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December 21st, 2008

You Have To Care—and yet do you really?

“The best way to predict the future is to create it”

-Peter Drucker

In Outliers, the outstanding Gladwell book about how we get successful, there is a terrific section towards the end on societies who take more time with their work; they “have to care” about what they do or they will FAIL.

Which leads me to: Does anyone care about what they do these days?

I’m not trying to bitch here –okay, a little – but it’s obvious that the U.S. has sunk into a new low, money wise, and as someone who’s been running a company for almost 19 years, and who has studied the economies of the last two decades for a bunch of books, I can tell you it’s not going UP soon. So, when I look around I see a lot of people “happy to have a job.” But that’s not the way we are going to get out of this massive mess we’re in: offices filled with people being content to be somewhere are sucky workplaces that are Petri dishes for killing off a lot of heretofore strong entities.

I read Jack Myers’ widely-discussed report where the “forecasting guru” believes PR will “buck the advertising depression” destroying marketing businesses through 2010. I have no patience for people who stick their finger in the air and predict something; when he alludes to PR jumping six percent to $4.8B I have to stop him and say nice try. Fact is: we are all going to be down over the next 36 months or so and we better stop kidding ourselves about our work being (Myers’ words) “secular and systemic.” This is forecasting met with a grain of salt.

Face it, with people spending less and waiting to see which industries will die harshly, we are not going to be “rescued” anytime soon. To survive in this mess you’re going to have to have balls. And be fiercely un-mediocre in this time of sameness and safety. Our field will have to be the ones who constantly say to clients, vendors, partners and employees: I (or we) will not do any work that I (or we) don’t believe in. Let’s follow our instincts and not let the negative ones, the ones who wish to send crap releases that say nothing new, the ones who want to issue information-devoid, machinery-driven information to the press and others, guide us to failure. As my preamble stated, it all comes down to caring—like Asians and rice fields that Gladwell ponders with precision –so PR farmers who are in it to bide time will become nonunion baristas in a post-Starbucks environment.

Those who think that somehow we will be an industry that will uniformly rise above other businesses during the next few years, remove your head from a place that is dusty and dank. No miracle cure is coming—nothing is going to make any of us money unless we change the way we do business. Too many PR professionals are letting their clients and bosses tell them what they want when in fact the media and the way we influence the public has done a 180 in the last few years so how the heck can we let people we work for tell us how to do our job? Could they possibly know more than us?

In order to survive (I won’t say thrive) it’s about really being on, truly wanting to succeed, but to do it in a way that is not the way it’s been done before. And if you have people around you who are just in it to get by, you need to shove them out the door—or arrange for their exit—or cut them off at the knees. Yes, Virginia, that includes clients.

Finally, what can we learn from 2008, anyway… That being a wimp (lots of us were woos character studies) is no way to do business when you’re hired to be a communicator of messages that are at least a little distinctive. Risk taking is all that matters in a society where people used to care more than they do today. What’s a risk these days? Anything that makes you gasp as it’s put on paper. And smile heartily when accomplished for real.

Here’s to 2009, when all members of community really care. I hope.

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