pcloadletter

Everything I Needed to Know about PR I learned from Office Space

The funniest movie I ever saw is a late 90s geek favorite film Office Space. I know you all have seen it. And if not – put the kids to bed and go watch it now. Really. It’s not only funny, but it might just be the one thing that PR folks need to not be laughed at by social media people. Trust me on this. And to prove my point, I shared these thoughts this past weekend with some really great PR people that are trying to do it effectively in Boston.

You Must Engage the Community

Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager: “Joanna.”
Joanna: “Yeah?”
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager: “We need to talk. Do you know what this is about?”
Joanna: “My, uh, flair?”
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager: “Yeah. Or, uh, your lack of flair. Because, uh, I’m counting and I only see 15 pieces. Let me ask you a question, Joanna. What do you think of a person who only does the bare minimum?”
Joanna: “Huh. What do I thin– Um, you know what, Stan? If you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair like your pretty boy over there, Brian, why don’t you just make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?”
Stan, Chotchkie’s Manager: “Well, I thought I remembered you saying that you wanted to express yourself.”
Joanna: “Yeah. You know what? Yeah, I do. I do wanna express myself. Okay? And I don’t need 37 pieces of flair to do it. (She flips him off) Alright? There’s my flair. Okay? And this is me expressing myself. Okay? (She starts flipping everyone off) There it is. I hate this job! I hate this g*ddamn job, and I don’t need it!”

[listen - Language included, NSFW]

A lot of PR folks these days seem to have the idea that social media is where it’s at amd that they need us to be effective. They are absolutely correct. They know how many pieces of flair are minimum and many PR agencies do a very good job of meeting the minimum standard. They are out there in Technorati and on the blogs finding out what people are saying about their client. Some agencies even have “proprietary market research” software which checks these conversation out for them and spit out nicely collated reports for the board meetings.

However, there are conversations happening that are impossible to index and in some cases even know about while doing “social media drive bys”. They wouldn’t miss these conversations if they were engaged in the community. By engagement, I mean participating.

As a PR person, you have a 9-5 job or whatever it is. How much conversation are you having on your own time just because you love the community? If your answer is not much, you’re only wearing the minimum pieces of flair.

You Don’t Want to Gamble Your Decisions

Michael: “You think the Pet Rock was a really great idea?”
Smykowski: “Sure it was. The guy made a million dollars. You know, I had an idea like that once, a long time ago.”
Peter: “Really, what was it, Tom?”
Smykowski: “Well, alright. It was a ‘jump to conclusions’ mat. You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor and would have different conclusions written on it that you could jump to.”
Michael: “That is the worst idea I’ve ever heard in my life, Tom.”
Samir: “Yes. Yes, it’s horrible, this idea.”

[listen]

The hardest thing for someone who is a relative outsider to a community to do is to break into the community. That’s why it’s important, especially for PR folks, to be smart about how they pitch bloggers, podcasters and other members of the social media. It is far less likely that your client or company will be accepted, for instance, if you blanket social mediaites with press releases and “your message” without taking the time to build community and relationship with them first.

I get half a dozen unsolicited press releases every week and I have yet to offer a bit of coverage for any of them. Without relationship and community, PR messages are likely to fall on deaf ears. Measure your approach. Don’t gamble it away with a “Jump to Conclusions Mat”.

Engage Conversation by Listening First

Peter: “We have to swear to God, Allah, that nobody knows about this but us. Alright? No family members, no girlfriends, nobody.”
Samir: “Of course.”
Michael: “Agreed.”
Lawrence: [from the next apartment through the wall] “Don’t worry, man! I won’t tell anyone either!”
Michael: “What the f*ck is that?”
Peter: “No, don’t worry about him. He’s cool.”

[listen -NSFW]

There’s a tremendous amount of conversation happening everywhere on the net. Notably, blogs are a great place for interaction between companies and customers. Instinctively, PR companies can be a little gun shy about unmetered conversation as it relates to their company. However, this is the essence of transparency, trust and consumer confidence.

