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Is PR Suffering From a Crisis of Politeness?
By: Elizabeth Friedland
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Nick Denton, owner of Gawker Media, recently lamented boring commentators, calling them a worse problem than “trolls,” or anonymous cyber bullies. He explained that while these uninteresting individuals are “perfectly nice,” perfectly nice does nothing to contribute to the greater conversation. Somewhat similarly, a recent New York Times op/ed piece “Generation Sell” described the Millennial generation as “inoffensive, smile-and-a-shoeshine personality — the stay-positive, other-directed, I’ll-be-whoever-you-want-me-to-be personality… strenuously cheerful, conciliatory, well-groomed.” Millennials see themselves as a brand — one that they’re always trying to sell — and thus they try to be as safe as possible so as not to offend any potential customer.
The same could be said about PR professionals of any age. Not only are we worried about selling our own personal brands, but we’re also the face and voice behind the brands of others.
Unlike the “creatives” down the hall who can get away with tattoos and piercings and curse words on Twitter, PR pros often feel forced to present themselves as unfailingly polite and neutral. Better to not risk saying, doing, or representing anything that might rub a client the wrong way or annoy an industry peer.
Of course, there’s certainly good thinking behind this. We’ve all heard the horror stories of a PR pro that strays a little far from the herd — accidentally or not — and winds up in the unemployment line or loses a big client for the agency. Clearly no one is advising publicists to go on drunken rampages and post the video to YouTube the next morning. Yet playing it too safe is just as dangerous to our clients and our industry.
This kind of “Hooray everyone!” attitude can contribute to group think. If no one rocks the boat, the ship’s going to float in the same place. We have to remind ourselves that while no one likes a bully or an instigator, it does our industry an injustice to not contribute to the conversation, test accepted ways of thinking or question standards. No one learns from a yes person. No one can grow from a habitual head-nodder.
Our clients aren’t benefitting from our blandness, either. Great ideas are bold, risky, and make our heart skip a beat or two. The ideas that have staying power and grab headlines are those that beg for eyebrows to be raised and blood pressure to rise just a bit. The moment we decide to take on that “strenuously cheerful” persona, we’ve traded in our passion, the spark that ignites great ideas.
Engage in a passionate debate with a peer. Challenge the status quo in the industry. Swim upstream every once in awhile. If you’re not pushing people out of their comfort zones, you’re likely not producing anything powerful.

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About the Author
Elizabeth Friedland in Senior Digital Strategist, specializing in PR, at Hirons Advertising & Public Relations. To learn more than you ever wanted to know about her, visit www.elizabethfriedland.com.
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