Ryan Holiday lied about trivial things—vinyl records and cheeseburgers—to get coverage in The New York Times, MSNBC and several others. He used Help A Reporter Out to perpetuate his manipulation. When Forbes wrote a story about his lies, Holiday said it was an “experiment” to prove a point.
His tryout was leaked to Forbes and perfectly timed to coincide with the launch of his book, “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.” Genius PR stunt, right?
Except lying about snots in a fast food restaurant is hardly the genius of Loch Ness or War of the Worlds proportions. Dave Thier, who penned the original Forbes post, wrote later in continuing coverage that, “The mundane nature of Holiday’s lies means that it can be hard to read too deeply into this stunt as a grand criticism of all media.”
As for being an experiment, or proving some kind of point, it’s hard for me to believe anything he says, although his hometown newspaper, which even after all the fuss, including corrections in mainstream media, seems to believe some of what he said. The problem with believing someone who may be lying, about lying, to promote a book about lying, is that it’s hard to know if there’s any truth to the story.
Our industry is no stranger to PR stereotypes, but what bothers me the most about this incident is its long-term effect—especially on those outside of PR. It occurs to me that people are more likely to remember that a trite fib is an easier way to secure coverage than the hard work of developing truly creative ideas, compelling content and relationship building.
This idea frightens me because it perpetuates the notion that PR is comprised of people who will say and do anything, even at the expense of others, for personal gain. It’s something we should fight every single day. I propose the best way to do it, is by doing it right:
1. We persuade with truth. When we pitch, we should aim to convince people—reporters and bloggers—that our idea is so compelling that it deserves a headline on its own merit. We work through persuasion, not manipulation. Critics might argue semantics, but the contrast is stark.
2. We build trust. Not everything can be fact-checked, but PR pros still need to earn trust. It cannot be taken for granted. We deliver relevant pitches, promptly respond to inquiries and remain true to our word. Make no mistake: our word is our living. When in doubt, say you do not know the answer but will find out. That’s far more powerful than making something up.
3. Zero tolerance for manipulators. This individual is not a PR professional. And this incident doesn’t deserve a spot on the same bell curve. There should be little tolerance for disingenuous antics like this.
Peter Shankman, HARO founder and Vocus vice president, responded to Holiday in the comments of his blog post condemning the ploy, “You wrote a book, and came up with a lie to attempt to publicize it. That’s it. That’s not a PR stunt. That’s lying.”