Posted by Amanda Chapel
PR Industry All Smiles for Smiley
Remember two years ago when Bill Cosby delivered an almost totally inappropriate rant at the NAACP gala marking the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling? Honest he was, but what an explosive nightmare. Well, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley did just that to the PR industry at the 2006 International Conference of the Public Relations Society of America. Yiiish! Smiley prefaced his keynote with this caveat, "I don’t know how you judge public speakers, but if I go hear someone in a public space... if I personally am not unsettled by the presentation... then the speaker failed." Smiley delivered.
First, a little perspective: what constitutes "nightmare"? Well, certainly, there are degrees of unsettling. Person and context are key.
With regard to person: On the low end of the scale, there's mom kinda poignant: "Honey, that scarf doesn't go with that coat." Or, "are you going to put a comb through that hair before you go out dear?" Pokes for sure but readily manageable, i.e. with a decent therapist. Mothers. I am told it's because she love me.
But then there are criticisms from non-relative friends. They're hard.
And then there are criticisms from stranger guests. EXCUSE ME! YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THIS SCARF PAL! YOU WANNA PIECE OF ME!!
All right, now for context: Can you imagine my reaction when my former husband invited his buddy over for dinner who proceeded to tell me that the "chicken was a little rubbery"? Arrrgh. Alright how bout this: can you imagine the minister's invocation at the 29th Annual Lifestyles Convention at the Hilton in Reno. All hell and damnation, fifteen-hundred plus bare-naked butts squirming in their seats. But then there's the almost unimaginable: How 'bout a Don Rickles-like caustic comedian doing gay jokes at the Annual Meeting for the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Not cool.
Frankly, the last example is beyond inappropriate. It's totally taboo. Not only is it politically incorrect, it's not something the audience can do anything about. Joke or no joke, you cannot call people out for something that's culturally or physically engrained. Unsettling for sure, but that's all. The potential to motivate change is unrealistic. Some would call it cruel.
COSBY IN FRONT OF THE NAACP
SMILEY IN FRONT OF PRSA
Now keep in mind the degree of outrage and discussion Cosby remarks caused. PR, not so much.
PR industry monitor Jack O'Dwyer had this to say: "There was about zero reporting on what Tavis said. Tavis reamed them out and they don’t even know it. These people congenitally cannot take bad news."
But on the official Conference Blog, Laurel O'Brien, APR, spun it this way: "What a way to open the conference! Tavis Smiley brought everyone to their feet with his message of love and service. The evening ended with a bang – the opening night gala featured amazing acrobatics by gymnasts, skiers, and snow boarders. And I connected with old friends, new friends, and colleagues. Can’t wait to see what Monday brings!"
Hmmmmmm. "Stop the spinning." Is that even possible? Can't wait to see what tomorow brings. :(
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As a PR pro yourself you have many times demonstrated your own skill at presenting select portions of information to support a position.
Laurel's recap of the day was only a little less pathetic then how you presented it. You omitted this little bit, which is weak, but does acknowledge the bias many of us suffer from to find the answer we want in whatever it is we are analyzing...
"More importantly, I know I will be challenged by practitioners who will take me out of my own confirmation bias. And isn’t that ultimately the reason to attend a conference?"
Laurel's recap and mine aren't even comparable. I quote Tavis in detail and put it in context. The quote "I know I will be challenged by practitioners who will take me out of my own confirmation bias," does NOT dilute her silly "message of love and service." In your words it was "weak." I had already demonstrated that.
But that aside, it is noteworthy that you, too, avoid the issue here. You just tried to spin it... And that is exactly what Tavis warned against. Here: "PR has gotten a bad name as a profession. It’s been sullied, demonized, and devalued and it’s time to stop the spin."
Yours in love and service,
I was intrigued by the racial and gender diversity reports from the conference. I've been working on a blog post in my mind about the lack of diversity in PR for a long time. Anyhow, I picked these stats up on Richard Edelman's blog (always good for a laugh - check out the fawning comments from PR students who want to work for him some day following his keynote - http://www.edelman.com/speak_up/blog/archives/2006/11/hanging_with_th.html)
PRSSA reported approximately 9% of members are African-American and 8% are Hispanic. The same survey shows that 78% of the members are female, a small increase in the male population from previous periods.
I'm waiting to see an exhaustive study by PR Week or an independent pressure group on diversity numbers for the grown ups in PR - I'm guessing it is pretty grim for African Americans across the board and for woman at executive level.