Every Thursday night until 10 pm, I’m in the belly of a dingy basement of a distant exclave university building. It truly is a dismal structure. The walls are a bland off-white and the fluorescent lights flicker ominously. Around the corner, I run into the night custodian, a mysterious man with an eye-patch whom I have developed an elaborate backstory for (let’s just say that a hostage situation with a Kyrgyzstani went horribly wrong). But alas, I’m not in this hellish academic islet by choice, at lease not by direct choice. I’m in a course called Issues and Image Management – basically public relations, not-so-basically how to fix the public image and perception of shitty people and shitty corporations who claim profit and revenue to be their only driving force. I’ve learned a lot from this class, mostly that I hate PR and have no place in it, but I find some of these lessons applicable to the bigger picture, the only picture I care about.
So an organization finds itself in a bit of a bind. They decide they’re simply not making enough money, and they want more. But the interest or demand for their product is substandard at best. This is where Issues & Image Management comes in. Publicists are hired to make a company’s image or product seem highly desirable, and they inject positive exposure through all sorts of media and channels to ensure an organization has solid standing among its audiences and that they’re reaching their most profitable and engaged target. Before this becomes tangential, allow me to say that PR can be largely advantageous – it’s a work sector responsible for thousands of jobs, and it’s just one of the moving parts of a corporation that keeps the money flowing, which in turn creates more jobs and puts food on thousands of tables. There is such a thing as PR with integrity, but the code of ethics only extends so far when millions of dollars are being spent and absorbed and much is at stake. It’s their job to make sure that the largely naive and impressionable public approves and adopts a brand/product/organization’s catchy schtick. This typically equals moneyz for everyone at the top. Lots of them.
But how do they go about their sneaky craft and Mephistophelian trickery? Every PR campaign must define a problem, research the problem, and then determine measurable objectives that would also satisfy the client. Then, a plan must be implemented to meet these objectives. It’s an ongoing process that is constantly subject to minor or major adjustments. And when shit hits the fan – and it will if an organization is opaque, dishonest, and disgustingly greedy (many are) – PR is also there to manage the crisis, and convert negative albeit correct public perceptions into positive albeit misinformed ones.
As you can see, I love PR. But can I take away anything from this stupid class? The professor talks in circles, and he discusses corporations like they’re people. For my sake – I’m a dreamer and I can’t take this shit anymore – this is where the bigger picture comes in, an outlook that I believe has a home in every miniscule aspect and detail about life:
A campaign and its objectives are like a person’s goals in life. The inspiration to do better, become better, and instigate change often are born out of a crisis, a problem, or a simple realization that our short time on this earth needs to be conducted by what we want to do, not what we are expected to do. A lot of us determine what we’re interested in, what it is precisely that would make us feel happy and accomplished. So we identify a problem then concoct a solution. We dream and we research. We Google. We then devise a plan for ourselves; the most successful life-PR campaigns see immediate action, but plans can also take the form of a bucket-list or a “by the time I’m 30….” list. Unlike some plans, these lists are fantastic ideas. People with bad plans would cite that they want to be married with kids by a certain age or find a boyfriend or girlfriend by a specific time, flexibility and unpredictability be damned. These are terrible plans because their success is dependent on externalities completely out of their control. You can’t find “the one” like you can decide to go skydiving on a certain day. Good lists are about things you can decide and make happen at your own resolve because then there’s no stopping you from completing them. They capture and revolve around inner happiness and fulfillment. And like a great PR plan, a great life plan needs to be flexible, open to adjustment and the realization that life seldom never operates according to your blueprint, hence the importance of recognizing what you can control and what you cannot. PR strategy is a brilliant theoretical institution in this way. But considering its primary use of increasing revenue for people who don’t need it, I’d argue PR hasn’t reached its full potential in terms of meaningful helpfulness and purpose.
While cleaning my room, I found a crumpled piece of paper hidden by a dirty sock:
This was a plan that I had penned compulsively a few years ago in a dirty late-night diner with some friends. It’s a specific plan with a specific time limit – where I came up with 38, I’ve no idea, but I’ll take it – and I smile and applaud my past-self for being so completely and utterly boss. My past handwriting hardly resembles my present-day writing; if it weren’t for the epic bullet points and the fact that I found the paper on the floor, I couldn’t claim it as my own. A minor nominal tweak gives the list a new personal touch. I’m happy I’m always writing things down – I’m more likely to be reminded of the strange and awesome shit that finds a place in the far corners of my brain.
Now to evaluate, because a successful PR campaign must measure objectives, evaluate the plan, and determine where adjustments are necessary:
#1: Almost there! All I need is french. Not only does every poly-linguist speak french, I love how it sounds, it’s widely used, and I would be able to understand Edith Piaf without looking up the lyrics.
