Modern public relations has, in its own parlance, an image problem. As an investigation copublished by the Columbia Journalism Review and ProPublica put it, the industry was literally birthed from a train wreck. In 1906, ex-reporter Ivy Lee preempted media investigations into an Atlantic City train accident by issuing a statement about the accident to reporters on behalf of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The New York Times printed verbatim what would later be regarded as the first press release. Since then, public relations (often broadly referred to as “communications”) as a practice has expanded to comprise almost sixty thousand workers, and intersects nearly every other industry. Though the addition of technologies such as social media and mass email distribution have added new layers of specialized labor to the sector, the fundamental premise of PR has remained relatively unaltered since its conception: Hired to promote products and people, publicists exist to solicit positive media coverage for their clients.
Now outnumbering journalists four to one, publicists are an omnipresent component of the machinery that powers creative industries like fashion, arts, and publishing, and increasingly also play central roles in social-justice movements. Though organizations such as Free Press and writers like Robert McChesney have led the charge in asserting that the proliferation of these spin doctors constitutes an insidious and growing threat to journalism and democracy, few have bothered to analyze the gendered split between journalists and publicists. In stark contrast to newsrooms, in which women have never exceeded 38 percent, public relations operates as a solidly pink-collar sector of the creative industries and comprises a labor force that is currently over 85 percent female.
The palpable distaste for PR practitioners that continues to swell — spearheaded by the very same members of the media with whom publicists theoretically enjoy a symbiotic relationship — requires, then, a deeper look at how gendered assumptions about work continue to shape our contemporary notions of creative labor under capitalism.
The day-to-day of PR work ranges from producing press releases to manning social media accounts to planning events, but the crux of publicity is the establishment of relationships with the press. Networking with relevant editors and journalists is an essential component of PR, and includes attending industry parties, arranging pitch meetings or getting drinks with influential members of the press, and, in the case of the bigger-budgeted, company-sponsored lunches and dinners, to woo the aforementioned influencers.
In PR, a certain overlap of professional and personal relationships is not only likely, but ideal. As former beauty PR manager Mackenzie Lewis noted in an interview on The Hairpin,
A big part of public relations is building relationships between your brand and the media. Because brands are built by humans and humans run the media, this relationship . . . often boils down to your run-of-the-mill work friendship. When I was in PR, I had an expense account and a quota of breakfast/lunch/dinner or drink “meetings” I had to go out on each week (seriously). We didn’t have new products launching that often, so I wasn’t always there to pitch a specific story. A lot of times I was there to get to know the editor better so that pitching her in the future would be easier for both of us: I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable calling her and I’d already know how and what she likes being pitched. But, like with other work acquaintances, if you go out for company-sponsored cocktails enough it’s easy to become fast friends. When you inevitably get to the stage where you’re sharing boyfriend drama, it’s not awkward to start a phone call with “I need a favor . . .”
Though this elision of work and friendship is necessary for effective PR, it also forms the basis of what people find questionable about the profession. In response to Lewis’s description, her interviewer stated, “It’s unfair to the readers not to disclose which products are great and which are there as the result of a friendship. Which is the thing that gets to me, it all seems so phony.” Phoniness is a criticism leveled again and again at PR as a practice that, after all, necessitates an expression of enthusiasm for a product because of pay rather than passion.
The notion of PR as an insidious corporate apparatus designed to pull wool over consumers’ eyes is so widespread that “flack,” once a term that merely denoted a public relations professional, has transformed into an overwhelmingly disparaging synonym for any huckster. Given that the end goal of PR is company or client gain, a healthy suspicion of publicity materials is only reasonable. But so often these misgivings manifest as indictments of the publicist and her work, rather than of the neoliberal economy that enables and necessitates this form of labor. And this is especially troubling given the disproportionate presence of women in PR. With the already high numbers of women in PR continuing to climb, Ragan Communications, a news resource for PR professionals, conducted a video interview with several senior-level publicists to discuss the source of this burgeoning “pink ghetto.” As is the case with most other forms of gendered work, assumptions about women’s “natural” traits guided the discussion.
“Women are passionate about communication, and passionate about connecting!” chirped Nora Walsh, Director of PR at the Pierre Hotel. “Women are good at multitasking,” Gemma Craven of the PR firm Ogilvy & Mather added. “That’s one of those myths that is true. . . . It’s just the way women are. The brain of a man is very different than that of a woman. It’s the way we evolved as human beings.” When her interviewer pressed for an elaboration of these differences, she explained, “Men go into one topic in much more depth. . . . If you think about it, there’s many women PRs but many more male journalists, with deep expertise in one subject.” She concluded with a rueful smile, “That’s just my opinion — it’s not based in any science!”
Communication and multitasking, of course, are precisely the “soft skills” of emotional labor that define the post-Fordist work environment, especially within majority-women professions. In The Managed Heart, now the reference text on emotional labor, Arlie Hochschild describes this work as that which “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Along with flight attendants, waitresses, and care workers, among many others, publicists exchange affect for wages — specifically in the form of networking with colleagues, pitching media, and managing clients. According to Hochschild, successful iterations of emotional labor require “deep acting,” or a significant degree of identification with one’s emotional performance. The constant negotiation between one’s work role and one’s own feelings that all emotional labor necessitates enacts a psychological toll on workers.
