Back in 1993, when I started Fred Pfaff Inc., my dad gave me his reaction to a firm I’d free-lanced for on my way out the journalism door. “All hustle, no strategy,” he said. “And nobody there can write.”

What Dad noticed was a trap that PR falls into today more than ever: mistaking motion for momentum, which I’ve come to call the Big Hustle. Clients fall into this as readily as agencies, particularly as the world spins faster. They end up putting a premium on action – any action – and lose the message.

One reason for this premium on action is there’s frequently no linear relationship to results. Another is that the amorphous nature of the activities that PR requires – clients don’t see most of the work – breeds pressure to provide something tangible, from constant update charts to a whelm of press releases. “At least somebody’s doing something,” says the CEO who’s suspended disbelief just long enough to let the CMO run with an agency.

Still another cause of this weakness is PR’s heritage of reaction. Journalists want what they need at the moment, which is increasingly a pithy comment in a flash for the 100th post on Facebook’s latest move. So we get PR hordes running, shouting, and tumbling for a mention that’ll satisfy the client’s management, board and investors, all of whom now know to check Google Alerts for mentions of the company.

Ironically, the Big Hustle never really gets you anywhere with media; you become a gnat that reporters and editors swat away, and you become indistinguishable. It never really positions your client, because it sacrifices the story that’s crucial for the commentary that’s expedient. It burns you out, unless you’re truly the hyper-kinetic type. And it thwarts shared accomplishment because there’s no clear end point, only forever running to react.

The Big Hustle violates three tenets of communications:

  1. Not all messages are created equal.
  2. Not all exposure is created equal.
  3. Exposure is a means, not an end.

I’ve run into Big Hustle syndrome in B2B lately as clients and PR firms try to keep pace with the explosion of channels and speed of information. Updates intensify – sometimes thrice weekly – while releases predominate and reactive viewpoints get rushed out the door, sapping the energy of client and firm alike when it comes time for creating messages of their own. Predictably, the Big Hustle overplays inconsequential events and reactive opinion, and misses meaningful insights at the core of the business. By meaningful insights, I mean the things that architects of change can point to as barometers and models to move business forward.

Momentum isn’t how much motion you can muster. It’s how much traction and reaction you can generate. It’s actually getting somewhere. Increasingly, that’s a matter of patience and precision: investing the energy to plan, focus, and build on the communications that really matter.





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