We often make it a point to mock the very worst public relations people and pitches that we see, on the principle that mocking PR is an honorable and useful activity. But are we all being too hard on the poor PR peons themselves?
Yes, argues Jennifer Pan in an essay for Jacobin. She says that the tendency of (some) journalists to attack incompetent or lazy or somehow offensive PR people betrays a simplistic understanding of the situation on the part of the journalists. Noting that the PR industry is overwhelmingly female, she says that the latent hostility within the media against PR people raises questions about "how gendered assumptions about work continue to shape our contemporary notions of creative labor under capitalism."
"Given that the end goal of PR is company or client gain," Pan writes, "a healthy suspicion of publicity materials is only reasonable. But so often these misgivings manifest as indictments of the publicist and her work, rather than of the neoliberal economy that enables and necessitates this form of labor. And this is especially troubling given the disproportionate presence of women in PR." By "this form of labor" she means "emotional labor," which refers to jobs in which the employee is obligated to "induce or suppress feeling" in order to do them well—a definition that could cover almost all public-facing jobs that require interacting with those outside of yourself. (Though we would not dispute that much PR does require the generation of false emotion to a sickening degree.)
Instead of busying ourselves with attacking PR people for their poor work, Pan says that journalists should understand that flacks are just more cogs in the capitalist machine, bound to carry out this "emotional labor," which is its own sort of hell. She argues, in essence, for class consciousness among knowledge workers. Rather than positioning ourselves as locked in constant struggle with PR people, she believes that "people in every profession should recognize and confront the demands of affective labor as their own."
To the extent that we are talking about whether or not low-level PR people are unfortunate worker drones, Pan is correct. They are. They have awful jobs that require the constant eating of shit from clients, bosses, and journalists alike. Though some people—the type of people who generally go on to great success in the PR, advertising, or "sales" industries—have the natural constitution for this kind of work, not everyone does. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that the vast majority of people employed in the PR industry are, as in most industries, just normal working people doing a normal job for a normal paycheck out of economic necessity. Work sucks. I sympathize.
Do PR people deserve our sympathy? Yes. Does the PR industry deserve our sympathy? No. And this is where Pan's analysis suffers. Unfortunately for PR people, they are the ones who make up the PR industry. Public relations people work on behalf of corporations, to further those corporations' interests. So do, for example, the call center workers who answer your angry phone calls, and the customer service agent at the store's desk. All of these people may be poorly paid, or mistreated, or overworked. But their entire role is to insulate the company itself from proper criticism. If your sympathy for the PR person stifles your impulse to criticize the PR person's client, then the corporation wins. This, indeed, is what companies are buying with all of that money that the spend on spokespeople: human sympathy. It is a fundamentally manipulative process. Inhuman, faceless corporations purchase smiling and attractive human faces to represent them. Does the act of being paid to be the smiling human face of an inhuman soulless corporation sometimes wear on a person? I'm sure that it does. But if journalists stop pointing out the craven, dishonest nature of PR, we are not doing anyone any favors. That would be doing exactly what the corporations want.
It is possible to both acknowledge that many PR people have bad jobs, and to heap as much scorn as possible on the PR industry. When it comes right down to it, the PR industry will always tell the advantageous lie. The job of journalism is to tell the uncomfortable truth. I do not think that journalists are better people than flacks. But I do think that we must always be enemies, for the good of the world.