Because emotional labor can quickly lead to burnout, Hochschild notes that it requires a certain degree of disengagement to remain sustainable. As Hochschild explains of one coping mechanism, “To keep on working with a sense of honor a person has to stop taking the job seriously. . . . The only way to salvage a sense of self-esteem, in this situation, is to define the job as ‘illusion making’ and to remove the self from the job, to take it lightly.” Publicists are similarly told to “depersonalize,” not to take rejection from editors to heart, not to let it get under their skin when angry clients berate them, and to maintain a cheerful disposition. This disengagement, though necessary for self-preservation, is also what often provokes the ire of editors and writers.
Journalists frequently take to Twitter to express frustration with the “bad” or insincere pitches they receive. Among media circles, a feminist journalist bemoans the fact that she’s received several weight-loss press releases in the lead-up to Thanksgiving. An arts and entertainment writer quips, “There are literally ten out of infinity publicists who do a good job.” This hostility has also seeped into less ephemeral media forms, including Gawker’s PR Dummies series, a recurring column that skewers the most banal or vapidly worded press releases that reach their editorial inboxes, and entire articles published by other prominent news outlets that serve no purpose other than to skewer subpar publicity work.
In one such example, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias described opening with excitement a press release ostensibly about new episodes of TV shows New Girl and The Mindy Project. To his dismay, however, they were actually promotional materials for luggage tags, nebulously linked to the aforementioned shows with the throwaway line that the main characters in the shows, as young professional women, were “always on the go.” Yglesias’s piece then proceeded to refute the line by demonstrating the ways in which the characters were not on the go (unemployed, couch potato), concluding, “The cupboard of clichés just seems perhaps a little too thin for publicists to come up with anything better.”
The Awl ran a longer iteration of this complaint by Adam Plunkett, an assistant literary editor at the New Republic, titled “The Stupid Online Marketing of Stupid Books.” In the piece, Plunkett described being deluged by press releases for pulpy romances and self-help books, materials which ascribed wildly inflated adjectives such as “exceptional” and ludicrous turns of phrase like “often shocking but never gratuitous” to the products advertised. Plunkett used this “bad” work to reaffirm his own position as a cultural gatekeeper, stating, “Nearly all the PR e-mails show the publicists in the dubious position of applying the logic of digital marketing, which knows that everyone’s dumb and impulsive, to a group of people occupationally devoted to refining their readers’ tastes at least enough to read books in the first place.”
In parallel if less explicitly hostile attempts to combat the flood of unwanted PR, outlets such as Mashable, Mediabistro, and xoJane have published articles such as “The Dos and Don’ts of Pitching Journalists” and “5 Things PR Does That Piss Off Media.” However, when PR Newser, sub-site of Mediabistro subsite ran a response called “11 Things the Media Does That Piss Off PR,” the backlash was swift. Though the list identified mostly rude and dismissive behavior toward PRs by journalists — such as “answering the phone like a jerk” and “forgetting the client’s name during an interview — Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times, smirked on Twitter, “I am not sorry about most of these things.” David Herndon, a video coordinator for Downriver, Michigan’s The News-Herald, further huffed, “I’m serving the public, not the PR lacky’s best interest.”
These examples all shed instructive light on the position of the publicist’s labor in the creative industries. Often, ill-written press releases come under fire for being useless or inappropriate to the recipient. But these “bad” press releases still literally form the basis on which writers are able to produce work. Taken into consideration with the sobering statistic that 60 percent of news nowadays comes from the government, 23 percent from PR firms, and a mere 14 percent from journalists themselves, it’s clear that however irritating unsolicited press releases may be to the discerning literary editor or culture writer, they are largely a successful means of conveying information to media. That an increasing portion of news is made up of PR is naturally cause for concern. But centering one’s outrage for this incursion on the publicist who is doing her job seems to sidestep the larger problem, and in fact obscures another insidious component of the neoliberal work environment that guides the creative industries.
When writers attack bad PR, the unspoken heart of their criticism is the failure on the part of the publicist to adequately conceal that she is performing emotional work for money. The creative industries, so often seen as a liberatory alternative to the corporate grind, trade on the passion of their workers. People forgo higher salaries and better employer-sponsored benefits for work that is stimulating, flexible, and aligned with their personal interests. As the wisdom goes, one should pursue creative interests for love and not for money. So the idea of performing passion for a wage becomes especially anathema, and the phoniness of PR work is used as a foil for the more authentic work of the writer or editor. (In his Awl piece, Plunkett makes it a point to note that no book-review editor goes into the field for money.) Though the sentiment seems, on its face, a gesture toward rejecting estranged labor, under capitalism, privileging the work of the artist over that of the person who promotes the art relies on gendered conceptions of what constitutes valuable work, and furthermore supplements a neoliberal work ethic that demands an absolute identification with one’s employer and neglects the fight for better wages or shorter days in exchange for prestige or passion. Publicity, therefore, is not so much a corrupt form of work as it is a symptom of the way that neoliberalism structures all work.
