Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Is Everyone's First Job Now Public Relations?

Since I write a blog, I get an amazing number of PR emails. I get emails about books, research findings, new movies, and things like that, but often it's more of a vague invitation to interview a person or write about a thing so people will pay attention to it. For example, I recently got an email line with the subject heading "55% of Sugar daters prefer to meet over coffee for the first date." It's a bit of information, an invitation for an interview, all in the service of publicizing a service for I won't name here since that would be, in effect, providing public relations. These emails are all from senders like "Brianna Smith," PR coordinator for "XYZ media."

I used to be amazed that it was worth the while of so many people to seek out PR from this minor blogger. I know it's all automated, but someone has to click through to my website to find my email address. But as time went on I realized: PR is now everything. PR is getting people interesting enough in your thing so you can do your thing. PR is getting people on board with your start up so you can make a company. PR is getting your side out there, as Amazon did recently when people on Twitter said they should pay their employees more ("No, we're very well-paid," someone was paid to say).

I know PR has always been sort of the essence of capitalism. If you've read Trollope's great Victorian novel "The Way We Live Now," you know that hype has been the linchpin of economic activity for a long time. The novel tells the story of a huge finance boon-doggle in which rich guy August Melmotte uses schemes to increase the share price for a massive railway project -- a project that no one ever really intends to complete, but that everyone wants to profit on through the manipulation of other people's beliefs. It's all a big PR job.

But for a range of complicated reasons, I feel like PR has seeped into everything. Enrollment in the humanities is down, despite the fact that why people believe what they believe has become the main question of the early 21st century -- and despite the fact that employers say that communication and cooperation skills are the skills people need for modern jobs. Everywhere I turn, I hear that we need to do better at PR: Philosophy needs to tell its story, humanities needs to explain and justify itself more effectively, courses need to be advertised, everyone needs to court their alums to give money, so we're not dependent on the money we get from servicing our customers -- that is, from teaching our students.

Now, it feels like it's not only that the goods of a system that have to be advertised, but even the role that a particular person or part plays in the system. Instead of just competition among systems, it's that systems themselves are increasingly based on competition. For example, it used to be that the book industry worked on the concept that a publishing house would have an array of kinds of titles, and they would use the established success of some titles to support the work of less-known authors. Sure, publishing houses competed with one another, but with a house, you could have some judgment calls. Now it just feels like it's just every individual person is evaluated based on their immediate prospect for money-making, so the competition has seeped down, and everyone has to do PR, to convince other people that the thing they're doing is the hip new thing.

At an individual level, as we've discussed before, with the "entrepreneurial self," everyone has to be their own PR person, and whether you are likable has a profound effect on your prospects in life. Likability acts as a conduit for other forms of discrimination like racism and sexism, but it has a dimension all its own: if you're just kind of an unlikeable person, well, too bad for you.

I don't mind doing a bit of PR. But it can't take over everything. How can you have a thing, if all your time is spent on advertising?

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