Gen X: Challenging the PR Field’s Sacred Cows

sacred cows in PR

The term, “sacred cow” is a common metaphor to mean something that is “often unreasonably immune from criticism or opposition.” Its origins in everyday English usage can be traced back to the early 20th Century, when linguists observed how the Hindus venerated the cow.

The PR field has its share of sacred cows, which are theories, practices and concepts that until now have been unchallengeable. Thanks to Gen X, some of these once sacred assumptions are getting a second look and it’s moving the public relations field forward.

Sacred Cow #1 – Apologizing to the Social Media Mob

One of the more unquestioned sacred cows in the PR field has been the impulse to apologize in just about any situation where activists and the Internet mob pre-selects you as part of their own agenda. The theory is all you have to do is make sure your apology is genuine and you’ll be fine.

Recently, I wrote an article about the need in 2022 to stand up to the growing world of Internet bullies by not using the apology as a PR tool, that many other factors are at play, and besides, you should focus on corrective actions and accountability and not so much your apology.  To be sure, this goes against the conventional PR wisdom, which sees appeasement and groveling as the only way out when your organization is under attack by those who make a living attacking individuals, brands and organizations.

Quite simply, the strategy addressed in my article is the time-tested one for responding to all bullies, to figuratively punch them in the face. And by that, I mean, don’t give them what they want and need most to stay relevant – apologies and concessions.

With an apology and a concession in hand, your attacker’s allegations against you, false as they may be, are validated by you as the apologist. In the process, you are painting your own attackers as the heroes and yourself as the villain in the story.

Thankfully, more and more decision-makers who happen to be from Gen X are getting wise to the need not to apologize as a first impulse.

Sacred Cow #2 – The Media’s Needs Come Before Your Client’s or Organization’s

The theory as I’ve often been told is that clients and employers come and go, but the media is a constant, and any good PR practitioner will prioritize media needs and demands over the client’s or the organization’s interests.  To be sure, for as long as I’ve been in the public relations business, I’ve rejected this.  I’ve never deviated from the client-first mantra, and I know many other veteran practitioners who’ve followed the same principle.

Still, I’ve also seen how widespread it is in the public relations field to fall into the trap of catering so much to media demands that the practitioners sell their clients or organizations short.

Here’s what’s changed and why Gen X is starting to generally putting things into the proper order.

From a pragmatic point of view, newsrooms are shrinking every day. Media organizations are folding, changing and morphing, while the journalists are changing jobs at a rate like never before. Turnover rates are skyrocketing.

To presume that you have to put the needs of a beat reporter at your local daily before the needs of your client, while always folly, is particularly troublesome now because there’s a very good chance that contact won’t be there for very long anyway. It’s a flawed assumption at every level.

Gen Xers know this, and thanks to the tough times we’ve all experienced in recent years, they know it’s more important than ever to have your priorities in order.

The client and the organization you work for comes first because it’s the right thing to do from an ethical perspective. They’re paying you. Of course, you must do everything completely ethical at all times and never do anything unethical no matter what your client or employer might request.

In that spirit, the client-first approach means not testing the boundaries of ethics by leaking information or catering to the media in such a way that demonstrates you care more about the media’s interests than your own clients’ and employers’ interests.

Sacred Cow #3 – Perception is Reality

One of the oldest sacred cows in the PR field is the notion that “perception is reality.” What this means is that the facts don’t matter in themselves. The main facts that matter is how people perceive the facts.  The public’s perception is your reality.

I once had a conversation with a PR legend who was integral in the formation of Apple Computer and Intel, and we talked about this very issue. He said in so many words, if you buy into the idea that perception is reality, sooner or later reality is going to come back and bite you.

Again, this is an uphill battle I’ve fought most of my career, but I’m now seeing that Gen X decision-makers have increasingly embraced the idea that perception is not reality. Reality and truth itself, uncomfortable as it sometimes may be, should be the basis for all communication.

When you reject the “perception is reality” mindset, you no longer accept the premise of the arguments your critics and opponents have framed to work against you. In marketing, those framers could be your competitors. In public issues, the framers could be politicians or special interests. But in all cases, an increasing number of this generation’s decision-makers are working from a foundation in truth.  Reality is reality. Everything else flows from there.

If this is something that interests you in something you’re working on, get in touch. I’d love to talk.

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