Professional Blarney

My Idea of the Blarney Stone

As a boy, I had always imagined the Blarney Stone to be a kind of Irish Stonehenge. The name invoked images of an imposing moss-covered boulder or standing stone, somewhere on a lonely heath, surrounded by sheep and peat bogs under  a cloudy sky. The legendary act of kissing it to receive the “gift of the gab” would be accomplished only by a Bronte-esque pilgrimage across a rugged Irish landscape. In my imagination, it was a thing unto itself, silent, eternal and unquestionable.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

It is in fact a worn piece of masonry of dubious origin, installed at the top of Blarney castle. Far from being isolated, it’s on the edge of Cork, Ireland surrounded by a bustling tourist road-stop well stocked with souvenirs. When I made my “pilgrimage” in late 2003, I arrived on the noon wave of tour buses.

It's On Top of That

Not exactly the natural wonder I was hoping to encounter. Somehow, all those years I had completely missed the fact that it was part of a castle. Since castles are hard to come by in the San Francisco Bay Area, I resigned myself to the odd ritual out of sheer curiosity. I quickly embraced the campy tourist within to become one of the millions of people who had leaned backward over the parapet, held at the waist by a stranger to kiss the underside of the rock in hopes of receiving “the gift of the gab.”

Whatever that may be. As it turns out, there is a bit of wooly thinking around that as well. To some it means the stereotypically Irish ability of spinning outrageous yarns. To others it means being skilled at flattery and insincere persuasion. I am even told the French believe it bestows an ability to lie successfully for seven years. I prefer a more rudimentary telling: the gift of convincing eloquence.

I find the same woolly thinking surrounds the world of public relations, a dividing line clearly marking people who work in corporate communication from those who do not. Just as the benefits of Blarney shift from one stone-kisser to the next, a similar disconnect surrounds the profession of “PR.”

To most outside the practice, “PR” is about “spin.” It is about getting paid to find nice words to make something bad sound better, or something untrue sound true. It is, in short, professional blarney.

See if you can spot where I have switched the words “blarney” for “PR” and “gab” for “spin” in the following sentences.

“This has gone on long enough. It’s time we started getting some good [blarney] for a change.”

“Can’t we [gab] that some other way?”

“Get the [blarney] guy to put some positive [gab] on that.”

This is important, both for practitioners as well as the clients who hire them. When “spin” comes up in a professional conversation… especially in a client conversation… it is a marker pointing out a significant fork in the road of unspoken expectations. At best, it is recognition that PR counsel can be someone who helps organizations use language to their advantage. At worst, it can indicate an unchallenged assumption that public relations is the not the art of relating transparently to the public, but rather of lying for a living. Clearly, that is not the most desirable position to hold… or to hire!

Actual communication professionals don’t talk… or think… like that. In fact, in the decade-plus  I have worked in public relations, I have yet to hear even one of my peers, colleagues or managers use the word “spin” on the job. What I do hear is seasoned conversation about “telling stories with purpose,” “strategic thinking about business,” “redefining attributes needed for success” and “creating context for understanding.”

Honing My Communication Resume (or "Shouldn't you buy me dinner first?")

It is that last phrase I want to explore in this post. It is especially important, and something that anyone working in PR should think strategically about. It is about defining the new or unknown in terms of the known or familiar. It is what all good storytellers can do without thinking. It is where the blarney comes in.

Perhaps you had a favorite grandparent, or uncle. You know, the one who (Irish or not) was clearly gifted with gab. No matter the situation, they always had something convincing to say, usually starting with “That reminds me of the time when….” And so would begin an unlikely narrative, leapfrogging far from the topic at hand, moving from one mundane topic to the next. Sometimes the final destination was a practical call to action:

“And that’s why you should never, ever feed a pigeon.”

Sometimes it was a complete flight of fancy:

“And that’s why you should never, ever stop on a lonely road to pick up a pigeon.”

But in either case, while the story was told, you felt you were along for the ride without ever being taken for one. It was the sheer amount of convincing detail that made the difference. The narrative was not merely a list of instructions and warnings, but a tour through a fully populated landscape of interconnected ideas that could lead the rational listener no other place but to the obvious conclusion that pigeons would make especially murderous hitchhikers.

So, in a positive step toward the liberation of PR professionals and their clients everywhere, I am reclaiming the negative and calling it what it is: Good PR is built on a load of blarney.

By that I mean it isn’t about clever wordplay and “spin.” It is about convincing detail. It is about world-building. It is about creating a context for understanding.

One place this dynamic comes to life is the brainstorm. I often participate with colleagues and clients alike in exercises to generate ideas for creative outreach. Sometimes this means trying to find compelling language that can express a client’s value in a new way or to a new audience. This can be especially challenging for technology companies, especially venture-backed firms in early stages of development. The entire culture of the company and its founders can be so invested in their signature technology that it can be challenging to separate the original compelling idea from the in-house layers of spin without an outsider’s perspective.

