Public Relations Practitioners, Artists formerly known as Invisibles

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A practitioner’s musing about balancing the visible and invisible work in 21st-century PR

By Bob Geller

I read a review in the Wall Street Journal of what looks to be an interesting book, The Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, by David Zweig. His book chronicles the work of those who toil quietly in the trenches. The results of their work are all that matters, and while we might see The Invisibles’ various outputs and outcomes, we do not see them.

Here is an excerpt from that WSJ review:

What does an interpreter at the United Nations have in common with a cinematographer who lights a movie set or a man who tunes the piano for a symphony orchestra? Not much, you’d think. But in a society driven by narcissism and fake celebrity, it’s nice to know that there are people out there who share a passion for hard work yet get their satisfaction not from Facebook “likes” but from the inherent value of what they do.

This passage had me thinking about the field of PR—not an obvious connection, because most of our colleagues, friends and the general public do not perceive us to be wallflowers. But, back in the day (and even to this day), many PR practitioners work quietly behind the scenes. The client or employer’s success and visibility are what counts.

After all, we are not the story, right?

PR as a craft

Obviously Invisibles take great pride and care in their work; this isn’t what is up for debate.

Similar to many other fields, the best PR people take a crafter-like approach—one that requires a defined skill set and concentration, mindfulness and monitoring, the right environment and tools, not to mention pride in work and its outcomes.

This reminded me of a post I wrote on my Flack’s Revenge blog, Zen and the Art of Tech PR, which was itself inspired by Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I cited a passage from Pirsig’s book in which he described an unfortunate experience with a motorcycle repair shop, which resulted in a hack job on his bike:

Why did they butcher it so? These were not people running away from technology…these were the technologists themselves…. They sat down to do a job and performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it….

The radio was a clue. You can’t really think hard about what you are doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn’t see their job as having anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling…. Their speed was another clue. They were really slopping things around in a hurry and not looking where they slopped them.

But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good natured, friendly, easygoing—and uninvolved. They were like spectators…. There was no identification with the job.

Is today’s busy work environment like the radio in Pirsig’s story? Do we have blank, uninterested expressions as we socially surf from one stream and task to another, jumping on varying waves of professional and personal interest?

Do personal interests and profile enhance or detract from our work-related PR relationships and outputs?

Self-promotion and personal branding in PR—bane or boon?

As personally fulfilling as it can be, mindless distraction is a definite issue and potential barrier to better work and results in public relations. But what about the central point in The Invisibles about the self-revealing?

Said another and more alliterative way—what are the perils of too much self-promotion in PR?

While we used to be more like the invisible people Zweig writes about, many of today’s PR pros are coming out from behind curtains in growing numbers; in particular, using social media to vent, inform about our work, and, yes, build our personal brands. It’s a concept I explored in my post, PR’s Moment of Truth.

Is this transparent de-cloaking a positive thing—not just for us, but also for our clients or employers? Or does it speak primarily to the narcissism detailed in the WSJ book review?

If not done primarily for self-interest and profile-building, what are the alternative and superior objectives? Can we learn something from Zweig’s book?

New York Times writer Anna North wrote about The Invisibles in her Op-Talk column:

Mr. Zweig told Op-Talk he set out to answer a question about the “Invisibles” featured in his book, “In a culture where we’re told that in order to get ahead you need to raise your profile and build a platform…how did these people get to the top of their fields?

His answer: “The Invisibles offer ‘an alternate path to success’—they got where they were not by courting attention, but by working quietly and extremely carefully toward something bigger than themselves.” He further explained, “The work they do is always in service of a larger endeavor.” And they show that, at least for some people, “When you focus on excellence and good work, that actually does get recognized in the end.” He cautioned that the success of the Invisibles “doesn’t mean you can be this meek person sitting in a corner,” never talking about what you do.

The rationale or need for invisibility is a challenging and slightly uncomfortable question for the PR discipline or crafters to ask, particularly in an era where others share, more and more, about the work they do on a daily basis.

But even if awkward, it is a great question to ponder.

Balancing the visible and invisible work

I believe it is a matter of balance. Our work via social media channels and in building our personal brands does not have to conflict with day jobs.

Insofar as the work that we do for clients/employers is part of our own brands, becoming more visible and identified with these same employers or clients and the fields they represent can actually help us in our day jobs.

