What Would (A) Good (PR) Do? (A response to ‘What Would Google Do’? by Jeff Jarvis)

So, I just finished reading Jeff Jarvis’ excellent book entitled ‘What Would Google Do’?

And this is my retort – grab a coffee, tea, beer…it’s a lengthy one…

If you’re not familiar with ‘What Would Google Do?’, I can give you the scoop in a sentence (but buy it for the detail, it really is a fascinating read): Adopt the Google approach to everything you do and ‘hey presto’ you’ll operate at a better level.

Banks, retail, media, manufacturing, even advertising would be better to customers and ultimately their own bottom lines according to Jeff if they were Googlefied.

I tend to agree. In fact, Google, to me, symbolises the biggest shift in corporate methodology we’ve ever seen and (I say this with some pain) for the good.

However, a couple of industries were immune from Googlefication, and ‘incredibly’, one of those was PR (poor PR people, such an undeservedly bad reputation, it upsets me no end!).

Now, I have two very clear options here:

Have a rant for rants sake; or
– Actually attempt to prove Jeff incorrect…a bit

As I like a challenge (especially one as insurmountable as Jeff has made this sound) I’m going to take option two (more fun this way).

First, let’s summarise Jeff’s case: PR x Googlefication = Hopeless.

– As PRs have client’s, their motives behind anything they say are necessarily suspect
– They cannot be consistent(one stance today, one stance tomorrow depending on the client)
– They cannot be transparent because it may hurt their clients
– They must negotiate to death, which makes them bad at collaboration
– They’re middlemen, and they don’t admit to making mistakes well

Jeff of course qualifies this a little bit by saying the best PR is transparent. Well, duh.

In any event, let’s go through these one-by-one.

PR people out there, get amongst it at the end, I can’t take being treated like this much more…

Clients / motives

Who doesn’t have clients? Ad agencies have them. Media agencies have them. Oh, right. They’re paying for the right to ‘sell’ you a message, so that’s ok.

But you know what? You know who loses the most if we say / do something that we don’t believe in? Us.

Especially in the UK.

The media is so sophisticated and smart that even the slightest attempt to b*llshit them makes you look like a d*ck. And quickly too. Without the respect of the media you can’t be a decent PR person. So, yes we may have clients, but we have reputations too and this doesn’t really allow for delivering activity without justification / proof.

And our clients have their own reputations at stake too. Particularly personal reputations, and once that is tarnished it’s hard to recover from.

In my experience good PR people aren’t stupid enough to risk the reputations of the brands they represent, let alone their own (we’re a vain lot too, that helps!)


This is almost my favourite.

The literal meaning is ‘firmness of constitution or character.’ Bit of a re-occurring theme already eh?

Jeff’s argument: How can you represent brand X on a Monday, and then the following Monday represent brand Y who both stand for different things.

I have two problems with this.

1. Agencies never represent competing clients at the same time (which makes perfect sense, even though accountants and lawyers can represent as many competing interests as they like).

If anything, this only increases the level of consistency delivered by PR people.

And the best agencies / PR people are the ones who excel at relationships i.e. clients stick with them a long time.

And if you do switch, its often not your call – the client is normally the one who initiates that.

2. What? I can only eat fish ‘n chips every night for the rest of my life?

Seriously, what is the difference between changing jobs and changing clients?

Ummm, not a whole lot really.

So, it’s ok for one person to work for Burger King selling Whopper’s passionately one day and then sell Big Mac’s at McDonald’s the next? But nuh uh, no changing client stances if you’re in PR. Tisk, tisk.

The best PRs act with incredible dignity and professionalism and their motives should never be called into question.

Yes we serve clients, but so does Freddy at Burger King, and he does it wholeheartedly. In five years time he might be doing that at McDonald’s. Well done to McDonald’s for smelling the freshly baked muffins.


In fairness to Jeff he does say that the best and most effective approach to PR is the transparent one.

And he’s right. And, I hope my PR brethren out there would agree it’s absolutely foolish to adopt any other approach.

What people tend to forget is that PR people are often the last ones to hear about issues within a business.

Something goes wrong in the legal department, they don’t tell anyone, it becomes public and then the head of legal turns to the PR team and says: “Umm, we had an issue a few months back, its since escalated, would you mind fixing it?”

I bet you the standard response is:

PR: “Is it true?”

Legal: “Yes.”

PR: “Well my friend, fess up, take your lumps, and you’ll be probably be respected more than you were before this all happened. Internally and externally. As will the brand.”

See, this is the thing. There hasn’t been this sudden shift to the personalisation of communications. Social media experts will say that we are ‘finally’ talking ‘to’ people as opposed to ‘at’ them.

Yes, it might be more intimate now (thanks in part to the tools at our disposal), but there is no more valuable a communicator who can take a mass message and make it personal. One Barack Obama or 300 versions of him with a ‘300th’ of the impact? (OK, so that’s not a real mathematical term…but you get me)

The humanisation of communications came from PR.

Humans love humans. Humans make errors. Humans who make errors are more likable because that makes them more normal in our eyes.

And this is why the people that have made transparency a pillar of their communications approach have always, and will always succeed. They know they are dealing with humans.

Sorry Jeff, we have no choice but to be transparent. To the media, to our clients, to ourselves…because we’ll just get found out in the end anyway and then we really look like d*cks.


This one definitely p*ssed me off the most.

And, I’m a gentle soul, and always look for the goodness in people, but in my experience PR people are just as good, if not better at collaboration than any of the other marketing services in existence.

If anything, PR people are less likely to ‘land grab’ as their slice of the pie is usually almost always smaller.

Chomp on that.

Middlemen / Mistakes

If you’re still with me you must have had a damn strong coffee!

Nevertheless, I’ll try and make this last one worthwhile.

The mistakes stuff we’ve touched on already. Cover up a mistake in this game and you’re scr*wed. Period.

As for being ‘Middlemen’ well, for a term that was coined in 1677 I can’t really seeing it being put on the endangered species list just yet.

Jeff’s argument is that the ‘relationship’ will essentially become product / brand direct to consumer.

It already is. In fact, PR people help this happen on a daily basis by facilitating the process.

Remember, communications is about taking a message (good or bad) and delivering it to the right audience, in the right place at the right time.

And, this not only benefits our clients but the consumer / stakeholder. They WANT TO KNOW when the next iPod comes out. They WANT TO KNOW if their electricity bills are being reduced.

Think of PR people like mobile phones, without them, you’d spend a lot of time asking strangers for directions.

See Jeff, we’re not immune to Googlefication, in fact we probably inspired it.


NOTES: I don’t have any qualifications to make, this was just my honest take…imagine that?!?



1 Comment

  • Reply November 29, 2009

    Jeff Jarvis


    Thanks for the attention and kind words (in spite of…).

    Here’s the test: If you have a client that does something boneheaded you told them not to do would you (a) expose them for having done something that violates your principles and (b) fire them as a client?

    I’ve seen that happen in specific cases (and I will be nice to the PR people – yes, I can be – and not expose them). That’s what I’m saying about transparency: Yes, you advise your clients to be transparent. And that is, indeed, the best advice you can give them. But can YOU really be transparent about the advice you give those clients? Not always. Sometimes, they hire you to take the flak (thus, of course, the moniker). So it may look to the world as if you’re the fool. That’s what you’re paid for, the client would say. You are then mute and not transparent.

    As you know, elsewhere in the book, I say that direct relationships will, in many cases, replace advertising and so ad agencies work themselves out of business if they give their clients proper advaice about those relationships and they start to look more like you.

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