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Debunking public relations

Myths of PR by entrepreneur Rich Leigh shot to the top of Amazon bestseller lists this week. It takes down some popular misconceptions about the public relations business. I asked Rich to bust a few myths of his own.

Congratulations you’ve written a book. How did you find it?

I quite honestly got to about 10,000 words and called the publisher Kogan Page, worried I didn’t have another 1,000 in me, let alone what was needed to write a book I would feel comfortable asking people to pay for.

They helped me group my thoughts and, as soon as I’d set myself word count deadlines and an actual time I could put aside that fitted around my business, family and life to do it – which ended up being between 5 and 7am every day – it became much more of a streamlined process.

Publishing is a dead tree business. No one makes money from books. Why did you do it?

A few reasons.

One, I read a lot, and I really do think it is how I best learn. I have getting on for ten years’ experience in public relations now and, I just thought I had something to say based on that that some might think was worth listening to and potentially learning from.

Two, without getting too deep into it, not a lot was expected of me as a kid, and while I joke about having a big ego, I think it’s far more to do with this burning and, at times, crippling desire to prove myself. The older I’ve got, the more I realise it hinges on wanting to show people that wrote me and my family off that I can amount to something.

Three, a wise man (ahem, YOU) once told me that a book was like a 70,000 word business card and although I don’t know what, I have a feeling this will open a door or two for me and my agency.

What’s the biggest myth about public relations?

The biggest one, ignorance of what public relations is aside, is the perception of it being a world where we all spin and obscure information for a living, not helped by the most publicly prominent characters, real and fictional, associated with public relations.

Everything else follows on from that, for me.

Is the press release dead?

Not a chance, and people need to get over it. As I get into in one of the chapters, we’ve had big corporations like Coca-Cola and even the Canadian and British governments saying they’re going to stop using them, but if you go on each of their media sections, years on from those headline-grabbing statements, releases still form the backbone of their external communications.

You’re sceptical about sexism in public relations, and in particular the gender pay gap?

I would ask that people read my chapter about the gender wage gap before deciding that I’m sceptical. Perhaps others aren’t nearly sceptical enough – in general, not just about this. Question things beyond tweetable opinions.

It’s one of the longest chapters in the book for a reason, but also, I’d say, one of the more important. Somebody that’s previously been vocal about the issue read it and said that while they were expecting to be tutting and sighing their way through my mansplaining, they couldn’t knock it.

Your community PRexamples celebrates stunts that capture public attention. What’s the best you’ve seen recently?

This could have been one of many, but here’s one of my favourite ones recently. It didn’t get nearly as much love as it should have done. A naughty video website xHamster did a good thing based on what appears to be an archaic decision.

In a 12-2 vote, the US House Education Committee struck down a bill that would have given parents the ability to choose to opt their kid into comprehensive sex education including instruction on consent and emergency contraception.

xHamster responded by sending traffic to the site from Utah to a series of sex education videos, produced based on questions submitted by viewers. (A report in 2009 found Utah ranked top in subscriptions to p0rn sites).

That’s the kind of public relations I like and, I guess, gravitate towards – data and issue-led, with a touch of humour and light-heartedness.

What’s your favourite form of media, and why?

I love social media, and I read the news religiously, but right now, it’s probably podcasting. I love so much about it and can’t quite believe podcasts are free, to be honest.

There’s something for everyone, the barrier to entry to create a decent sounding one is just high enough that it creates a base level of quality – content notwithstanding – and the best podcasts are as enjoyable and engrossing as anything you’ll find on Netflix or in a library.

Myths of PR: All Publicity is Good Publicity and Other Popular Misconceptions
Rich Leigh, Kogan Page
£14.99

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

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