January 11, 2010
1 Comment

Are PR people incorrigible gossips?

My wife said the other day that “PR people are such gossips!” Is it possible that she could be right?

At first, I pooh-poohed the idea, perhaps reflecting the conceit of a profession where supposedly the ability to keep confidences well is one of our distinguishing characteristics. After all, PR people have historically been the staunch enforcer of the embargo and the trusted custodians of news secrets (the strategic ‘leaking’ of which this article in The Financial Times says may have gotten out of hand).

Now, there is a difference between being a small-time gossip and breaching confidentiality big-time, but I suppose not enough of one to challenge the basis of my spouse’s contention because the two are such interrelated phenomena.

The number of PR people I would 100% trust to absolutely, positively maintain discretion no matter what is fairly compact. On the other hand, I’ve often been amazed at how often I’ve sought and secured solemn pledges of confidentiality before sharing sensitive information, only to find out later on that the secret was spilled to others under similar (in)secure conditions.

Indeed, when it comes to confidentiality in PR, the extent of hypocrisy can be breathtakingly pervasive. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard senior PR executives criticize others for a lack of discretion while evidencing a conspicuous lack of it themselves.

Why might it be that PR people are prone to promiscuous information-sharing practices?

One theory is that because we are under so much pressure to always keep information under wraps (until the right time for it to become ‘public’), in private there’s a corresponding need to feel less repressed by acting more liberally. Or maybe it’s because we have grown so adept at sharing stories with others (trafficking information to the right people at the right time), it has become habit-forming and we’ve just become too turned-on when it comes to spreading salacious things around. Another explanation is that there’s a lack of ample formal sanction in PR against such behavior; unlike lawyers, PR people cannot be drummed out of the profession for breaching confidentiality because our industry doesn’t yet have a mandatory professional credential (like attorneys and accountants, for example). That said, if someone is addicted to shooting their mouth off, word spreads informally and the repeat offender gets frozen out of the loop.

Perhaps because PR people have become arguably the world’s most powerful information workers, the information we have — which is scarce and exclusive — might be what makes PR people feel more powerful. Often ignored by media and under the client thumb, I can understand how some PRs seek that sensation.

I think Dr. Robert Cialdini’s findings on the self-interested nature of information-sharing may be the most compelling explanation: “The persuasive power of exclusivity can be harnessed by any manager who comes into possession of information that’s not widely available and that supports an idea or initiative he or she would like the organization to adopt.”

Perhaps PR folks are no different than anyone else when it comes to these modern ‘transparent’ trends. This is, after all, the age of social networks and with rising acceptance of less privacy and more ‘Re-Tweeting,’ I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised by a shrinking domain of trusted private disclosure and an enlarged sphere of public information.

Still, what a wonderful feeling when you know — through repeated confidence-building experience — that you can trust certain individuals with your reputation. The good thing is that word of how they can keep secrets well also spreads like wildfire, with such people enjoying all kinds of reputation benefits (e.g. being widely known as an executive of high caliber and sound character).

1 Comment
  1. some people are in their elements in a sanitized environment where secrets would destroy their future opportunities to gather trivial details which they want to nibble at from time to time . However, malicious the after effects might seem to be in retrospect the beginnings are perhaps innocuous!

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