks in debate for the sake of our profession, we will forever been know as spin doctors and spammers. I don’t suggest responding to every slag and diatribe but we definitely pick and choose our battles.

  • Matt Helmke says:

    Great post Todd. It can always be a bit unnerving to hear criticisms about something we hold so near and dear to our hearts, but frankly, that’s what critics are there for! I think the challenges presented by these critics help spur innovation and force us to focus on finding the most effective means of accomplishing our goals in what is a rapidly changing environment. There will always be critics – in fact, I’ll be more concerned when there aren’t any. I agree with you that we can’t be so sensitive. To be blunt, if you don’t like what others are saying, “get a straw and suck it up.” Let the good work your doing speak for itself.

    • mel webster says:

      To me, it goes beyond criticism, when pompous windbags spout that this industry or that industry is dead. I don’t get emotionally overwrought when these guys say/write these things, but I do get pissed because they are so ill-informed. Again, the best and worst thing about the web is everyone is a writer and everyone can publish whatever they want.

  • Michele says:


    You put it right when you said that if we get upset we’re probably one of the ones doing good work, but I’m surprised at the level of sensitivity. As a person who’s been in the industry for a few years, I’ve developed a thick skin, and I imagine that most other practitioners have as well.

    We should be able to hear the criticism, and personally resolve to do the best that we can to not be labeled in that category.

  • Jon Clements says:

    Unless I’ve been turning up to the office for no apparent reason for the past few years, I can safely say that PR is not dead.

    In fact, social media is breathing new life into PR, as its core skills lend themselves well to online communication. For that reason it’s no wonder that I’ve seen some angry diatribe from people across other disciplines, such as SEO and web design, who felt that online was an exclusive domain.

    Whatever the commentators say, I know that our work is valued by those that pay the bills, and that’s reason enough (well, that and the mortgage) to keep turning up here every day.

  • mel webster says:

    I get pissed because I definitely care about the quality of my work and know that these “pundits” are wrong. I also get pissed because most of the people making these claims are arrogant, pompous twits (nothing to do with twitter) who in my opinion have little productive to offer.

  • Dan says:

    Well said. Why do we get so worked up over it anyway? It’s not like we’re an overly sensitive bunch. The likes of Scoble & Jaffe are just big mouthy bullies who would probably have called my mum a slag if I’d known them at school…

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