Ramblings & ephemera

The power of PR

From Paul Graham’s “The Submarine” (April 2005):

Why do the media keep running stories saying suits are back? Because PR firms tell them to. One of the most surprising things I discovered during my brief business career was the existence of the PR industry, lurking like a huge, quiet submarine beneath the news. Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren’t about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR firms.

I know because I spent years hunting such “press hits.” Our startup spent its entire marketing budget on PR: at a time when we were assembling our own computers to save money, we were paying a PR firm $16,000 a month. And they were worth it. PR is the news equivalent of search engine optimization; instead of buying ads, which readers ignore, you get yourself inserted directly into the stories. …

If anyone is dishonest, it’s the reporters. The main reason PR firms exist is that reporters are lazy. Or, to put it more nicely, overworked. Really they ought to be out there digging up stories for themselves. But it’s so tempting to sit in their offices and let PR firms bring the stories to them. After all, they know good PR firms won’t lie to them.

A good flatterer doesn’t lie, but tells his victim selective truths (what a nice color your eyes are). Good PR firms use the same strategy: they give reporters stories that are true, but whose truth favors their clients. …

Where the work of PR firms really does get deliberately misleading is in the generation of “buzz.” They usually feed the same story to several different publications at once. And when readers see similar stories in multiple places, they think there is some important trend afoot. Which is exactly what they’re supposed to think. …

Remember the exercises in critical reading you did in school, where you had to look at a piece of writing and step back and ask whether the author was telling the whole truth? If you really want to be a critical reader, it turns out you have to step back one step further, and ask not just whether the author is telling the truth, but why he’s writing about this subject at all.

Online, the answer tends to be a lot simpler. Most people who publish online write what they write for the simple reason that they want to. You can’t see the fingerprints of PR firms all over the articles, as you can in so many print publications — which is one of the reasons, though they may not consciously realize it, that readers trust bloggers more than Business Week. …

I didn’t realize, till there was an alternative, just how artificial most of the writing in the mainstream media was. I’m not saying I used to believe what I read in Time and Newsweek. Since high school, at least, I’ve thought of magazines like that more as guides to what ordinary people were being told to think than as sources of information.

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