After all, knowledge about people and their values and beliefs leads to a better understanding overall.

And few would argue that being adept in social media, which can come in part from time spent in building our profiles and brands—not to mention engaging with influencers in relevant fields—are pretty important skills to have these days.

For example I have done lots of blogging about PR, social media, content marketing and general technology.  I have echoed similar topics on Twitter.  These efforts have helped build my personal brand and influence, and benefited clients I represent in related areas.  It has helped me to stay informed on trends and spot and tap coverage opportunities.

Having said that, there can also be lots of distraction and wasted time. The long-term investment of its worthiness is something to monitor and evaluate closely.

How are you investing in and benefiting from both visible and invisible work in PR these days?

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Based in New York City, Bob Geller is president of Fusion PR and Social Fluency. He is a veteran of tech sales, marketing and PR and has developed best practices for working social media and content marketing into the PR mix. He has been covered in publications such as (the former) CMO MagazinePR WeekPR News and Bulldog Reporter. Bob writes and speaks frequently on social media, content marketing and PR.

He posts on Flack’s Revenge and Social Fluency and has contributed to Cision NavigatorCommPRObizRagan’s PR Daily and Handshake 2.0.Bob also wrote a column on content marketing for Maximize Social Business for more than two years.

His earlier contributions to PR Conversations include You start (me) up. When and how to ramp up PR? and, more recently, Stakeholder Expectations Roundtable: A tale of two books.

You can find Bob on TwitterLinkedIn or contact him by email.

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About the image: By allen watkin from London, UK  (The Invisible Man) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

21 COMMENTS

  1. Bob – thanks for writing a very interesting column. When I was at Goodyear, I remarked to my boss that I wanted more visibility to the c-suite, particularly the CEO. My desire was that more of those who ran the business would know more about internal communication and the depth and breadth of our contributions. Some of this surely was shameless self-promotion; after all, much of our professional literature, as you note here, calls for just such action. It’s a fairly logical position that’s based on “awareness.” “If only the CEO was aware of our impact, then we’d have more resources!”

    But the truth is that for a number of reasons that we won’t discuss here, there are a limited number of people in an organization who understand the role of internal comms (and PR in general) in sufficient detail to have a logical conversation about it. As I’ve averred in the past, the c-suite doesn’t learn about PR in a context other than marketing, which leads to a reductionist view of its purpose, outcomes and rationale.

    In the Goodyear case, my desire to position myself, however understandable, was a distraction to getting the work done. My boss told me, “the people who count most know of your contributions.” So, I said, “the CEO doesn’t count?” “Of course he does,” the boss said, “but you’re deep in the weeds. You can’t go into a meeting with him and talk intranets and news articles, you have to have a more strategic message than that!”

    The answer was to talk to the leadership team and better understand the issues they faced, then go back with a suggestion that had evident operational value, not merely a portfolio designed to self-aggrandize.

    As a filthy capitalist pig, of course, there are reasonable justifications for building a brand — I can’t get hired if know one knows me — but the reality is that once I started winning business, I didn’t have the time to self-promote. I needed to focus on serving my clients well, and taking pride and pointing to their success and be more modest about my one contributions to it. I’m not exactly invisible (nor immune from the desire to be recognized as an expert), but nor am I constantly trying to tell people how smart I am. That modest wisdom got explained to me at the very beginning of my career. A senior manager (Dennis Long) told me that I was embarrassing myself in meetings with leadership — “There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and you’re crossing it,” he told me. “Stop making pronouncements and start asking questions. Ask people what they’ve done and what they think instead of repeating again and again your thoughts. Everyone knows you’re a smart guy, but you don’t have to tell people about it all the time.”

    Maybe more people in our profession need a Dennis Long to clue them in.

    Thanks again for a post that makes me think.
    Sean

    • Sean, thanks for reading and your detailed comment. I agree that it can seem like a Catch 22, a no-win situation; how can we focus on our work if we are more concerned about beating our chests? Yet how can PR get continued support (and funding) without a little self promotion?

      I think it is important to look at motivations – are we driven by the work we do and in doing a good job for its own sake – or for the pat on the back and career dividend?

