(Part 1 of two parts)
By Gail Kent
The idea of marketing as a spiritual practice may sound like an oxymoron.
For many, images of hawking cure-all tonics, used cars with rolled-back odometers or advertising with the line, “But wait! There’s more!” come to mind.
In fact, there was a time when I didn’t think very kindly of the practice of marketing and PR myself. The idea that it could be a profession where I might gain spiritual growth was far from mind.
Boy was I wrong.
When I was a student at UNC’s highly regarded journalism school several decades ago, my dream was not to become a marketer or a PR practitioner. It was to become a journalist.
It was during the era of Watergate, and I, like thousands of other young people, was mesmerized by hundreds of hours of testimony on TV that threatened to bring down the presidency. All of the drama had been initiated by two inquisitive and relentless reporters at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my life than dedicating it to finding and telling the truth.
Then life happened. After working as a community journalist for five years, I went through a divorce and suddenly became a single mother, and the journalist lifestyle of early deadlines and late night meetings didn’t work for me any longer. I switched gears and went into public relations.
You have to understand – this was a big deal. Journalists – especially prior to the recent collapse of the news business – really thought PR people were huge sell-outs. Reporters called PR people “flacks.” Sometimes, deservedly so. In days past, the industry had a bad reputation because of some unscrupulous practitioners who would do or say anything to get their clients or bosses positive coverage, including buying advertising to get coverage (called “pay to play”) and flat-out lying.
When I was a reporter, I dealt with two kinds of PR people. The first sent you bad press releases on non-stories and harassed you when you didn’t run them, and their bosses were never available when you needed to ask them questions. Then there were the PR folks that stopped what they were doing to track down information for a deadline story, even when it wasn’t necessarily going to make them look good.
You were much more likely to pay attention to the second kind of PR people, however, when they called with a story idea because they were pros. I decided that when I switched fields, I would be like the second type of PR person, not the first.
I went to work in the PR department of a local hospital, helping it promote its services to the community, editing its newsletters and handling reporters’ queries. Working for a non-profit hospital didn’t sound sleazy. In fact, at times it seemed pretty noble.
But there were still times I felt a twinge of guilt for “selling out,” even though I hadn’t “sold out” in the sense that I had gotten rich as a result of the switch to “the dark side,” as reporters often imagined. I did sometimes miss the adrenaline rush you get on deadline when working for a daily paper – always feeling like you’re in the know.
I gradually got involved in professional organizations for PR folks, the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the Public Relations Association of America (PRSA), and discovered that PR pros are governed by a code of ethics just as journalists and other professionals do.
Professional PR practitioners with integrity don’t engage in dishonest or unethical activities to benefit their clients, such as lying or misrepresentation. All members of PRSA must sign the code of ethics as a requirement of membership, and a membership can be revoked for violation of the code.
Eventually I earned my accreditation through IABC, the global standard of professional achievement for business communicators. Candidates who meet all requirements earn the designation Accredited Business Communicator (ABC).
OK. There’s a huge leap, you may think – and rightfully so – from accepting marketing as an ethical profession and buying it as a spiritual practice. That transition took much longer for me, too. In the next post, I’ll tell you how I came to view it as such.