Can a campus radical make it in PR? Not a problem!

Where have all the radicals gone?

I admired campus radicals back in the day.  These long-haired, sandal-sporting, granola-chomping freaks sounded the alarm that eventually ended a war in Southeast Asia. And along with all that social justice came the sexual revolution, a welcome development to any young man coming of age in the late 60s.

By the time I got to campus in ’71, the protests were pretty much over. Hippie attire and hippie lifestyle were mainstream by then, but most of the passion was gone. Being a “hippie” in the 70s was more about rearranging brain cells than rearranging the world order.

Campus-radical wannabes learned that social movements seldom pay the rent. So we cut our hair and went to work for “the man.”

Radicals have real passion for their work, something that didn’t happen for me until I arrived at Kent State in 1992 at the age of 38. For the next 15 years, I worked just a few steps from where the real radicals made history.

Where are the campus radicals today? They’re out there, and they’re still looking for work when they graduate. But where does a radical PR person go to earn a paycheck? Some thoughts from an aging hippie wannabe.

PETA. No organization does a better job of manufacturing buzz than the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. So if you’re a radical vegetarian, this group is a perfect place to earn your stripes.

I wrote about PETA last November and won’t rehash my thinking here. While I know PETA people care about animals, they often use unethical means to communicate their beliefs and to snag media attention. How else do you explain the naked women?

ACLU. I can’t think of many organizations that act so consistently to protect the disenfranchised. The American Civil Liberties Union has stood up for poor people, gay people, minority people, and even hateful people who find their rights endangered.

While the ACLU may be a noble cause, you should know that lot of people don’t like these guys. Maybe it’s because so many of ’em are lawyers, eh? 🙂

National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. Back in the radical 60s, being “queer” was considered a disease by many people. Discrimination based on sexual orientation was common, and early gay rights activists knew that outing themselves came at great risk. But they did it anyway, launching a long and largely successful war for human rights.

While full equality for the gay community hasn’t yet arrived, the movement is now well funded and pretty much mainstream. I know, we’re still waiting on the Pentagon and the Boy Scouts to come around, but they will.

Greenpeace. These guys take civil disobedience to a new level, often risking life and limb to protect Mother Earth. As an environmentalist myself, I cheer for the Greenpeace radicals when they maneuver their rafts into the path an oil tankers or chain themselves to bulldozers. Mother Earth rules!

I haven’t the courage to be a Greenpeace activist, as I’m not a fan of handcuffs and jail cells. But that doesn’t mean I can’t admire the civil disobedience they practice. Besides, they might not like the idea that I’m a deer hunter — with guns!

The world needs more radicals, because radicals bring about change.

When you operate on the radical fringe, you don’t do it for money. You do it because you believe in an idea and are willing to commit your life’s work to it. Do you know how rare that is — in any field?

The real danger in becoming a “Radical PR Pro” is losing one’s moral compass. I may think the folks at PETA are a little kooky, but they don’t engage in illegal and destructive behavior like the Animal Liberation Front. Those guys are nuts.

Back in the 60s, the radical crazies were in the SDS or the Weather Underground. Both groups let their passion blind them, and both did more harm than good.

Wackos seldom help any cause, so don’t become one, OK?

Mainstream ideas like civil rights began as radical notions.

My pitch. If you’re a radical, or if your son or daughter aspires to be a radical, consider a career in public relations. Ideas that change the world must be communicated often and effectively.

Though change begins with radical thinkers, the best of the fringe ideas eventually become mainstream and make the world a better place. The civil-rights movement comes to mind.

What PR pro wouldn’t love to have client as wise and as articulate as Martin Luther King, Jr.?


Top photo from the archives of Case Western Reserve University.
Update: Check out this story about a virtual sit-in that may lead to charges of a “distributed denial of service attack” against a professor at UC-San Diego!  Certainly an ingenious use of civil disobedience. And it’s way harder to arrest you!


10 Responses to Can a campus radical make it in PR? Not a problem!

  1. Ike says:

    Funny, Bill!

    My last story as a journalist was covering “The Naked Chick” from PeTA:

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    Ha! Funny you should bring that up, Ike. I was inspired to get this post published after seeing the story of the topless women parading through the streets in Portland.

    I honestly can’t recall what they were protesting, but U.S. media can’t resist bare-breasted women — even though they won’t put ’em on camera without pixelating!

