When I began my career as a business journalist, I was blessed to have the guidance of tough editors who equipped me with what would eventually develop into a fine-tuned bullshit detector. Many years later, when I switched over to “the dark side,” meaning public relations, my bullshit detector almost immediately went on the fritz, burned out by an overload of fluff speak.

But let’s go back to my early days as a reporter. Perhaps the first lesson my editors taught me was to sniff out misleading information on press releases. For instance, one particular press release noted that a certain company had grown “100%” in the past year. Innocently, I thought that this was a great news peg and went to my editor with the release. He sat me down and explained why this was not necessarily important news. “100% could simply mean that the staff grew from two people to four. It could mean that the company had one office and now has two. Call the contact person back and ask exactly how it was that the company grew.” He was right. There was no story.

Here’s a generic example: “Company X is the preferred purveyor of high-quality widgets in the market.” Oh, really? How do you define “preferred”? Is this based on a customer satisfaction survey? Is it based on sales figures? Number of stores carrying such widgets? I could break down the rest of the statement just as easily, but you see what I mean. 

More than a decade later I switched careers and joined a public relations agency. I was confident that being a subject matter expert would allow me to skip the fluff and provide my clients with insight that would help them engage and grow their client base. 

The ensuing culture shock zapped me. One of the agency’s main selling points was that it was a competitive analysis expert. This analysis is used to figure out how to market a company and make it stand out from the competition. I asked to look at some of the agency's recent analysis projects to see what they were all about. 

The first example, like all the others the agency gave me, made me cringe. After embarking on an “arduous and detailed analysis of the competitive landscape,” my colleagues finally had come up with a “differentiated strategic point of view.” They recommended that the client position itself as a firm that could “alleviate its prospective clients’ pain points via this carefully tailored strategic plan called 'Scale Up'.” 

My bullshit detector went off. Perplexed, I looked up at the main author of this plan and said, “Ok, so you want the firm to tell its clients that they should expand? That’s your differentiated point of view? Are you serious? How about also recommending they ‘Pay Taxes’ or ‘Treat Customers Well’ while you’re at it?” 

The client's in-house marketing team, having no understanding of the industries their firm works with, thought this was a brilliant plan. The partners thought it was odd, but went along with it. It came as no surprise to me that that a few months later the partners counteracted with a strategic plan of their own, which I'll call “Scale Down,” cutting the public relations budget significantly. 

Still, it appears that talking in circles and using trendy buzzwords or phrases can be extremely effective as long as you express yourself confidently. 

Here’s a conversation I had the dubious pleasure of overhearing recently:

Person A: The integrated content strategy will be activated via media outreach.

Person B: We definitely must think through the media outreach component so we have a cohesive methodology on how to pursue these opportunities. We will have some initial external triggers mapped out tied to those issues and then identify proactive priority issues to focus on during outreach.

Person A: Ok, let’s circle back and regroup once your team has ideated a multi-pronged process on how to move forward with this plan’s execution.  

One thing is for sure, the jibber-jabber may dazzle some clients, but it will never pass any good journalist's bullshit detector test. In fact, editors are hip to it. Here’s what American Banker magazine tells potential contributors:

Avoid jargon. Though our audience is familiar with many technical topics, we strive to use language that is clear and accessible to the layperson. Don't refer to software as "solutions," don't use the term "holistic" unless referring to spa treatments.

Oh, if I had a dollar for each time my colleagues uttered the word “holistic”!  

It is sadly hilarious how some public relations professionals can carry a conversation and even win new clients while not saying anything substantive. However, it also does a great disservice; this is exactly why journalists call the industry “the dark side.” 

Public relations needs professionals who don’t have to resort to gobbledygook to sound smart. But that requires knowing more than just how to implement a public relations plan - it requires a thorough knowledge of the companies they serve and, in turn, the intricacies of the industries the clients operate in. I still think there is hope.

T. Rosa

T. Rosa

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