Confessions of an incurable PR hack

By Stuart Wade

Published October 3, 1996 7:05PM (EDT)

Call me Conrad. I'm a recovering publicist. My dark journey into the heart of Hype began during college, where several of my classmates got me into recreational Public Relations. On campus we mastered ways to transform the bland into the newsworthy ("The Commons: Not Just for Moody Loners"). It was there that I first became intoxicated with the power to persuade.

Soon, however, I craved stronger disinformation. I took a job with a large publicity agency. It was the 80s, the Golden Age of Creative Fabrication, and the PR soil had never been so fertile. And the women! Let's just say that "Hype" and "Hot Babes" go hand in hand, much the same way that USA Today fits perfectly with "Entertainment Tonight."

Curiously, many of my female colleagues decorated their agency offices with the same questionable artwork and table lamps favored by their hotel-chain client. Hopped up on Diet Coke and MSG, these beguiling Women with Lamps and I would work 80-hour weeks, churning out one-sided corporate doublespeak bereft of actual news (a "press release" in PR vernacular) and client-commissioned video we'd send to TV stations, who'd air our footage, passing it off as actual stories (known on the street as a "video news release").

Those were heady, bittersweet years, but my Hype tolerance skyrocketed. Agency paraphernalia -- including a mainframe, e-mail, ten fax machines, updated media lists and high-profile clients with huge budgets -- meant we were pushing uncut pabulum to key members of the media. It was too late --I'd bathed my synapses in hyperbole until my conscience became numb. I had developed a nasty Hype Jones.

The Point of No Return

As the years rolled by I spun out of control. I had to get help.

So I checked myself into the clandestine but highly effective La Vie sans Marketing. Controversial because of its shadowy director and secretive methods, the remote, tropical clinic was pure hell. Some days I lay paralyzed in bed till noon, seized with the uncontrollable urge to fax dozens of reporters page after page of vacant but happy drivel. And there were nights I'd awaken in a cold sweat muttering aloud, "I'll get back to you on that."

But the clinic saved me. My deprogramming began with the "Name the HiddenAgenda)" intervention program, enabling the patient to identify the ulterior motive within a given corporate announcement or charitable activity. And although I found it terribly uncomfortable at first, I eventually came to appreciate the clinic's patented Hype Deprivation Suite -- a huge, soundproof black bag.

One morning after I was feeling much better, I awoke sensing nervous energy all around. Clinic staffers scurried about. The clinic director himself was coming to pay me a visit. I had read about this man -- after gaudy success in PR, he had resigned from a huge public relations agency and an even huger salary, without so much as leaving a forwarding address. I put on my street clothes, sat down in a chair and waited for my esteemed visitor.

Soon he was standing in my doorway. Heavy-set and dressed in a muumuu, he'd shaved his head bald. He entered the room, closed the door behind him, and said, "My name is Kurtz." Confiding that I was his star patient, he proposed that I assist him in showing others how to recognize the Faux, the Hollow -- the "Made for Television". I listened for what seemed hours.

According to Kurtz, since I'd seen both sides, only I could help him educate mass audiences to think for themselves.

Finally I'd heard enough -- I was convinced. I said, "Superior call, big guy! Want me to pull together some bio materials on you and get those out on the wire, stat?"

Kurtz turned white as a sheet.

"No! We're going to promote only the deserving!" was his terse reply.

I will never forget what happened next. A look of horror swept over him. His eyes bugged and he began convulsing. Clutching his chest he uttered, "The Hype! The Hype!" Right before my eyes, Kurtz collapsed in a heap, dead before he hit the ground. Moved, I was determined not to permit his vision of a World Without Hype to die with him. Climbing over his slumped body, I ran to a pay phone and immediately set up a focus group on the topic.

Hype Haven

I have seen the dark core of Hype and lived to tell about it. In the business we have an expression for just how well Kurtz's idea of "PR with a Conscience" tested: "Off the charts". Our research proved that an "honesty marketing" niche existed, yet nobody was filling it. I realized that if I were to launch a pre-emptive strike on anyone attempting a similar effort, I would "own" Ethical PR.

It's been said that a thin line separates genius from insanity. Kurtz's effect on me has been indelible. Case in point: my 22 Hype Haven PR Agency locations set to open worldwide by the end of the fiscal year.

Stuart Wade

Stuart Wade is an Austin-based writer.

MORE FROM Stuart Wade

Related Topics ------------------------------------------