“The client really likes the concept of [technical blarney,]” we might be told. “Can we help them find a new term for [blarney innovation] that can help them connect better with the needs of CIOs/millennial consumers/investors/mommy bloggers/other desirable stakeholders?”

The problem with this seemingly reasonable request is that it confuses sounding different with thinking differently. It is a mistake that is easiest to make when you live day in, day out with a problem. Where seasoned communicators can try to add value from the outside is by professionally counseling the client that no single choice keyword or phrase magically sparks resonance and moves markets. Rather it is about having a clearly defined idea supported by an ecosystem of language rich enough to support a story.

That is why in brainstorms like this I counsel peers and clients to think of words like a quarry full of stones. It is not how great each stone looks, but whether they can support enough weight together in enough layers to build a tower. For instance, in the case of a technology company, it is not enough to simply come up with a single transplant phrase for their signature innovation, no matter how compelling. That is only one stone, albeit an important one, in the tower. It is just as important to develop language that fleshes out the rest of the story, including:

Context, Like A Tower

1) Basic Activity – Is there a word for the kind of company they are (or want to be)? What part of the economy do they participate in?

2) Category of Production – Within that sector, where does it add value? Is this a unique value? What makes it so, and how can we visualize the difference?

3) Process – How can we characterize the client’s essential intellectual property to illustrate the difference from other players in this category, and demonstrate its value to the desired stakeholder?

4) Technology – Very often, the client’s “secret sauce.” Their signature technology is often where they are most comfortable speaking, and it is important to stretch that comfort zone for the good of storytelling.

5) Product/Solution – What is it the client actually introduces to the supply chain? To the service sector? Is it differentiable from other offerings produced by traditional methods?

6) Goods/Services – Does the client’s technology result in any consumer-facing goods or services down the line? Is the value of that technology evident to the end-user, or does it merely offer an upstream advantage to the manufacturer/distributor/retailer?

Clearly these are only a few considerations, and they will not always be relevant to every client in every industry. But I find it a good starting point when presented with a need to replace [technical blarney] because it forces the group to think beyond the technology itself and about other values sitting further up and down the food chain.

In most cases, once we stop looking for the one “perfect stone” of a word or tagline, and start looking for the many verbal building blocks that can make a tower, we realize we have all the alternatives we need up on the white board already. It is simply a matter of giving them the right priority, and assigning them to the right level of the tower we are building. With stones at each conceptual level, it becomes much easier to string together a story with consequence.

In corporate communication, the value of blarney is not the ability to sell scuba tanks to dolphins. It is about using context to create consequence. With relevance born of context, organizations can tell stories that resonate. Without it, they remain stuck in the spin cycle. At the end of the day, no matter how compelling the technology, unless it can communicate human or business value, it fails to establish relevance for anyone but the storyteller.

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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5 thoughts on “Professional Blarney

  1. Paul Grubb

    Wow, what an outstanding read! I know next to nothing about PR. My work doesn’t touch on that discipline at all. For me, then, this article was as much educational as it was entertaining. And it was VERY entertaining. Smartly written and (not unintentionally, I’m sure) contextually equipped to aid in my understanding. Thanks!

    Incidentally, my great-grandmother, Evelyn Timothy Grubb, was said to be the oldest person to kiss the Blarney Stone when she traveled back to Ireland sometime in her 80’s or 90’s. Then again, maybe that was just spin perpetrated by the Stone’s handlers. 😉

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  2. Paul Grubb

    Hm, there’s that crazy insignia next to my name again. I have no idea how I came to be assigned that particular quilt patch, but at least I think it looks nice. 🙂

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      1. Paul Grubb

        You are correct about the avatar, but note that everyone appears to gets a unique one. I’m guessing WordPress has some fun little algorithm behind the scenes that hashes up the poster’s name and indexes some sort of table of random images to find one that (more or less) uniquely identifies that poster. “More or less” because there can’t possibly be an infinite number of fun little quilt patches. With more readers, the likelihood of aligning with some other random stranger increases.

        Aaaaaand I’m a nerd. The end.

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  3. Peter

    Chris,

    Thanks for sending this. Nice writing!! The story line raises for me some questions — How your encounter with the profoundly cultural (your trip to Ireland) todays serves as vehicle for your work with the abidingly corporatized — the realm of a tech startup working to distinguish itself. The two seem like such separate worlds. But it reminds me of Nike’s use of the Beatles “Revolution” back in 1987 — the frame of the cultural (and counter-cultural) becoming the frame of the sneaker. Brilliant, and surprising. How possible? And yet your blog entry is redemptive for all the PR world, arguing that the contemporary effort to create meaning around a product is part of a longstanding, valuable, and endearing human tradition. Nice!

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