I recently completed some work for a client that got me thinking about the tension between ego and purpose in marketing and PR. We created a campaign that would see investigative TV reports, multiple major news articles and op-eds, with influential people of great influence and in positions of power discussing the issue.
We spent months providing journalists with background information, context, case studies, material, and even suggested angles and copy to help them get their heads around this complex issue, so that they could report on the topic with confidence and to give them easy access to a juicy story.
There was just one catch: the client couldn’t put their name on most of it.
Sure, the client’s key message was getting through and they were seen as credible in the eyes of the journalist – and yet, it didn’t provide any of the traditional ‘ego boost’ that’s associated with PR.
In this case, the client was genuinely more interested in driving change than having their name in a headline or their photo on the front page.
But although we’d like to believe that PR is always about fighting for important causes and working diligently in the background to advocate for change, ego-driven campaigns are typically far more likely to win out over true purpose.
One time, a CEO asked me to have the journalist increase the size of their photo in the newspaper, even if it meant reducing the text in the story about their business.
I also regularly receive PR enquiries (which we decline) from business owners who want big profile stories and speaking opportunities but refuse to concede that there needs to be something newsworthy, valuable, and of substance to go with it.
It’s easy to see how we got here. PR and marketing that flatters the ego is almost always an easier win than driving genuine, lasting change. Greenwashing is a prime example of narcissistic PR in action. It’s easier to say you’re sustainable than actually be sustainable, giving you those all-important ego points without any of the hard work required to make your claims true.
Narcissistic PR doesn’t really care about providing any kind of benefit to the intended audience, it just cares about making itself sound and look good. Unscrupulous PR agencies can easily take advantage of people or businesses who are addicted to the ego-driven hamster wheel. It’s quick, easy, and feels good in the moment. But it does nothing to build long-term brand reputation, and if left unchecked for too long, can ultimately result in serious brand damage.
On the other hand, genuinely purpose-driven PR is solely focused on creating change and doing good, no matter how ‘famous’ it makes your brand.
So is it even possible to find the right balance, especially if you’re a for-profit brand that ultimately puts its bottom line first, no matter what? Thankfully, you can make a name for yourself, build your brand, and get your name out there with true purpose in mind – but only if you are crystal clear about what your values and goals are.
Your brand and its values must be defined from the outside in, not the inside out. Don’t fall into the trap of taking values from the existing culture and retrofitting them into your own brand values. Customers can smell the inauthenticity a mile away.
Is your brand speaking out about civil rights because you genuinely believe it will make a positive change for your customers, or are you just doing it to win brownie points? Are you hosting that charity dinner because you want to raise money, or because you want to look good in front of your industry peers?
It’s time to drop the ego, discover your values, and start putting out work that makes a genuine difference in the world.