Tuesday 21 February 2012

Top 10 Songs for PR Practitioners

It's been a month of fairly serious posts here on Brush Talk, making it high time, in my mind, for something a bit lighter. It's also been a while since we had a Top 10 list on this blog, and in honour of one of my favourite movies of all time, the priceless audiophile-themed dramatic comedy High Fidelity, I give you my Top 10 Songs for Public Relations Practitioners.

The relationship between PR and rock 'n' roll is a long and storied one. Behind every great band and music star has been a shrewd publicist. People like Bill Harry (the man who coined the phrase 'Mersey Beat' and was instrumental in promoting a little band called The Beatles) and Howard Bloom (the former ABC Records PR captain who helped launch the careers of Billy Joel, Prince and Styx) might not be household names, but it's fair to say that the face of modern music would have turned out very differently without them.

Sometimes artists show their own flair for public relations and communications troubleshooting - particularly in the digital age. Upon their reunification last year, Canadian 1990s hard rock icons The Tea Party faced a difficult connundrum in that their band name had effectively been hijacked by the US political movement by the same name. Their response? Rather than forfeit their domain name www.teaparty.com, which would have been a very un-rock 'n' roll move, they owned the situation by adding the catchy byline "No Politics, Just Rock 'n' Roll" to their banner. Problem solved.

Other artists have, at various points, shown an astute understanding of the complexities of the PR profession in their lyrics and creative themes. Some have essentially stumbled over them, while others most definitely grasped the essence of what the profession is all about. In my humble opinion, the following ten songs would make for a decent soundtrack for the PR profession.

1) Led Zeppelin, Communication Breakdown

This one was a pretty obvious choice. Lyrically, there's not much to the song - definitely not Led Zep's most inspired wordcraft of all time - but the song's title and iconic stature makes it a shoo-in for this list.

2) The Beatles, Help!

This song sums up perhaps better than any other the way PR people view themselves and their role. We're always trying to help people in the midst of existential crises. That's our job. Consider the line "And now my life has changed in oh so many ways; my independence seems to vanish in the haze." If that's not a cry for help to a professional communicator capable of transmitting clear, concise messaging, I don't know what is.

3) Lady Gaga, Telephone

Gaga's genius for messaging meant that it would have been criminal for her not to be included on this list, and this song is probably the closest thing to a PR anthem among her chart-toppers. As a PR professional, you're basically supposed to be on call - all the time. And that's what this song is about, and the frustration that leads to. That and guest star Beyoncé's line "The way you blowin' up my phone won't make me leave no faster" is one that every professional communicator can relate to.

4) R.E.M., Radio Free Europe

As annoyingly indecipherable as Michael Stipe's vocals are on this song, Radio Free Europe is the perfect anthem to the PR ideal - bringing down walls through the media. The communications profession's relationship with electronic media is perhaps best summed up by the line "Resign yourself that's radio's gonna stay; reason: it could polish up the grey." Breaking through media noise, through walls and through national boundaries. R.E.M.'s on the list.

5) U2, Zooropa

Another song about noise, albeit a sort of perverse celebration of it. The opening track to the 1993 album starts out with a litany of advertising slogans like 'Vorsprung durch Technik' ('Advancement through technology' - Audi's longtime marketing catchphrase) followed by what sounds like a plea for a decent communications plan. ("I hear voices, ridiculous voices; out in the slipstream; let's go overground; get your head out of the mud baby.") Given the current state of the European project, this EU marketing anthem sounds eerily prophetic now. Time for a new compass and map.

6) Pink Floyd, Is There Anybody Out There?

A mostly instrumental track from the iconic Wall album - an album that could, hypothetically, be taken for a big allegory for the communications profession (We definitely don't need no thought control!), this track neatly sums up the question every professional communicator asks on a daily basis: is there anybody out there truly benefitting from the content I slave away at producing?

7) David Bowie, Space Oddity

Of all the fictional characters thrown up by rock 'n' roll, few have stood the test of time better than David Bowie's melancholy astronaut Major Tom, whose presence has since popped up in songs ranging from 1980s German synth-pop icon Peter Schilling's Major Tom (Coming Home) to Def Leppard's Rocket. Interestingly, though, Bowie's 1969 breakthrough hit is less about space exploration than it is about media relations, as the line "And the papers want to know what shirts you wear; step outside the capsule if you dare" reveals. It's about the guys on the ground, not him.

8) Lily Allen, The Fear

After several years as a magnet for media scrutiny for her off-stage antics and disparaging remarks about fellow stars, Cockney starlet Lily Allen sought to highlight a more self-aware side to her persona with this part-confessional, part-critique song about the UK's toxic gutter-press culture. While criticized by some as trite and hypocritical, The Fear if nothing else succeeds at encapsulating the apologia theory of crisis management, which requires that you explain what's happened and then, when appropriate, distance yourself from it by redefining the situation along the lines of 'it's not me; it's the system'. Well done, Lily!

9) Morrissey, The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get

Had he chosen a different career path, Steven Patrick Morrissey probably would have made a very good PR professional given his knack for introspection and punchy, unambiguous wordcraft. Morrissey has always been a refreshingly straightforward songwriter and this crisis communications anthem one is no exception. It neatly sums up the first rule of crisis communications, which is 'deal with the situation immediately or it'll get worse' and even hints at hearkens to the all-important court of public opinion with the line "I bear more grudges than lonely high court judges." Beautiful!

10) Styx, Mr. Roboto

No list of songs about communications could ever be complete without this rock opera tirade against censorship and media-muzzling set in a futuristic prison for 'rock 'n' roll misfits'. While digital media experts will dispute the assertion that the problem is "too much technology," none will dispute the idea that the human element always needs to be front and centre and that machines can indeed "de-humanize" when online content is being written for bots rather than human readers. Tormented by being misunderstood and prevented from responding, our hero Kilroy is a tortured PR guy for sure!

Honourable Mention - Jimmy Buffett, Public Relations

As a PR professional myself, I take some offence to this song, particularly the chorus "Public relations, public relations; boozing and schmoozing, that's what I do; PR's my vocation and I'm a sensation; public relations, such hullabaloo." I have yet to meet a professional communicator whose life resembles the ostentatious Palm Beach businessman and Coral Reefer Band frontman's misrepresentation of this normally hullabaloo-free profession. Nevertheless, it's a song called Public Relations and as such it gets an honourable mention by default.


  1. So awesome. And #10 better have nothing to do with the fact that I sang it at karaoke ... !

    I would also like to nominate Tariq's "Critic." not only because it's Canadian but also because it has the excellent mantra of "bad press is press just the same."

    1. Of course not! ;-) Good call on 'Critic'. I hadn't thought of that one. There were a few on my list that didn't quite make the cut, including Rage Against the Machine's 'Guerrilla Radio', Sonic Youth's 'Disconnection Notice' and Radiohead's 'How To Disappear Completely' - if for no other reason for the repeating mantra "I'm not here; this isn't happening."