#2: Coming along swimmingly, and I still have time left. Australia, Africa, & Antarctica still elude me.
#3: The Ducati fund is growing, ever so slowly.
#4: What about, though? Most memoirs are stupid and self-indulgent. Non-fiction would be the best choice for me.
#5: Ah! The targets constantly change. Target countries include but are not limited to: France, Argentina, Japan, Italy, China, Tanzania, Australia, Thailand…
#7: Have a successful blog. As far as I’m concerned, #7 is already crossed off. I would deem a successful blog one that I’m happy with, and The Squeaky Robot does much more than let my family know I’m alive when I’m abroad. It’s a much-needed outlet. It’s one of my favorite hobbies. It helps me immortalize fleeting memories and thoughts. And I’m happy with it. CHECK.
#8: What was I thinking clumping these things together??? I don’t know what I’d go to grad school for yet, but it will definitely be in Europe. Maybe France. Three birds with one stone. I already went skydiving outside of Cordoba in Argentina, and I narrowly missed the opportunity to go bungee jumping in the Himalayas. Next time!
#9: Life is great, dogs make it better. Good choice, past me. Good choice.
#10: I like to think I’m a little wiser now than I was in June 2009. AND I STILL THINK THIS IS A BRILLIANT IDEA. I used to think having a pilot’s license was something reserved for eccentric millionaires. I still kind of think that. Whatever, the heart wants what it wants.
Three years in, 17 years left, and I’ve made impressive progress. I’m going to buy myself a present.
If you look closely, #10 originally noted: “Find happiness”. I am ecstatic that I was wise enough three years ago to cross this bullshit out. You “find” a worm under a rock or keys in a pocket; happiness is something you create. I realized then that by pursuing this list as well as all of my other dreams/goals/endeavors, I’d be happy by default. And I am.
The measurable objectives aspect of PR is crucial. A success must be denoted with statistics and numbers in order to provide data that would presumably prove the value of a certain publicist and their plan, and to ensure that an organization is going in the right direction. When I’m 105 years old, sitting on my front porch in a small crater on the moon, I want to look back on my life and know it was a success. I could do this of course just by feeling it and reminiscing (I eat enough berries to ward off dementia for the whole population of Monaco), but my lists – like the one I drafted on prom night – would serve to remind me of my accomplishments and experiences. I’d survey all the checks on the list, the crossed-off scribbles, and know for sure that my life wasn’t a waste, that I lived freely and truly, and that I successfully navigated the labyrinth despite the enormous challenge, despair, and adversity. When the air-filled-dome that surrounds my house dramatically cracks, I would die happy, knowing that I squeezed every last drop of awesomeness that I possibly could out of life, that the consequences of my actions were worthwhile and the stories left for my grandchildren worthwhile to hear.
My life goals are like bacteria multiplying. The longer I exist on this planet, the more I discover, the more I uncover, the more I dream and aspire. Because of this, the lists and goals grow substantially every day. Sometimes I worry I can’t catch up. Sometimes I feel like I’ll be in the belly of this basement forever, bound by the rigid chains of structured academia until the very conclusion of my short existence. Then I remember how everything is temporary, and that I’ll actually be free sooner than I think. I think we’re all freer than we think.
And with that, the world of strategic communications and the actual world find some common ground. What’s more, who knew that Issues and Image Management could enrich my life and quantify my experience? I’ll drink to that.
My professor is giving me the evil eye. He hates it that I never pay attention and that I put more effort in my doodles than in his class (which says a lot, given the amount of effort in my doodles). He hates it even more when he asks for my input to prove that I’m mentally absent, but I always have an intelligent retort under my belt that manages to further class discourse. Then I simply go back to my Internetz browsing. Leave me out of this silly class, please. He likes to think that with current case studies, graphs, and formulas, he teaches us about PR, but all I’ll walk away knowing is that PR is where integrity and true prosperity go to die – positively trampled by the dollar and tossed aside by the ceaseless thirst of consumerism and greed. As such, I need to get my tuition back somehow, and I can’t do this by knocking on the Dean’s door and going: “I can haz moneyz plz for stoopid kurikulumz?”, but by applying course materials to things I care about and to things that matter.
The semester is coming to an end. This is actually my last class, in this distant exclave of a building where mysterious custodians linger in dark corners. On the course evaluation, under the ‘what did you take away section’, Squeaky Robot writes:
Be a boss. Life’s too short to sit in a belly of a basement. Thank god it’s time to leave.
Take that in whatever way you want.
EDIT: An afterthought made me realize something. I’m not sure if for #8 on the list, I meant graduate school or go to graduate school. I have no idea which one I meant. Oh well.