A Heartfelt Message From the Grave: Get Your Shit Together, PR
I like to consider myself the Henry Ford of PR, the professions’ original gangsta, if you will. I suppose that makes me indirectly responsible for those stagnant paychecks you all receive today. You’re welcome – I think?
If you are so inclined to learn about my life’s work, or you have nothing better to do this summer, then you can check out my Wikipedia page to get all of the details spanning my humble upbringing in rural Georgia to my crisis communications work in national politics and the railroad industry.
Before I go any further, I want to assure you that you’re not crazy. Yes, I have been dead since 1934 and have missed out on a lot of cool shit, like astronauts walking on the moon, the Cubs winning the World Series, Asian-Mexican fusion restaurants and swiping right on Tinder. Over the years though, I have never stopped watching the PR industry - and its several successes and numerous failures – with a critical eye and lots – and I mean lots - of head scratching.
A couple of years ago, some of my closest friends began to brand me as “Pissed Off.” Now everywhere I go in this inglorious afterlife its “Pissed Off Ivy Lee” this and “Pissed Off Ivy Lee” that. At first, I hated the nickname, but upon introspection, I have begun to accept that it is, in fact, well deserved.
So, what exactly is a remarkably handsome guy who’s been dead for almost a century so pissed off about? I’m glad you asked, because I need to vent…
Why Ivy Lee is Pissed Off
While public relations enjoyed a couple of glorious decades, the industry has recently declined from prominence faster than Harvey Weinstein. Astoundingly, no longer does PR have a seat at the big boy (or girl, I’m inclusive in 2018) decision-making table. Instead, we’re often engaged not for our brains, but simply for an extra pair of hands to complete mindless and repetitive tasks. I’m looking at you, impression-driven clip reports.
Congratulations, PR – the industry has become the equivalent of the adolescent, introverted neighbor who your wife begs you to hire to help with chores so you don’t throw out your back again.
Make no mistake, the perception of PR today is that it is stressful and unrewarding. People jump from job to job like a working girl on a hot Atlantic City night. PR pros are underpaid, undervalued and not challenged nearly enough. And all too often, PR people go to work knowing – whether they’ll admit it or not - that they are the first to be disposed of in the event of a financial challenge or corporate restructure - no matter how good of a job they do. #jobsecurity
“A career in journalism couldn’t possibly be as terrible as my mentor made it out to be, could it?” A statement pondered by at least 70 percent of PR pros.
So as you can see, I am pissed off. I’m pissed off at the perception of the industry, the talent being wasted and the economic decline. I’m pissed off about the gender pay gap, the high employee turnover rate and the severe decrease in agency-client tenure. I’m also pissed off about employers’ lack of commitment to workers.
But nothing gets me more riled up than all the assholes who confuse a career in public relations with a career as an entertainment publicist. No, stocking toilet paper for Gucci Mane and booking Stormy Daniels at Larry Flint’s Hustler Club is NOT the same career as running corp comms at a hedge fund. SMH!
So how did we get here? There is plenty of blame to go around. I’m talking about you – shitty PR pro – who cuts corners, ruins journalist relationships by crap pitching practices and wouldn’t know client service if it smacked them in the face. But there are two parties that, in my opinion, should get the bulk the blame for the predicament we find ourselves in today.
Who are these parties? I am so glad that you asked.
Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) – At a time when the “nation's largest professional organization serving the communications community,” should be doing everything in its power to change the perception of the PR industry and set its professionals and agencies up for success, it continues instead to focus most on whoring out its outdated and overpriced conferences to those unsuspecting of being conned by a trade group that they think has their best interests at heart.
But perhaps where PRSA has been most abhorrent is in how negligent it has been in providing colleges and universities with curriculum guidance that truly reflects what a career in PR actually looks like today. Unfortunately, the vast majority of college graduates who study PR enter the workforce with minimal transferable skills and no realistic experiences. Can you imagine if an accounting major tried to enter the workforce without having simulated actual accounting work? They’d never get a job. But in PR, a degree in bowling industry management or Egyptology (both real, BTW) can get you a gig as an account coordinator at a mid-sized consumer agency because you might fit their culture.
PRSA will tell you that they are trying to evolve. They’ll point to their Digital Measurement conferences to rationalize their commitment to embracing a more data-driven industry of the future. But this is all smoke and mirrors. Just attend one of their awards galas, where the only entries that win are those who reference impressions metrics by the thousands. Find me one CEO (other than one of an impressions monitoring company) who cares about this metric and I’ll guarantee he or she is about to lose their job.
Let’s get real – PRSA may have nonprofit status, but they’re true mission is all about the bottom line. If PR is going to emerge from its existential crisis, it will need the help of its trade association, especially as it relates to training the next generation of talent.
The ‘Big Agencies’ – I’m talking to you – the Edelman’s , MSL Group’s, Ketchum’s and Weber’s of the world. The 10-15 biggest agencies with a global presence. My pissed-off-ness with these orgs. is not necessarily about the work that they do; rather it is rooted in the revolving door culture that they have propagated and which has trickled down throughout the industry like a lice outbreak at a daycare.
Turnover in PR is among the worst in all industries, and it’s getting worse as millennials have proven that they’ll leave faster than a woman on a blind date with Mitch McConnell.
The concept of the revolving door profession has gotten so out of hand that I’ve been told by more than one person that surviving more than two years at Edelman New York has roughly the same odds as Roseanne Barr Tweeting something not racist.
Now, all of these agencies will point to their culture, diversity and professional development initiatives to combat my argument. But if those programs were any good, why do PR pros feel leave big agencies with such haste?
The answer is twofold. For starters, these agencies have never done enough to set expectations with clients, out of the fear of losing the business. The leadership teams, although mostly detached from account work, have built business on overpromising, and then putting the burden on employees to deliver what, in many instances, is not possible to achieve. This not only hurts the client relationship, but it also dissuades employees from believing that their company truly has their back. Thus, the decision to leave is an easy one more often than not.
Finally, those culture, diversity and professional development initiatives previously mentioned are usually one-size-fits all, meaning that if your preference or definition of what those should be differs from what the agency pre-selects, then you are either forced to conform or hit the road.
The future of PR, and my legacy, will require a lot of tough changes that frankly I’m not sure the industry has the chops for. So, unfortunately, I believe I won’t be able to drop my alter ego of Pissed Off Ivy Lee any time soon.
Pissed off Ivy Lee is the emotionally damaged founder of public relations. He is on a mission to reform the PR industry so that his reputation is not tarnished for eternity.