Paul Graham’s “The Submarine”

Paul Graham, who’s on some kind of mad essay-writing binge, starts his latest essay, The Submarine, this way:

“Suits make a corporate comeback,” says the New York Times. Why does this sound familiar? Maybe because the suit was also back in September 2004, June 2004, September 2003, November 2002, and February 2002.

Why do the media keep running stories saying suits are back? Because PR firms tell them to. One of the most surprising things I discovered during my brief business career was the existence of the PR industry, lurking like a huge, quiet submarine beneath the news. Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren’t about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR.

Later in the article:

[PR firms] feed the same story to several different publications at once. And when readers see similar stories in multiple places, they think there is some important trend afoot. Which is exactly what they’re supposed to think.

In the article, Graham proposes a new activity called “PR diving” (whose name evokes the activity known as “dumpster diving”) in which you try and determine which news “stories” in various sources came from the same PR release.

Later in his piece, Graham talks about what is often the antithesis of PR companies: folks who self-publish online. Many of them you know as “bloggers”:

Imagine how incongruous the New York Times article about suits…

The urge to look corporate– sleek, commanding, prudent, yet with just a touch of hubris on your well-cut sleeve — is an unexpected development in a time of business disgrace.

or the Business Week article about tagging…

Joshua Schachter used to be a lot like the rest of us online. When he surfed the Web, he’d zip through interesting articles only to find that days later he couldn’t remember where he had seen the stories or sites that had caught his interest.

…would sound if you read it in a blog. The problem with these articles is not just that they originated in PR firms. The whole tone is bogus. This is the tone of someone writing down to their audience.

Whatever its flaws, the writing you find online is authentic. It’s not mystery meat cooked up out of scraps of pitch letters and press releases, and pressed into molds of zippy journalese. It’s people writing what they think.

(To be fair, Graham also points out in a footnote that “PR has at least one beneficial feature: it favors small companies. If PR didn’t work, the only alternative would be to advertise, and only big companies can afford that.”)

I recently talked with a number of developers of tools who were a bit miffed that although they had created working versions — not just barely functional, but refined and quite well-engineered — of an application in a soon-to-be-hot field, all the press attention was going to internet big-name people who had naught but vapourware and press releases. I think at least some of it has to do with their having a PR firm at their disposal.

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