Paul Graham’s The Submarine talks about one of the secret engines of the world: the PR industry.
“Suits make a corporate comeback,” says the New York Times. Why does this sound familiar? Maybe because the suit was also back in February, January, September 2004, June 2004, March 2004, September 2003, February 2003, November 2002, April 2002, and February 2002. April 2001.
Why do the media keep running stories saying suits are back? Because PR firms tell them to. One of the most surprising things I discovered during my brief business career was the existence of the PR industry, lurking like a huge, quiet submarine beneath the news. Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren’t about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR firms….
PR is not dishonest. Not quite. In fact, the reason the best PR firms are so effective is precisely that they aren’t dishonest. They give reporters genuinely valuable information. A good PR firm won’t bug reporters just because the client tells them to; they’ve worked hard to build their credibility with reporters, and they don’t want to destroy it by feeding them mere propaganda.
If anyone is dishonest, it’s the reporters. The main reason PR firms exist is that reporters are lazy. Or, to put it more nicely, overworked. Really they ought to be out there digging up stories for themselves. But it’s so tempting to sit in their offices and let PR firms bring the stories to them. …
Once upon a time, I was the typesetter for a smallish weekly newspaper. I had keys to the place, and kept my own hours. The owners would leave me a stack of draft material. When they came back, the sheets of typeset repro would be hung up like the week’s laundry on a piece of string stretched across the office.
Here’s where their non-advertising content came from: The owners wrote the editorials and a small number of news stories themselves. Other bits of news came from the wire service. The syndicated features and columns arrived weekly in a single big manila envelope. And if all that plus the advertising wasn’t enough to fill the issue, which was usually the case, I’d start in on our stack of press releases.
The owners’ standing instructions were to go through, find the press releases that read most like news stories, and make any alterations necessary to improve that resemblance. I had a fairly good idea of how many column inches they’d need when it came time to make up the issue. All I had to do was give them that much plus a bit more, clean up everybody’s copy, and pick good press releases.
I hope most newspapers are a little less casual than that, but the underlying principle remains: reporting and newswriting takes work. Press releases are a freebie.
Where the work of PR firms really does get deliberately misleading is in the generation of “buzz.” They usually feed the same story to several different publications at once. And when readers see similar stories in multiple places, they think there is some important trend afoot. Which is exactly what they’re supposed to think.
I doubt PR firms realize it yet, but the Web makes it possible to track them at work. If you search for the obvious phrases, you turn up several efforts over the years to place stories about the return of the suit. For example, the Reuters article that got picked up by USA Today in September 2004. “The suit is back,” it begins.
Trend articles like this are almost always the work of PR firms. Once you know how to read them, it’s straightforward to figure out who the client is. With trend stories, PR firms usually line up one or more “experts” to talk about the industry generally. In this case we get three: the NPD Group, the creative director of GQ, and a research director at Smith Barney. When you get to the end of the experts, look for the client. And bingo, there it is: The Men’s Wearhouse.
Not surprising, considering The Men’s Wearhouse was at that moment running ads saying “The Suit is Back.” Talk about a successful press hit—a wire service article whose first sentence is your own ad copy.
The secret to finding other press hits from a given pitch is to realize that they all started from the same document back at the PR firm. Search for a few key phrases and the names of the clients and the experts, and you’ll turn up other variants of this story.
Casual Fridays are out and dress codes are in writes Diane E. Lewis in The Boston Globe. In a remarkable coincidence, Ms. Lewis’s industry contacts also include the creative director of GQ.
Ripped jeans and T-shirts are out, writes Mary Kathleen Flynn in US News & World Report. And she too knows the creative director of GQ.
Men’s suits are back, writes Nicole Ford in Sexbuzz.Com (“the ultimate men’s entertainment magazine”).
Dressing down loses appeal as men suit up at the office, writes Tenisha Mercer of The Detroit News.
Isn’t that cute? It’s like finding out where fashionable colors come from.
I like Paul Graham’s conclusion—not because it’s flattering to bloggers, but because it addresses a question that’s bugged me since I was a little kid: Why is the tone of so much magazine and newspaper writing as unnatural as silicone breast implants on a snake?
I was talking recently to a friend who works for a big newspaper. He thought the print media were in serious trouble, and that they were still mostly in denial about it. “They think the decline is cyclic,” he said. “Actually it’s structural.”
In other words, the readers are leaving, and they’re not coming back.
Why? I think the main reason is that the writing online is more honest. Imagine how incongruous the New York Times article about suits would sound if you read it in a blog:
The urge to look corporate—sleek, commanding, prudent, yet with just a touch of hubris on your well-cut sleeve—is an unexpected development in a time of business disgrace.
The problem with this article is not just that it originated in a PR firm. The whole tone is bogus. This is the tone of someone writing down to their audience.
Whatever its flaws, the writing you find online is authentic. It’s not mystery meat cooked up out of scraps of pitch letters and press releases, and pressed into molds of zippy journalese. It’s people writing what they think.
I didn’t realize, till there was an alternative, just how artificial most of the writing in the mainstream media was.
Okay, I didn’t say he answered the question, just addressed it.
I win! I found a lamer article than he did:
Never, ever use the words, “I think your readers would be interested in this story.” To a large extent, bloggers are more interested in a point of view or the power of an idea than they are “readers.”