Listening is a skill that seems to have gotten lost a lot of the times. My dad uses to tell me that God gave me two ears so I could listen twice as much as I talk. Unfortunately, in todays ad-driven, PR-protectionism market, consumers are told exactly what to believe and traditional mindsets insinuate that we should be realy darn happy that we’ve been “informed”.

People are not stupid, though, and we are capable of making our own rationally (or perhaps irrationally) derived thoughts. Folks in the PR industry should come into the grass-roots mediasphere with the intent that they want to listen and by doing so, earn the trust of those that they are listening to.

Buy In!

Peter: “The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy. It’s that I just don’t care.”
Bob Porter: “Don’t– Don’t care?”
Peter: “It’s a problem of motivation, alright. Now, if I work my a*s off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see a dime. So where’s the motivation? And here’s something else, Bob. I have eight different bosses right now.”
Bob Slydell: “I beg your pardon?”
Peter: “Eight bosses.”
Bob Slydell: “Eight?”
Peter: “Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motvation is not to be hassled. That and the fear losing my job. But you know, Bob, that’ll only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

[listen]

There’s something about complete “buy in” that is reassuring and noticeable. This principle may apply to marketers more than PR folks, but the reality is that honest communication is noticeable and dishonest communication is even more noticeable.

The stereotypical picture is of a slick used car salesman who will sell you a lemon without thinking twice. Unfortunately for the used car salesman, they’ve been made and everyone knows not to trust them before they go in. Particularly savvy customers still go in but with the knowledge of cars and places to look to find out if a car is a lemon before he buys it.

Social media people are naturally cynical of anyone telling them what to believe or think. We don’t like it with the press. We bicker among ourselves when someone slings a little mud. We’re certainly not going to let a PR person pitch us on something that is obviously not bought into by the PR rep. Unfortunately for you guys, we generall can tell. The people who don’t buy in are the ones who are not engaging (#1), who are making drive-by choices (#2) and who don’t want to take the time to get the heartbeat of the community (#3).

Speak Smartly

Milton: “I-I said I don’t care if they lay me off, either. Because, I told– I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time then I’m– I’m quitting– I’m going to quit. And I told Dom too, because they’ve moved my desk four times already this year. And I used to be over by the window and I could see the squirrels and they were married. But then they switched from the Swingline to the Boston stapler. But I kept my Swingline stapler because it didn’t bind up as much and I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler.”
Peter: “Okay, Milton.”
Milton: “And, oh, no, it’s not okay because if they make me– if they– If they take my stapler then I’ll– I’ll have to– I’ll set the building on fire.”
Peter: “Okay’ well, that sounds, uh, that sounds great. Uh, I’ll talk to you later, alright? Bye.”

[listen]

Ah, good old Milton. How could I write an article about Office Space and not mention Milton? :-) Well, as it turns out, Milton too can teach PR folks something about social media. Even though you can’t understand him, Milton has demonstrated why it’s important to speak the language of the audience you are trying to reach. Remember that bloggers may or may not be your target audience. We get bombarded by people wanting us to promote events and get togethers and computers and cameras. The problem is that since you’re not speaking our language, you don’t live in our world – you simply drive through – we are not likely to understand you and you are not likely to speak our language.

Before the building burns down, stop and listen to the folks you are pitching. Don’t just read an About page, but read the blog. Even if you don’t understand it. I’m much more likely to lend opportunities to people who have read my blog and have interacted with me via comment or email.

Most PR is still back a few years trying to catch up. Some PR doesn’t have any concept of social media and, successful or not, are losing time and money because they aren’t engaging the social media centers. If you can follow the Rules of Office Space, you will have a huge lead on competitors and have gained the trust and resperct of those of us operating everyday in the social sense.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

23 thoughts on “Everything I Needed to Know about PR I learned from Office Space

  1. Hey Aaron – good post. Pretty funny actually. As a PR flack myself I totally get what your saying. Since I am originally from that side of the world I can see how the tech/social media community can be turned off by their approach. They are kind of like the popular kids in high school, they only talk with you when they want something. And, when they get it, they go back to ignoring you. What all of this blogging, twittering, networking and podcasting is all about is making real connections and creating a community with people who have similar ideas or tastes.

