Friday, September 26, 2008

Flaks - The Musical - Scene 1

The story of a Silicon Valley PR agency during the dotcom boom of the late 1990s

Scene 1
Two young-ish women (early thirties) Barb and Britt sit in a glassed-in conference room. Barb is looking at a resume. They're both well-dressed, stylish and evoke an air of the cynical.

Britt - Where's he from?
Barb - Nowhere.
Britt - What do you mean, 'nowhere'? Everyone's from somewhere.
Barb - It depends on what you mean. If you mean where was he born - I don't know. If you mean where was he working before - then he's from 'nowhere.'
Britt - OK, fine, let's bring in Nowhere Man.

Britt motions through glass to the receptionist, Tiffany, who is younger and more provocatively stylish. Billy, who is younger than Britt but older than Tiffany, wearing an awkward coat and tie is led in and cautiously takes a seat opposite Britt and Barb.

Barb - (looking at resume) So…Billy, tell us about yourself.
Billy - Well, what do you want to know?

(Britt looks at Barb, smiles wry smile)

Britt - Why don't you start by telling us where you're from.

(Break away to the receptionist who welcomes with a nod an older man, Clayton, clearly in charge as he reenters the office, cell phone to his ear. He flips down his phone, begins to walk past the conference room, then comes back to ask Tiffany a question)

Clayton - Who's he?
Tiffany - Barb is interviewing for a new AE.
Clayton - Really? (brief suspicious double-take, walks to the big office)

Tiffany is left alone in the reception area. She mutters, “’Really…really’” then jumps up onto the large front desk and screams “Really!” Starts singing:

He says “really” but no one really
Knows what he means.
No “yes”es, no “no”s
Everything’s all in-betweens.

(Jumps down off front desk and picks up the phone, sings into it)

Hello, Clayton Partners PR
Yes, we really, really are
Give us some cash, we’ll make you a star
In whatever galaxy you choose
And if we fail, we don’t lose
We get paid either way
We’re Clayton Partners PR
We “really” are
And “really” that’s all we can say.

(Tiffany quietly sits back down behind the front desk)

(Back in Conference room interview)

Britt - So, you're a writer.
Billy - Yes. I mean, I write, yes.
Barb - That makes you a writer in my book.
Billy - I suppose it depends on what you think of when you say the word "writer." I mean I've worked for magazines, written articles, book reviews, done freelance work, a whole lot of copy editing. I've also written for myself, you know fiction, short stories and things, so that's what I think when I hear the word "writer" - people like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, people who write, create things, but I don't know if I really qualify, see, I've never actually sold anything like that. So, I've been doing stuff wherever I can do it, like at computer pubs.
Barb - Right. OK.
Britt - So, I see you wrote for Open Systems Today.
Billy - Well, wrote, you know...

(Barb just holds up her hand. They look at each other. Billy thinks then speaks)

Billy - Yes, I wrote for Open Systems Today.
Britt - You've got a good grasp of the technology then, I take it.
Billy - No, not really (hesitating). I mean, I was an English major, I never took any computer classes. Is that a problem?
Barb - You know Word?
Billy - Well, yeah sure. I'm a writer (grins).
Britt - As long as you can talk about it. No one expects you to do any programming.
Barb - Old joke, 'What's the difference between a used car salesman and a PR flak?'
(Billy shrugs)
Barb - The used car salesman knows he's lying to you.
Britt - It's not rocket surgery.

End scene


Your client assigns you a project and it goes something like this:
Client – “Oh, I put together a rough draft, just some notes, really. I’m not the writer, that’s what we pay you for, ha-ha.”

You talk some more, get the details, review what the press is saying about the topic, incorporate some of that language, and (as Hunter S. used to say) you piece together a few facts throw in a little old negro wisdom and, bam, this nightmare’s over.

Except when you send it to the client for review they come back and say, “You know, just change it back to what I had before.”

So, what do you pay me for?


Say it like Seinfeld used to say “Newman” – with pursed lips and clenched teeth.


When I was on the agency side we used to joke that this would be a great job if it weren’t for the clients. Talk on the phone, read magazines, write and suggest to other writers what they should write. Only we had to suggest they write about our clients. Sure there are plenty of creative ways to do that, but you’re still pimping someone else’s dream.

Back then I thought, well, those reporters can’t be too pleased with themselves either. As kids did they dream about growing up to write about COBOL or Virtual Private Networks or Public Key Infrastructure? God, I hope not. I would hope they dreamt about being Ernest Hemingway or Woodward or Bernstein or both (Woodstein? Bernward? Ouch). No, who would ever dream about writing for a tech trade rag?

Now, though, you see people writing about all this crap just for fun, because they like it and want to share their opinions about it – for free.

And there, oh imagined reader, is the rub.

See, we had to pimp for our clients, that’s what they paid us for. The writers at CMP and IDG, et al, they had to write about tech because that’s what their bosses paid them for, tech was what paid for the rag in the first place. No ads, no articles.