      The NY Times had a nice Op Ed about motivation

  2. Hi Bob, thank you for this post, I really enjoyed it!

    I work at Porter Novelli in Melbourne, Australia, and had an experience last week which I wanted to share with you. Last week a journalist ran an online article about a client and mentioned both the client and agency were supporting a campaign. After I read it I gave the journalist a call to say at the agency, we’re not supporting the campaign itself, but providing PR support to our client. The journalist agreed it could be misconstrued and changed the wording of his article, for which I was very grateful. It’s true we like to remain invisible in the background, and I think our clients benefit from our invisibility each day. Imagine if each article had a disclaimer about which agency was behind the company(!).

  3. Yes indeed.

    This is a very timely post for me, as I have just returned from Bournemouth (5th international PR history conference) and Bled (XX1st Bled academic symposium) and have had many an opportunity to share opinions with young, middle aged and elderly scholars and practitioners from many countries.

    If there is one thing that, since last year, has flattened out our profession and academy alike…. it is the ‘personal branding’ syndrome.

    You are what you are on social media.

    Very sad but it is a fact.

    Gone are the days (only a decade back) when I argued (and failed in convincing my fellow judges) that as much as excellently performed it was not a good sign for us to award a graduate student thesis presentation focused on the author’s personal branding process.

    Today my interlocutors don’t even get the point..

    Is this irreversible?

    I will not even begin to recount the thousands of times my mentors, supervisors and intellectual friends trying to understand the substance of my work, have warned me that the professional needs to stay behind the scenes and, if obliged to appear, should better shut up or if obliged to speak, would better do this by quoting her/his client or employer.

    I am not sure it is irreversible… but we must be aware of a fundamental (does this merit the strategic buzzword?) variable that seems to be vanishing from our offices or classes…..although fortunately not from this blog: critical thinking.

    Bob I know very well that your post has many other possible succulent interpretations, but this is the one that most caught my attention. Thank you.

    As much as this may sound naive

  4. Toni, thanks for reading, and glad you thought it was a timely topic. Agreed, critical thinking, mindfulness these are all important and can’t be lost as (most of us, it seems) get on the social media and personal branding trains – and perhaps do a better job of sending the message to young recruits that it really is quite alright to operate mostly behind the scenes, there should be no shame or guilt in this.

  5. Toni, also it was so nice to meet you here in person (or “IRL” as the social media in-crowd says); IRL always trumps online; would love to hear more about the conferences you attended and catch up next time we get together.

  6. Bob,

    Nice to be reading your content. You appropriately dissected some very tricky issues. For me a lot of the balance boils down to intent. Is my desire for visibility really driven by a business need or is it ego. Ultimately I am the only one that really knows although I dare say there is probably plenty of fruit in my behaviors.

    Thanks for the thought provoking piece.
    Joe

  7. Joe, thanks and agree 100%. This ties in with a link I shared above, about the NY Times Op Ed – it cites research that says people tend to do better on tasks when our motivation is internal i.e. not ego driven (or a combination). Appreciate your insight as always, and kind words.

  8. This is a fascinating (very much 21st-century) topic, Bob. (Very glad you “pitched” it to us, particularly as I was unaware of the book.)

    I found myself nodding along with Sean Williams’ comments regarding the in-house experience. So often our “visibility” is constrained–or set free–by the person in the CEO role. In some organizations profile is equated with ego bandwidth–lack thereof or an excess of; I’ve been on both sides of the equation.

    Social media can definitely raise one’s profile (and hopefully reputation re: capabilities and/or thought leadership), but that doesn’t always translate to a paid gig.

  9. Judy thanks for reading and commenting; glad you liked the topic and gave me the opportunity to post here again – I have less experience from the in-house side but can say agency folks face some of the same challenges and questions in terms of visibility with client-side executive team, and how much to focus on marketing vs. doing our work

  10. At the London College of Communication yesterday for a conference organised by The Network for Public Relations and Society, Ian Burrell (Assistant Editor and Media Editor of The Independent newspaper) argued that a problem for PR is that it doesn’t own its public profile and lets this be defined instead by journalists and those we deem aren’t representative of our industry.

    He cited the disgraced publicist, Max Clifford and government spin doctor, Andy Coulson, both of whom have recently been found guilty of criminal activities. Burrell also looked at popular culture and the poor image of PR characters on television and in film. Where is the PR equivalent of Mad Men (glamourising advertising) or All the Presidents’ Men (ditto for journalism) – he asked?

