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.
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?
He posts on Flack’s Revenge and Social Fluency and has contributed to Cision Navigator, CommPRObiz, Ragan’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.
About the image: By allen watkin from London, UK (The Invisible Man) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.