Deborah Pead, Founder

The Devil in Disguise?

A recent study by AUT’s Dr Angelique Nairn and Deepti Bhargava raises questions for PR [1].

How come the vocation charged with looking after the reputation of powerful people and successful brands does such an appalling job of promoting and protecting its own profession? Is it a case of the ‘cobblers’ children have no shoes’ or is our profession stuck in a clichéd time warp?

Little wonder then the exploration called Demon in a Dress focused on how women in PR in television shows such as Scandal, Flack, Absolutely Fabulous and Sex and the City are presented as “ditzy, cynical, manipulative, unfulfilled, heartless and manipulative”.

Jesse Mulligan on Afternoons on Radio New Zealand was interested in my views on the research paper. And while some people make a career out of being offended, there was no outrage or indignation from me. After four decades in PR, I don’t easily take offence. Besides, in these Covid times we are too busy helping our clients thrive during the onslaught of another lockdown to worry about how we are portrayed in television shows designed to entertain.

Consequently, my response was light-hearted and flippant of the monster myths advanced in the exploration.

And in retrospect I did our profession a disservice. As someone who is considered a leader in PR, I should have pointed to the noble campaigns initiated by our industry, to the unsung hero work that is often overlooked by the razzle dazzle of the high-on-hype popular launches.

As a career professional I can identify many such standout career pieces, including

Nation Building – an all-embracing social movement, inspired by Dr Aggrey Klaaste the late Editor of Sowetan newspaper. In 1988 he said political emancipation in South Africa was inevitable and his concept of Nation Building challenged African communities to prepare themselves for freedom by restoring the building blocks of the non-white communities that were destroyed by years of apartheid. The Nation Building PR campaign become synonymous with the early days of the New South Africa, and I knew it was a PR triumph when Mandela and De Klerk regularly referred Nation Building as the need to rebuild every tenet and structure of African society. Many of the Nation Building events I helped establish still operate today.

Soul City – a primary health advocacy campaign disguised in prime-time entertainment. Set in the fictional Soul City Township in South Africa, the TV soap drama mirrored the everyday faced by the desperately poor in township communities. Millions of people in South Africa grew to trust and learn from the not-so-subtle health and life skills messages woven into the stories portrayed by the popular actors on TV and radio series as well a colourful, easy to read comic books distributed in marginalised communities. Being part of the start of this pioneering edutainment programme and the presentation of its success to Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on their visit to South Africa is one of my career highlights.

PFAS – and right now we are helping the NZ strong wool industry to expose the dangers of PFAS chemicals (the asbestos of our time). These “Forever Chemicals” surround us in our homes and are directly linked to a wide range of health and environment issues. There is an immediate need to protect our island nation from the importation of these harmful chemicals that take hundreds of thousands of years to break down.

Pardon the pitch, but do watch Mark Ruffalo’s outstanding film, Dark Waters (streaming on Netflix and Neon) to upskill yourself on this toxic ingredient in everything from paint, nylon carpets, furniture, cosmetics and takeaway food packaging. And here is a link to a recent webinar we hosted for NZ media, academics, industry leaders and government.

Unlike the cliched PR characters portrayed in prime-time entertainment, there is nothing morally ambiguous about these campaigns which are the tip of the iceberg of the hundreds I have been lucky to work on in my fabulous career.

So, does any of Demon in a Dress ring true?

Of course it does!   It is easy to identify with smart, sassy, independent, articulate, and well-dressed women – a description that easily fits my four business partners and the many exceptional women who work at Pead.

And while chain smoking is a thing of the past, we are no strangers to champagne, long lunches, hard work and the occasional promiscuity of liberated women who know what they want. I had a colleague who slept with a client, and then married him, and I had a colleague who wrote a column about the men around town she dated and slept with. It made for more than one column. And where is the monstrosity in that? In fact, these quirks are true for men and women in almost any industry.

The truth is our industry has evolved and I’m not just referring to the shift from media relations to the all-ingredients-cocktail of communications we now use to tell our clients’ story. Our role is not limited to storytelling – we now help our clients fulfil their purpose and transform the world around us.

These perceptions (and some of the actions that founded them) belong to a different time now. The days of spin, excess, flash-cash and gossip pages are giving way to a more serious time, grounded in the stark realities of the world we live in, climate breakdown, inequality, mental health, better health, better nutrition. The PR of tomorrow will focus more on helping clients articulate their purpose and connect with their audience to achieve it.

If we want a better reputation for our industry we can start with recognising and celebrate those campaigns that promote positive change and transform society, not just the ones that sell the most champagne.

[1] Nairn, A., & Bhargava, D. (2021). Demon in a Dress? AnExploration of How Television Programming Conceptualises Female PublicRelations Practitioners as Monsters. M/C Journal24(5). (Original work published October 5, 2021

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