    Best quote: “No-one other than a psychopath would look at Malcolm Tucker and think that’s what I want to do for a living? (If you don’t know the fictional Tucker – based supposedly on Alistair Campbell – see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaMb-5w-V0Y if you’re not offended by bad language)

    He wasn’t arguing for everyone in PR to be a publicity seeker but said we shouldn’t be leaving our reputation to others to narrate. Final word: “You need to take the business of PR to the centre stage”.

    • Heather, yes. But let’s clarify that one thing is for professionals to argue what, how, when they work to make a decent living by performiing a useful role for organizations and society, the other is for any however brilliant smartass to rationalize that s/he is doing pr by touting h/is own personall profile.

      In 2008 together with my very good friend Chiara Valentini ( today tenured at AArhus university in Denmark) we published with Luca Sossella Editore a substantial piece of research (lo specchio infranto…The shattered mirror) that, amongst other things, showed very clearly that journlalists have little idea of what we do for a living beyond hacking them simply because neither us as professionals nor, as it should be, our professioanl associations have ever reached out to them in a planned and conscious way, to explain our more complez and ever changing role. The conclusion is that it is not their fault if they do not understand what we do. It is our fault.

      • Toni – I agree and believe that was the point being made about who is visible in telling the story of PR, through all forms of media. Take this example that I saw through Twitter of a Contributor post at Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwynne/2014/07/08/the-real-difference-between-pr-and-advertising-credibility/

        Despite purporting to distinguish between PR and advertising, it immediately uses publicity as a synonym for public relations. It seems to claim all online content as created by PR with numerous selective examples intended entirely to promote the author, who claims: “I tackle the nuances of, and misconceptions about, public relations.”

        He is entitled to his opinion, which is based on his agenda. But does that really reflect an understanding of PR that we would recognise as helpful in ensuring journalists, the public and clients, have a rounded perspective? I don’t think so…

        • Heather, the irony is that author’s Forbes Bio:

          I tackle the nuances of, and misconceptions about, public relations.

          I’m a public relations professional based in Manhattan Beach, California. I’ve consulted for large firms, startups and leading universities. I write about public relations and marketing with targeted advice on how to contact reporters, how to make your story attractive to the media, how to produce events and how to work with PR firms to increase your profile.

  11. Interesting post Bob. Much like Judy, I was nodding along w/ the post and comments, Sean’s in particular which I’ll get to last.

    Heather, Judy – I recognize that author’s name and yes he’s got his own agenda (as do I for that matter). I’ve done it so many times – argued against the ‘PR is publicity’ nonsense, I really need to save it so I can just ‘copy and paste.’ (A different Forbes writer even quoted my comments in a follow-up piece.)

    One issue w/ PR taking center stage – either with the C-suite or the general public – is that Real Work is hard to glamorize. Reading, typing, meetings that would put someone who’s on their 4th cappuccino to sleep, spreadsheets.. it’s not cops and robbers, not doctors saving lives so it doesn’t make for very dramatic entertainment. What we do requires a lot of critical thinking, analysis and juxtapositions. Without a relatable context that people can ‘get’ — “you know that spot on GMA, we placed that” — the bulk of what PR really is and does 1) gets lost, oversimplified as media relations and 2) subverted by various other business functions, i.e. the newsletter that’s viewed as HR not PR.

    To Sean’s comment and others about the ‘personal branding’ my professional views taint this: there’s a part of me that finds it 1) too obvious, trying too hard to market and position yourself a certain way, trying to be seen.. something about the slick polish that’s off-putting vs. 2) it’s direct opposition in the need to be seen and recognized by TPTB. Good work doesn’t always speak for itself; if the bosses aren’t ignoring it, they’re taking the credit for themselves… learned that the hard way. Working on the front lines, delivering on the day-to-day tactics, I go above and beyond – all behind the scenes, great for those I’m helping. But like that tree falling silently in the woods, it doesn’t do ME any favors b/c there’s no one there to notice, give me my due credit. Squeaky wheel gets the grease; part me knows I can’t stay invisible, I have find the balance that works for me and make some noise for myself. FWIW.

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