Lying To Yourself: A New Comms Primer for Founders, Executives, and Companies About to Fuck Up
Part 0: Who This Primer Is For, What It Seeks To Do, and Why I'm Right
“You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at once.” - My Partner, Or Oprah, Depending On Who Is Reading This (Hi, Oprah!)
These letters, as part of Scope Creep, are for people who work with or want to hire comms professionals. Or journalists who want a better understanding of how PR works day-to-day, something I had only a vague sense of when I worked as a journalist. Or for anyone who works in comms who wants to read the things they can't say to their clients. (I see you and salute you.)
(Consider these the first draft for a future PDF or Google doc.)
You should read these Lying to Yourself posts if you are not sure…
…what comms or PR is.
…when you should start spending money on comms.
…how to be a good partner or client to comms.
…whether to hire an in-house comms person or an agency (and when to hire both).
…how to determine if you’re getting your time and money’s worth.
…if you even need comms support in the first place.
I’ve created this primer for several reasons:
To help people, especially founders of growth companies, use comms more effectively—or not at all.
To dispel some common misconceptions.
To concretize my personal approach to the discipline.
To share with my own clients so we can dive into real work more quickly.
To make money by convincing you I am smart. Or at least useful.
Who I Am, What I Know, And Why I Wrote This
This is the part where I start writing in proper paragraphs. Feel free to skip over this section for now. It’s relevant, but only for establishing or improving my reputation in your estimation.
My professional career started in customer service for a large telco. From there, I became a dreadfully inept network engineer. By my mid-20s, armed with zero artistic talent, I knew that I would prefer to be an artist and—not really relatedly—moved to NYC in 2003.
Through boldness and mostly dumb luck, I ended up working as the second solo editor of Gizmodo, the most financially successful publication of Gawker Media, which was then barely a company. (I don’t recall exactly, but I was probably something like the 8th or 10th employee.) Over the next several years, I got caught up in the wave of growth of Web 2.0/New Media, incrementally learning how the greater media world worked along the way.
To the relief of the art world, I became one of a handful of people with lived experience in growing and managing online-only publications at a time when every magazine publisher or brand was rushing to become “digital-first.” I spent the next decade working as a writer, journalist, and editorial business strategist. Mostly the last one—a problem solver—as major publishers like Condé Nast and Hearst hired me to consult on their transition to online-first media, help restructure their newsrooms and hire talent, transition from print to online advertising revenue streams, and navigate the strange new world where readers could leave comments below stories and things could go viral without being in a magazine.
Additionally, I launched or helped grow sites like Kotaku, The Consumerist, and Wirecutter, alongside dozens more that never took off. I hired and managed a couple hundred writers over the years, many of whom made careers of their own in media—perhaps the only real value I ever added to the industry.
After a decade or so, I noticed something: many of my peers became rich and I did not. Some started publications or YouTube channels on their own that they monetized. Some started blog networks funded by VC. Rarely but notably, some used blogging and online media to establish a more lucrative career in an adjacent field like television. A few quit media to go work for startups or at established corporations outside of media. These were things that I had thought were off-limits to people working in journalism. At the time, trying to make a lot of money in internet media was publicly frowned upon—it was very community-minded and utopic—until someone did it anyway and was lauded.
To be clear, I don’t think I deserve to be rich. I am of above average intelligence, below average work ethic, and on the whole have been very lucky to be able to live a middle-class lifestyle doing relatively easy work. But the experience did open my eyes to the reality that norms, even in areas of society that traffic in disambugation or relative truth, are often more fluid than I had presumed.
A gruesome experience managing a newsroom in the center of a controversy found me out of a job and completely disinterested in finding another in media. So I did something I would have never considered just a few years early: I went to work in PR.
Specifically, as a comms strategist: the person who builds the plan to shift a brand’s reputation. (Positively—although if someone would like to hire me to help them tank their own brand’s reputation, that sounds entertaining.)
It turns out that PR can be incredibly fun and, on the whole, more financially stable than media. And while it wouldn’t be fair to say that PR is simply the mirror-world version of journalism, one core goal remains: to get attention.
In the eight years since I allowed myself to slip fully into the warm mud of the corporate swamp, I’ve helped create whole-company comms strategies for Fortune 50 companies, advised and media trained CEOs of publicly-traded companies and startups alike, worked as in-house Head of Comms for mid-sized tech companies, gotten clients on the covers of magazines, helped them build go-to-market strategies down to defining their product roadmap, managed PR around a Super Bowl spot, and even helped clients identify and attract new investment and capital.
I am still not rich. (Although I have owned several nice motorcycles.) Nor have I found a new love in PR. Honestly? I think most of it is a waste of money.
Much of this waste is the fault of the public relations industry. There are overstuffed agencies to keep afloat, jobs to keep, awards to win. Though, funnily enough, for a sector that is generally regarded as “lying-for-money”, my experience is that most comms professionals are far more honest with the public or reporters than with their clients or bosses.
They lie because their clients expect unrealistic results or want success without doing the work. And they lie because no matter how self-defeating a client may be, the PR people still need to get paid.
Client, educate yourself. Be honest about your true motivations. Learn to spot good work and bad work. Be humble enough to recognize that even if you could do your PR by yourself, you might not want to. And together with your comms counterparts or agencies you can get to the job at hand: lying to the media.*
* Just kidding! Mostly. If the only card left to play is lying to reporters, you're probably already fucked.