    Since your from Bodymore, Murderland, I think a quote from Omar is appropriate here:

    “I’ll do what I can to help y’all. But, the game’s out there, and it’s play or get played. That simple.”

    Cheers.

  2. You’re turning me into a Yankee fan with this one ;)

    Just kidding, hot post. I think PR people forget the simple fact that it is a relationship. This shows it to me once again.

  3. Aaron-
    “How much conversation are you having on your own time just because you love the community? If your answer is not much, you’re only wearing the minimum pieces of flair.”

    So well said. Really, I think the problem is that there are people in all areas of business and industry, including PR, who are on the Web because it’s trendy and employers are pushing them to “join the conversation.” But if you’re not really invested, if you don’t have at least a few communities on the Web already that you genuinely feel personally connected with, you’ll never understand why spam and flash and trash outreach is offensive.

    At the end of the day, developing a relationship in new media has the same core principles as developing a relationship with friends, family and colleagues offline. The friend that only shows up when she wants something will very quickly offend me into not listening anymore.

    PR practitioners do have something of value to offer the community. We have an intimate connection with the goings-on of companies. The trick is finding the people in the community who’d really appreciate being brought in and engaged as insiders in the company rather than finding out who are the most influential bloggers in a client’s market and sending out an impersonal pitch. It should be no surprise that no one likes to be treated like a metric, the value of their interaction measured at the end of the day by impressions and reach.

  4. I bow to your usage of Office Space to make relevant and meaningful points… Personally, I think the “Buy In!” point is the most important. If people buy into the concept, organization, etc, they’ll learn the other things. If they’re not committed/convinced, the other stuff is irrelevant.

  5. I bet it took you a while to write this lengthy post with all of those quotes. I don’t usually like the Hollywood movies, but Office Space was a classic.

    I love Michael Bolton’s music by the way :P

  6. Can you hear it…that’s a standing ovation. It getting frustrating being a PR dude when each day we are seeing more and more examples of ineffective communications. Perhaps this post will help reach some folks, but I’m glad that I know a lot of those same great Boston PR folks…they keep me inspired.

    Thanks Aaron!
    /kff

  7. “So, uh, Milton has been let go?”

    “We always like to avoid confrontation, whenever possible. Problem is solved from your end.”

    PR guys need to understand that when social media stuff goes out, it’s not a one-off event that they can wipe their hands clean of. You need a contingency plan for when your client or company when things go catastrophic (hello Sony PSP, Walmart).

  8. Great post. Aaron love your writing style. Amanda you say it all and so well. There’s nothing like directness and honesty. Social media reminds me of the handshake days of conducting business. Congratulations and thanks to all who work to bring this back to the world via the blogosphere.

  9. The funny thing is, everyone (competent) in PR understands that you have to develop relationships with the media. Carpet bombing with irrelevant press releases doesn’t cut it. And everyone (competent) in communications knows that it’s all about your audience. Different audience, different rules. But for some reason, social media throws an unhittable curve ball to 99% of professional communications folks.

    Works out well for me, since I’m aiming to get a gig working that 1%.

  10. This is a great article Aaron! I have a degree in PR and now work as a PR professional for an internet marketing company who is finally starting to divulge into social media. The idea behind grass-roots campaigns and listening to your audience is the most important aspect of Social Media campaigns. Traditional PR doesn’t work in this environment and PR people need to realize that. Once again, great article!

  11. I guess the real point of the movie was the question they asked. “What would you do if you had a million dollars?”

    Obviously, most people would not choose to be a corporate drone.

    So would you really choose a job to manipulate people’s opinions to the extent that you make some people think that something that is really crap is a diamond?

  12. Yeah, Peter, I’m gonna need you to come in on Sunday too…
    Lumberg is the client (all your clients) who needs you to work for him all the time (by buying into the value of his product – all the time), not just when pitching the “story of his company” to some blogger or press person.

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