  3. Bob says:

    The greatest obstacle radical PR folks face is their peers. Too many are cagily fearful of anything that may potentially make waves to the point of doling out silent scorn for those who do.

    “How else do you explain the naked women?”

    They’re horny.

    Good post.


  4. Ike says:

    There is no more truth in journalism.

    If there had been, the lead would have been:

    “Dozens of women that nobody wanted to see topless were seen topless today…”

  5. Moving this conversation in a different direction, might I recommend three articles on how civil rights activists used PR:
    *Linda Childers Hon, “‘To Redeem the Soul of America’: Public Relations and the Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of Public Relations Research 9 (1997), 163-64.
    *Dulcie M. Straughan, “‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’: The Public Relations Efforts of the NAACP, 1960-1965,” Public Relations Review 30 (2004), 49-60. *Vanessa D. Murphree, “‘Black Power’: Public Relations and Social Change in the 1960s,” American Journalism 21 (2004): 13-32.

    And, remembering that not all radicals are leftists:
    *Laura Richardson Walton, “Organizing Resistance: The Use of Public Relations by the Citizens’ Council in Mississippi, 1954-64,” Journalism History 35 (Spring 2009).

  6. Breeze says:

    Wackos seldom help any cause, so don’t become one, OK?

    Indeed. As I often put it, fanaticism is the least convincing argument for anything.

    Ideas that change the world must be communicated often and effectively.

    I think you’re onto something with this. I think the perception of PR as something corporate might be overlooking or turning off many of the so-called radicals. It would be great to see a workshop or seminar for student on PR’s use in activism–if not an actual course.

  7. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik: Could the PR business use a few radicals? You bet! I have awakened from my blogging slumber!…

  8. Bill Huey says:

    But Bill, radical PR is one-way asymmetrical. Are you advocating that? It’s uncompromising. It doesn’t care what the other side wants–only that its goals are achieved.

    I’m all for it, because it’s good old-fashioned advocacy. It could be a useful counterbalance in areas like healthcare reform, where money has poisoned the well so badly that it needs to be filled with fresh dirt and another one dug.

    It’s a highly risky career strategy in a field chock full of corporate round pegs and conventional thinkers (if they think at all), but there’s room for someone who wants to make a difference and isn’t motivated by money or the illusion of corporate power.

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks to everyone for the comments so far. I apologize for being inattentive yesterday.

    @BobConrad: Peer pressure is ever-present in this business, and so is employer pressure to toe the line. Few corporate employers are seeking to hire nonconformists. I still recall when, in 1978, my boss asked me to shave my beard because he wanted to assign me to the firm’s most conservative client. I was clean-shaven the very next day, and it turned out to be a great career move for me.

    Confession: I add to the problem. Every semester, I counsel students to choose their class-project clients carefully. “Don’t pick clients that mainstream employers might consider to be on the fringe or in any way flaky'” I tell them. And I often use as examples PETA, NORML and the NRA. Students must consider how such projects, when placed in the portfolio, will help or hinder the job search.

    @KarenRussell: Thanks for adding a scholarly component to the discussion, and for the reminder that all activists are not “lefties.”

    @BillHuey: You are correct — to a degree. Most activists are steadfast in their beliefs, which is why so many see them as unreasonable and idealistic. But those unreasonable demands can and do bring about change, and that change often comes in increments.

    The women’s movement as a good example. Neither Margaret Sanger nor Susan B. Anthony turned public opinion or public policy overnight. The fight for gay rights also came in baby steps. So while the radicals tend to take polarizing positions, those voices — provided they’re supported by reasoned, fact-based arguments — do impact the public dialog.

    Of course, this leaves out the “radicals of fiction” who proclaim President Obama as the “antichrist” and those who insist the world is just 6,000 years old and will end in 2012.

    On the final point, you are right on. Being a “Radical PR Pro” is a highly risky career move. But some really great practitioners have come from that tradition. Pat Jackson comes to mind.

  10. This is great Bill. Love how you showed the relation to your life and that we (PR folks) can, and should, be a little nutty and out there.

    The ideas created by the true radicals that can harness and control their intensity for change are the most powerful.

    I can only hope my somewhat radical nature will someday contribute to the betterment of society in an ethical and honest way!


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