PR as Blood Sport

A Media Frenzy (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)
I received a call last week from a wire service reporter who sought some insights on the PR industry, and specifically why a New York PR firm would accept Occupy Wall Street as a pro bono client. The reporter had received from the firm the same email blast that I had proclaiming the firm’s new association with the Wall Street protesters. 

Before getting on the phone with this reporter, I checked out #OWS’s new PR firm’s clients and credentials. It described itself as “a leading boutique agency specializing in fashion, publishing, luxury, consumer and lifestyle accounts.” Huh? Luxury? Fashion? The protesters were anything but luxurious and fashionable. What gives?

Brooklyn Bridge (Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images) 

As for the firm’s core competencies, it is in essence an old-fashioned publicity and promotion shop whose singular goal (and measure of success) rests in the amount of ink and airtime it could muster for its coterie of downtown, style and celebrity fringe clientele. I didn’t see much of anything about the firm’s social or digital marketing prowess nor, more significantly, anything indicating a passion for politics.

This firm was essentially “retained” to get the Wall Street protesters as much media coverage as possible. Street theatre and histrionics would trump a core messaging and content syndication strategy.

It mattered little what was being reported as long as dramatic sound and images of a disaffected mob made their way into online, print, television and mobile media channels.

White-shirted, pepper-spraying police. Bravo! Bloodied protesters. Fabulous! PETA, eat your heart out! Drumming and chanting. Great for radio!
Running from the cops on the narrow (and once-bullish) streets of New York’s financial district. Pamplona, step aside!

Running Against the Bulls

Ironically, for the PR tacticians, here is one client for which a cogent message track is actually not required. In fact, espousing specific demands could actually splinter the movement. The more specific, the less populous the group would become.

Stick with the 99% versus 1%. It appeals to the widest spectrum of the disenchanted and disenfranchised.  Some have even suggested that the Tea Party, with its own far-flung and often incoherent message track, should align itself with the Occupy Wall Street crowd.

So back to the wire reporter’s question: why would a PR firm accept a client like the Occupy Wall Street protesters without pay or a history of political activism? The answer is simple: media exposure.

The protesters aren’t the only ones craving the fleeting fame of the media spotlight. The PR firm’s long-term sustainability actually depends on it — especially nowadays when PR peeps outnumber reporters 3-to-1, and the challenge PR pros face capturing reporters’ limited bandwidths.

After Zuccotti Park is emptied and the Occupy Wall Street movement dissipates (at least in its current form), the PR firm that served as the primary intermediary for local, national and international journalists will live on to leverage the very same news organizations with which it ingratiated itself during these tumultuous events of the last several weeks.

Update: The PR firm’s CEO provides his rationale here.

2 Comments

  1. Peter Himler
    October 24, 2011

    Though I did end up posting a link to an audio interview the firm’s principal gave on his decision to take on OWS.  He does say that he believes in the group’s goal — whatever that may be. 😉

  2. Keith Trivitt
    October 24, 2011

    Interesting post, Peter. I, too, wondered why this specific PR firm would take on this unique, but potentially very difficult, challenge. The research you have provided, however, indicates that, unfortunately, the firm’s supposedly altruistic intentions aren’t quite what they appear. Far be it from me to cast aspersions against a PR firm (after all, I advocate on behalf of the overall value of the PR industry), but it does strike me as odd that this firm would present its work as being to spread the message on behalf of the Occupy Wall Street contingent, when the firm has little, if any experience, in advocacy campaigns.

    As you lay out, something else seems to be afoot here, and it is very likely that it comes down to keeping the firm’s name and fortunes going strong.