Everything’s all upside down now, and crazy people are writing whatever sort of crap they want. Present company excluded, of course. What is one to do?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Jester

Where did they recruit for court jesters, you know back in the day. Were these clowns just fallen noblemen, townsfolk who attracted the wrong sort of attention, or did people aspire to the job? Did the king place ads? What would that job req look like?

Wanted: Fool. Willing to say and do offensive things to power, but in an entertaining and ridiculous way. Juggling, tumbling, walking on hands required. Occasional food tasting.
Competitive salary, EOE, good benefits, limited retirement package.

The purpose was to have someone around to call bullshit when all the yes-men were just saying “yes” to something patently stupid. Companies don’t hire jesters. So, the more CEOs become like kings the less likely someone will call bullshit. Royal salaries and do-nothing boards of directors contributed to the mess we’re in now. Egoists wielding expanded powers, no one willing to stick their neck out and cry bullshit for fear of losing their share of the booty, and then when “mistakes are made” and regulators no longer regulate, it all comes crashing down like a house of cards.

The jester can then do some card tricks, but he’s no better off than anyone else.

Maybe I just suck at PR

There comes a time after getting fired when you’re done beating yourself up, and you're done blaming others, and you’re just about ready to forget it and move on when you think, you know, maybe this isn’t the right line of work for me.

I mean, I’ve lost every PR job I’ve ever had, not always by my choosing, okay, almost never by my choosing. Why then do I keep coming back for more?

For the same reason I started, of course, for the money. There’s nothing else out there that I want to do. I never dreamed of being an accountant or a salesman, I’m not a technologist, I don’t have any trade skills or business sense. I’m not terribly fond of kids so teaching would be a drag (and not profitable). I suppose I could be a politician, but I’ve got a sordid past, I’d hate asking people for donations all the time, and I’d like to think I’m not that kind of a guy.

I could go back to school and get a degree. But, in what? And when that was done I’d still be in the same boat, looking for a job, except with more debt.

No, it’s not entirely about the fact that I suck at PR, it has something to do with the gnawing feeling I have that PR is just the thing that I suck at the least. And for which I can get paid the most money.

Is that it then? Scramble around from PR job to PR job pimping someone else’s dream for the rest of my life? I suppose I could find fulfillment in other ways, other aspects of my life. Do charity work, devote myself more diligently to fatherhood, or really work on my golf game (the Seniors Tour awaits!)

Yet, I’m still left wondering if I’m not meant to do something more during my time on this rock.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

You can't handle the truth!

"The Truth"
These days it's hard to write those words without following them with a cynical, "Yeah right."
Presidential candidates, especially the old, white ones, seem to think they can say whatever they want and no one's going to check the facts. If anyone does, and calls them on their bullshit, they're part of the enemy camp, part of that vast mainstream media conspiracy to keep them and their base oppressed. They may not be shooting the messenger, but they've got sharp blades out slashing away at media's knees.

And the PR flaks, the spokespeople, the "communications professionals" stand there and spout rubbish they can't possibly believe. What was the name of the Iraqi Information Minister,, who had the thankless job of standing before the world after "shock and awe" declaring with a straight face, "All is well" living in his own alternate reality. It wasn't all his own, he was doing his job to the end.

Scotty McClellan did a pretty good impression of Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, and to his credit came out (belatedly) and told people he may have been fibbing a bit. Or that he was fibbed to. The right-wing spin machine ripped him to shreds.

So what are these clowns Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt and all their ilk going to say when this is all done? "Just playing to win, guys. No hard feelings, right?"

The bigger the lie, the bigger the mistake, the more likely you're going to get away with it. Some poor schmuck goes off-message at a software company and he's out in the cold faster than you can say "COBRA is too expensive." But, the CEO of a financial services firm presides over the implosion of his company and he takes the limo back to Connecticut for single malt and a cigar. Macanudo to you, too MonkeyBoy. Then there's the King of all MonkeyBoys, George W hisself. Give away a surplus, ignore all warning signs, then put on a mask of bravado and come out swinging. Seven years later nothing's accomplished, the country's in the crapper, and he's getting ready to mosey back to the ranch, clear some brush, cash his pension checks, and build his library, a big one, with books and everything.

I want a big library, and I'll tell you one thing, if I had a big library, I'd actually read the books.

Yes, an angry screed from a guy on the bench. Dismiss me if you will. Don't worry, I won't be offended. It's happened to me before. Lots of times.

So, this PR guy walks into a bar...

Here's the deal.
In 1992 I quit my job at Charles Schwab and decided to try to make a living as a writer. After three years of freelancing, scribbling in San Francisco, publishing a newsletter ("zine"?, remember those?), and doing work for a computer trade rag, I was lured into PR by the promise of a steady paycheck. Sixteen years, four PR agencies (five if you count my own brief solo career), and six in-house positions later, I've decided to turn around and bite the hand that fed me, curse the hand that dragged me into this hollow field, and critique it.

Hey PR, get those hands dirty! Do some real work and relate to the public. You can "influence the influencer" all you want, except you should know, the influencer is everywhere.

Yes, it's different now, but it still ain't rocket surgery.