Friday, September 11, 2009

Embrace Your Inner Bitch and Use it For Good PR

That's what Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue did to save her job recently. Of course, she was already labeled as a super monster in the film "Devil Wears Prada," so it's not like the fact that she is a haute couture bitch is a stunner.

But how many times have women heard that successful women are bitches and successful men are smart. Female PR people and marketers who aren't afraid to tell the truth and be pushy are shot down by men all the time. I worked in a company like that once. My boss would sit there nodding as I spoke, his eyes glazing over and then finally responded with a "Good Point," when I was done talking. Then he'd ignore everything I'd said.

His comments were always followed by a number two who would repeat what my boss just said, adjusting it just enough so it sounded like it was her idea. Then a love fest of the highest order would erupt. The rest of the smart women in the room just wanted to crawl under the table and die. Number two was a bitch but never, ever in front of anyone male or who mattered. Why? Because she grew up in corporate America and had sucked up her whole life. She didn't know how to do it any other way.

Well guess what? According to Tina Brown, founder of The Daily Beast and former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, bitchiness can be creative, smart and attention-getting. Wintour was about to get replaced with a younger, hotter, more malleable version of herself. So she struck a deal with documentary film producer R.J. Cutler to film her life. She did something it must be really hard for her to do, gave away creative control. She combined the documentary's release with a special Fashion Week event that was a roaring success, and now she's back on top.

So what's the lesson here for PR people and marketers? Most PR people are scared. They put out fires not start them. They tell clients what they want to hear. They are terrified they'll get fired if their client gets negative publicity. They won't go out on a limb and tell a client what they really think - or perhaps they don't even know what would work better. They water down everything to the point where it says absolutely nothing. And then when they can't sell the story they put a bunch of 22 year-olds on the phone and make them sell it.

Anyone who reads my blog knows I have issues with talking points. What sells is something that makes me care, that is genuine. Bitchy people are interesting. They have character. They make mistakes. They fix them. The get in trouble. They figure out how to get out of it.

The best way to get a reporter to write about your client is to let them follow them around for a couple of days and write about what goes on behind the scenes - the decisions that are made. So what if it might be a little negative. I subscribe to the belief that all press is good press. A negative story gets a lot of attention - these days more than ever.

Years ago I wrote an article for Manhattan, Inc. magazine that was immensely popular called "Jerry Della Femina's Fast Pitch". It was the inside story of how a gutsy Madison Avenue ad agency went after new work. Jerry got it - he knew it would help him and it did. And I reported on some of the struggles in pulling the pitch together, but for the most part it was a positive story. And it helped him cement his place on top.

Here's the polar opposite of that. A woman I know vaguely through business has built hers around writing and speaking about Gen X and Gen Y - teaching the grown-ups how to manage their kids in the workplace. She has this whole spiel about the conflict between the generations, how the millenials are different, etc. The Washington Post came to one of her talks and covered it.

You could almost hear the 20-something reporter gnashing her teeth as you read the story. The writer pointed out that the material presented was irrelevant, dated and a combination of what a lot of other people had said about the same topic over the years. She questioned why baby boomers paid for the talk.

Quite frankly, the reporter had a point. The talk is entertaining, but it's all in the delivery. I've seen this presentation by others and it fails to address the realities of today's marketplace. The sense of entitlement in the millenial generation raised when everyone won a trophy at soccer and was coddled, is gone. They are getting fired. They can't get jobs. And none of these "generational consultants" address that in their talk. They're still saying the same things they were five years ago about people who don't exist anymore.

A couple of days ago, I got an email from the woman who felt offended by her Post coverage. The email explained how she'd received all this hate mail after the article appeared and how "hate should be addressed with knowledge." It was defensive and kind of creepy.

Was she wrong to let the Washington Post reporter in? Absolutely not. The press she got was pretty good actually - it was a long feature with photos and an overview of what she does. Though the reporter was skeptical, she noted the audience was happy. I would have let it go and been happy with the coverage. But people can't take it when others criticize them. They get offended by bitchiness of others. And they feel like they have to fight back.

So good for Anna Wintour - who wasn't afraid to be exactly who she is. As Tina Brown put it "Anna’s appeal is that she has no interest in pretending to be human. . . She showed her inner vampire."

Another woman waiting to catch a glimpse of Anna Wintour on the street at a Fashion Week event put said it even better. "Everyone loves a bitch."


  1. Interesting perspective. Aren't you concerned that urging practitioners to embrace a stereotype will perpetuate it?

  2. Actually no - because strong women do know they can be bitchy - and they are not afraid of it. The problem is when you let others define what it means for you. Thanks for writing.