Why we need more anti-PR and what it means
It’s the thumb rule of any Group Discussion, yet nobody pays heed to it. Do not aim to boycott a discussion; do not talk much, instead, be certain of what you’re talking. It’s simple advice, and that’s the folly of age-old clichés — to get binned, instead of being understood and applied. And in no other field does this matter more than in Public Relations. The industry needs a carrot, instead it’s a hotchpotch of assumptions and truisms. Send a mail, send a follow-up mail, send a text message, send a whatsapp message, summarise the pitch in a text, then call, then hound. It’s an endless cycle. PR needs some anti-PR.
A good pitch will always find takers. A thousand calls and messages won’t. If your pitch doesn’t find takers, go back to the drawing board and see how you can change the approach. This constant hounding is exasperating and hurting the industry. One of the best ways to understand this is to imbibe the philosophy of anti-PR. To learn these fundamentals is to firstly know who Katie Cotton is.
Ms. Cotton took Apple from its worst days and made it what it is now. She practiced the art of anti-PR. She made journalists WANT to know more. She made journalists WANT to speak with Steve Jobs. She MADE Apple. And that ethos went from the Steve to Katie. In 2007, when Jobs unveiled the iPhone, a Bloomberg reporter said, “It doesn’t work” and explained that she kept making typos and the keys were too small for anyone to use their thumbs. Now, a CEO would pause and explain how things will change, go into the technology, assuage concerns or the eternal classic — not address the question and be vague. Instead, Jobs tilted his head and said, “Your thumbs will learn.” And he moved on. He let the product speak. PR was supporting the cause, but he was convinced about the iPhone, and that’s all that mattered.
It’s this psychological act of control that Katie Cotton stood for. And yet, her actions are enshrined in the fundamentals of what the father of PR believes in; control. In his landmark 1928 essay titled ‘Propaganda’, Bernays observed how the United States was becoming more democratic, women’s suffrage, more wealth, more immigrants etc… and elaborated on why we need propaganda. He said, “It’s going to be harder to run things as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people think.” When thousands of people line Apple’s stores and tech journalists toe the line of what Apple wants them to know and not, Ms. Cotton embraced Bernays’ philosophies. She understood the importance of taking back the narrative. She understood how to control.
And that brings me to a conversation I had with a former colleague who works with Reuters. For about 3 years, he has tried to reach out to Magic Leap — a secretive company working on virtual reality. Every time he has reached out, he has failed to get more information. This secrecy makes it a coveted company. But it’s also anti-PR in many ways. The company now controls the narrative by picking and choosing whom they decide to give insights to. You don’t need to do the bidding, but maintain that illusion. And no, PR can’t help you if you simply don’t have a good product to sell in the first place. So the next time you are frantically making calls, pause… and think how you can sell anti-PR.