A Disturbing Peek Behind the PR Curtain

In the film The Wizard of Oz, a very early and innocent display of mass media deceit, we learn that the Great Oz is nothing more than a huckster from Kansas who hides behind a curtain, pulling levers and pushing buttons to make people – and scarecrows, tin men and lions – believe in a fantasy.

The best public relations, and journalism for that matter, are practiced in plain sight. Yet in my experience as a former PR agency executive and even now as a marketing consultant, too much PR today hides behind the curtain, working not to inform but to masquerade as information for the benefit of ego and ratings.

So when I read Jim Horton’s recent post about a “mid-sized public relations firm” in Washington, D.C., that is teaching its clients to be combative malcontents on cable shout shows, I wasn’t surprised.

The firm in question, Qorvis Communications, is a savvy, successful public affairs agency. In the interest of fair disclosure, I have worked with Qorvis as a consultant and one of its partners is a long-time friend and former colleague. They, like most people in the business, are honest and straightforward and do good work (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in business very long, especially in the cutthroat world of Washington politics).

That said, what Qorvis and I’m sure other agencies are doing is symptomatic of a death of discourse, where what you say is not as important as how loud you say it, how much you can insult others, or how many points you can score.

The Qorvis program teaches people the art of verbal abuse for appearances on shows like Hardball, The O’Reilly Factor and Crossfire. Clients learn how to “filibuster” to prevent others from speaking, and generally how to be bigger pricks than the hosts, a tough job for anyone.

I’m not sure what’s worse – that Qorvis is teaching these “skills,” or that there is a market for training people in the art of vitriol. Shows like Crossfire are popular because people watch them, because we like our politics in bite-sized chewable tablets. We learn more from interviews on Charlie Rose, but we don’t get the rush we feel from five minutes of Hannity & Colmes.

This is about the time I would offer a solution or recommendations, but I have none. Horton said the Qorvis program made him ashamed of the PR business, and he’s right. But the news business is as much if not more to blame for this mess, because if ratings didn’t matter, Bill O’Reilly would be selling insurance in Oklahoma and writing incendiary newsletters in his spare time. I don’t know what a journalist is anymore, but I do know that the “dumbing” of America can be traced, at least in part, to shrinking news organization budgets and media ownership “convergence.”

I’m ashamed of this kind of PR, ashamed of this brand of news, and ashamed of a public that accepts both. I want to believe that things will change, but I also know what lies behind the curtain. I’m afraid we’re going to be stuck in Oz for a long, long time.

2 thoughts on “A Disturbing Peek Behind the PR Curtain

  1. If the ‘media’ companies decide that arrogant, abrasive, unpleasant hosts shouting at and bullying their guests is an important news function, then I don’t see how that is the fault of PR people.
    To send a client into a siutation like that without some rudimentary training on how to deal with an on-air bully would be setting them up for the slaughter.
    Maybe we’d all feel better if we called them acting lessons instead of media training sessions. Since there isn’t much journalism going on during those shouting fests, I don’t think anyone would object to the name change. 😉

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