Lovely weather we’ve been having. So I’m standing in someone’s garden, partaking of a couple of scoops of splendidly crisp and refreshing white wine, sun going down, smell of sausages all over London, shooting the breeze with a director of an award-winning agency, swapping war stories, and he says ‘PR – it’s a young person’s game.’
Now – in fairness – it was a throwaway line, uttered on the back of a conversational riff in which we’d both been bemoaning the speed at which time flies, and its inevitable effect on one, personally – however, it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. And, if I can generalise, (and I can, because it’s my blog), it’s not untrue – take a random cross-section of agencies and in-house departments across the country and PR is, indeed, a young person’s game. Or, at least, that’s the perception.
(Of course, this begs the question – where do all the old PR people go? I mean those who don’t end up as Director of Corporate Affairs for a FTSE 100/250 company, or an enormous multi-national, or Chairman and Chief Executive of a PR agency holding company, or sitting splendidly in the House of Lords, or running the country on behalf of an unelected Prime Minister. Where do they go? I’d love to know, because I guess I’ll be going there soon.)
I, of course, ever the contrarian, laughed and said of course it isn’t – my argument being that in communications (as in all things) there is simply no substitute for experience. No matter how energetic and fluffy a 24-year-old may be, they will never have the maturity, judgement and experience to enable them to make the strategic communications decisions (there are always exceptions, I know, but generally speaking). To imply that they do is to imply that the whole business of corporate communications is basic, simple and easily learnt. To imply that they do is to devalue everything that we, as communicators, stand for and everything that we do.
Unfortunately, the myth is being perpetuated all over the shop:
1) Sorry, but like it or not, from the outside, PR is seen as fluffy and excitable. So what do we as an industry do? We give our clients fluffy and excitable twenty-somethings, just to reinforce their prejudices. Great.
2) Agency pitches. Agency turns up – and don’t tell me they don’t, I lose count of the amount of times it has happened to me – with ‘the team’. Like Russian dolls. Senior bod, less senior bod, middle-ranking bod, junior bod. And you know, every time, that when it comes to who you’ll be dealing with, it’ll be junior bod – who’s twenty-something. Great.
3) Creativity. Every client likes creativity. Young people are creative. Unleash the twenty-somethings! Actually, they’re not any more creative than a forty-something – they just haven’t learnt the definition of ‘stupid’ and ‘unworkable’ yet. Great.
4) Social Media. It’s the new thing! Got to have some social media! Must have a presence on FaceTube and YouBook! Get a twenty-something, so we can be down with the kids. Actually (see point 3, above) the other thing about youth isn’t that they haven’t learnt anything about budgetary control or ROI either. Great.
My point is that ‘PR is a young person’s game’ and the industry’s unwitting collusion in the shibboleth is yet another barrier to communications taking its seat at the top table. If the profession is seen that way, then obviously it is not taken seriously, not accorded gravitas, because it hasn’t grown up.
A parallel is the attitude of every single one of the (handful of) CEOs that I have either run media programmes for, or know those who have. They have no respect for the newswires and the press when those media field the latest crop of twenty-something correspondents, no matter how bright and well-informed those corrs are (and sadly, in my experience, they aren’t). There’s no gravitas, no experience, no maturity and the big boys who run businesses simply cannot be bothered. They suffer it, but not gladly.
To say ‘PR is a young person’s game’ and to prove it by fielding young people (often on their own, with little guidance) is simply to erode any respect that communications may have built up and to confine it to the (at best) ‘necessary evil’ and at worst ‘fluffy bunny’ bins.
Don’t get me wrong, corporate communications needs its graduates and new starters – the industry needs to invest in its younger practitioners – training, on the job mentoring and tutoring, real-life opportunity. But we shouldn’t just be unleashing them on clients and expecting the results to be favourable – either for the client or for the less-than-experienced consultant.
The industry needs a bit more grey hair at all levels. PR – it’s an old person’s game.