We should concern ourselves with the plight of the publicist because what is demanded of her is exactly that which is increasingly demanded of all knowledge workers under neoliberalism. Though women still disproportionately fill professions like PR in which emotional labor plays a central role, the white-collar work order requires of most not only a specific workplace affect (usually known as “professionalism”) but also an identification — or, at the very least, the appearance of identification — with one’s employer.
In times of recession, when jobs disappear, these affective requirements tend to intensify. Time magazine recently highlighted a study in which a number of employers cited millennials’ lack of “soft skills” as the cause for youth unemployment, but as Demos blogger Matt Bruenig pointed out, these are precisely the stringent standards that employers can ask for when the labor supply is in abundance. Bruenig notes that “in a robust economy with sufficient aggregate demand that is operating at full capacity and full employment, you will not find employers turning people away on the claim that they lack team-playerness. If this is not totally made up, it is a luxury of a period where there is a huge stock of surplus labor to draw upon.” If all workers are increasingly subject to these requirements, the dismissal of the publicist as a corporate shill or a purveyor of a kind of false consciousness that interferes with the otherwise unsullied work of the journalist not only reifies a gendered hierarchy of labor, but additionally eclipses the primacy of emotional labor for all workers under neoliberalism.
A study released in March 2013 by the American Psychological Association identified women aged 18–33 as the most stressed demographic in the US. In their coverage of the report, the Guardian noted, “Women in the survey reported feeling less valued than their male coworkers, less satisfied with their salaries, less likely to agree that their ‘employer provides sufficient opportunities for internal career advancement.’” The women polled in the study reported anxiety, sleep disorders, and alcohol abuse as consequences of unrelenting workplace pressure.
Around the same time the report was published, another article on essentially the same predicament was making the rounds. Presented as a style section piece on youth issues, Todd Wayne’s much-circulated “The No-Limits Job” in the New York Times highlighted the increasing struggles of would-be upwardly-mobile college graduates attempting to cultivate careers in creative fields, all of whom were required to endure long hours and meager pay to enter their chosen industries. With the exception of Intern Nation author Ross Perlin — who weighed in as an expert rather than one of the exploited, noting that young people trying to enter creative fields were increasingly “convinced to invest themselves body and soul” in their labor — Wayne’s interview subjects were all women. Few commentators bothered to notice. In the now typical knee-jerk lambasting of style-section musings on millennials, Wayne’s piece and the entry-level workers profiled therein were met with smug disdain. Honing in on the plight of one of the women interviewed in the piece — a twenty-eight-year-old book publicist who found herself working well over forty hours per week and tethered to her Blackberry even in her ostensible downtime — Gawker writer Max Rivlin-Nadler sneered, “Ah, pity the publicist. Wait. No, don’t. Publicists are awful.”
Publicity, like all emotional labor, is grueling and mostly thankless work. This year, PR ranked fifth on CareerCast’s annual list of the ten most stressful jobs in the US (coming in not far after military personnel and firefighters). Publicists work long days, often putting in eight hours or more at the office, then overseeing events or attending networking functions in the evenings, which can skew their hourly earnings below minimum wage, especially for entry-level employees. According to Fortune magazine, publicists make 75 percent less than advertising executives — their closely related but decidedly less pink-hued counterparts. As the magazine further elaborates, “In popular culture, ad execs are immortalized with powerful characters like Mad Men’s Don Draper, who positions Kodak’s slide projector for success in part by single-handedly christening it the ‘Carousel,’ while PR execs are portrayed by characters like Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones, who seem to do nothing but throw parties for a living.” The problem, however, isn’t just misconception — it’s also the failure to recognize that “throwing parties” (shorthand for the process of booking a venue, organizing entertainment, negotiating payments, securing media coverage, sending invites, monitoring the door, attending to guests, and overseeing cleanup) is still labor.
To ask that publicists do better, then, is to demand a speedup of their affective labor. It also indicates a failure to recognize that, as Hochschild explains in The Managed Heart, one mode by which emotional laborers can resist overwork is through a reinvention of the industrial slowdown. Hochschild turns to flight attendants as a case study, noting that in the response to the increasing numbers of passengers and reduction of downtime in the 1970s, United Airlines flight attendants enacted emotional labor slowdowns by pushing the limits of workplace dress code with casual shoes or extra jewelry, or smiling less broadly at passengers. It’s similarly conceivable that PRs, in response to the overwhelming demands of the job, may resist through the “bad” work that so many criticize, including mass-blasting releases instead of carefully researching and deferentially pitching individual journalists.
As the conditions of the publicist increasingly overlap with those of all knowledge workers, people in every profession should recognize and confront the demands of affective labor as their own, rather than setting them up in opposition to “real” work.