PR pros need more than political correctness to survive

Major shake-ups in newsrooms, along with promises of more diversity and sensitivity, signal major changes for the PR industry.

If sunlight is the best disinfectant, then the wave of apologies and firings in the media should be great news for the public and the pursuit of truth.

The changes in leadership positions at The New York Times, Refinery29, Philadelphia Inquirer, Bon Appetit and others, along with promises of more diversity and sensitivity in journalism, also signal major changes for the public relations industry.

The backlash against racist headlines and jokes, editorials promoting views that advocate violence towards protesters, along with the anger and shame regarding discriminatory hiring practices, gained unstoppable momentum after the nationwide protests this past month in the wake of the George Floyd death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

The media has changed for good, and for the common good.

But for PR practitioners, the transformations will be greater for the messages rather than the messengers, and here’s why.

It’s well known in the PR industry that it’s usually easier to pitch a story when a woman or a person of color is being profiled or quoted. This is especially true for business publications who don’t want the perception to be that they only interview white men. Producers, reporters and editors publicly proclaim the need for more diverse sources. As a former journalist (Forbes contributor, Hearst newspapers reporter and freelance reporter for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times) I’ve experienced this trend for at least 20 years.

Here’s the real difference this time, and why the discourse has changed forever.  New leadership, and new rules for detecting B.S.

CNN notes that “The media industry is at another inflection point. In the way the ‘Me Too’ movement reshaped newsrooms, sparked debate, and purged bad actors from positions of authority, the Black Lives Matter movement is bringing about a similar upheaval by putting questions about race and reporting on the center stage.”

Ezra Klein of Vox says, “The media has changed, dramatically, because the world has changed dramatically.”

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees discovered this the hard way. Brees said he wouldn’t support the peaceful protest of taking a knee during the national anthem because he felt it was “disrespecting the flag.” His argument, while flawed, was widely accepted by the media, much of it led by white men in their 50s, 60s and 70s. After a media firestorm and the scorn heaped upon him by fellow athletes (including his own teammates) Brees sincerely apologized the next day.

Some brands and companies have quickly accepted the new reality. NASCAR recently banned the Confederate flag at all their events effective immediately, correctly noting the old arguments about the flag representing “state’s rights” instead of slavery and treason were antiquated and divisive.

New leadership is rapidly emerging in the media that will navigate more enlightened conversations and viewpoints.

“Millennials are now the largest generation, and they are far more diverse and liberal than the generations that preceded them,” Klein says. “The oldest millennials are now 40, the youngest 26 — which means they increasingly dominate workplaces, and they are a customer base any healthy business needs. In newsrooms, specifically, they are now numerous enough, senior enough, and powerful enough to make their views heard. And their views on which ideas go into which spheres are different from the generation that preceded them.”

The new landscape requires more than well-written platitudes of opposing racism and promoting diversity. Billions of messages, written by PR pros on behalf of corporate CEOs, university presidents and small company owners, magically zoomed into our inboxes during a brief two-day window between June 4-6.

Making a real impact, and promoting a client or a cause, will take more than political correctness. Communications professionals pitching the previous conventional wisdom and offering arguments such as “both sides” along with the resultant false equivalencies, will find themselves marginalized.

New arguments about race, gender, politics, income inequality, police tactics, politics and the military are here to stay. PR pros who acknowledge these realities will improve their chances of joining and shaping the conversation for years to come.

Remember the old saying that everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it?

Take a look outside. The storm is already here.

Robert Wynne is the author of “Straight Talk About Public Relations” and the owner of Wynne Communications based in Redondo Beach, California.


8 Responses to “PR pros need more than political correctness to survive”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Yes you need more than political correctness, sometimes you may need correct legal language rather than your own.

    I don’t know why but if activists sue a company on even ridiculous grounds, the lawyer-approved news release from the company will almost always say that the charges are “meritless” or “baseless” or “without foundation,” never that the charges are bullshit.

    Not even “Baloney!”

    Are the lawyers afraid of being sued by ABA, the American Baloney Association? Do law schools give student lawyers-to-be a course teaching that a defensive news release must be more ultra-polite than an attack?

    Like it’s okay and even customary to charge that a would-be lady-charmer is not a flirt but is “a sexual predator.” And that a woman approached by the guy was not only annoyed but was “shocked, terrified” and that other favorite word of lawyers, “traumatized”.

    Maybe PR Daily should improve its job-getting courses of study by adding how to write like a lawyer instead of writing in plain English.

    I’ve written how I admire the marvelous “how to avoid PR trouble” articles by one of America’s top crisis PR experts, Dorothy Crenshaw. But I haven’t met her so in case she is exceptionally good looking, please refer to my admiration as coming from “an observer,” not from me by name. I don’t want to risk being accused by any group of charges that are meritless, baseless and without foundation.

    Darren K. Edwards says:

    PR professionals and anyone in the information dissemination business have to be exceptional in communicating to its target audience. The best communicators break through the information clutter by being adroit in appealing to both the heart and the mind. Robert Wynne rightly points out that changes in demographics within western countries, happening now and accelerating in the decades to come will make it essential for all entities to overhaul their communication strategies to reach newly empowered age groups and communities.

    Wynne’s article brings the challenge facing communication based businesses into sharp focus. It is not enough to end offensive, condescending language which may have been acceptable to the baby boomer cohort. The entities which fully embrace diversification of their work force, messaging, and mission will prosper by winning the hearts and minds of millennials and people of color who will soon form the majority in the world’s most powerful nation.

    Marvin Stockwell says:

    Thought-provoking read, Rob… many thanks! Like many of us, I’ve seen the paradigm shift and am actively involved in it within my sphere of influence. The progress is heartening to see. As a 50-year-old white man, I was fortunate to have had parents who raised me in that 1970s and 80s forward-thinking tolerance, but we are taking the next steps as a nation to confront racism’s many facets on a deeper level. We’re at the outset of that new move forward, but the comparison to the Me Too movement really resonates with me. On the one hand, we have years of work ahead, but to see fundamental firewalls… fall-back positions of the old paradigm falling left and right… fills me with hope. The 1970s and 80s introspection was focused on the personal dimension of racism, but now we are facing the systemic aspects of racism and realizing it’s not just what is in m own personal heart (informed by my limited, privileged view) that matters, but the structural things in society that give me the perpetual advantage at the expense of people of color. This is not right or fair or just. It is a cruel system that must change. The world is changing and the good news is that PR people are, by nature, very adept and rapid change. We’ve been trained to pivot quickly to capitalize on a changing media environment. This ability and almost second nature will serve us well.

    Kevin Wilkerson says:

    This is very true Rob. The media is indeed changing and what’s important is PR pros need to continually watch, read and monitor the media in order to know what to pitch and how to do it effectively.

    Barbara Coward says:

    Excellent article! We truly are at an inflection point and it’s so important for communications professionals to have this perspective. Thank you so much for sharing this must read.

    David Lieber says:

    Excellent article Rob and a very hopeful article; hopefully the future is brighter than the past

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