Ryan Holiday is a self-professed manipulator and all-around provocateur, and he has done a masterful job of stirring the pot with his new book, Trust Me, I’m Lying. Holiday has boasted about essentially seeing to it major media have been punk’d into quoting him as an expert on all kinds of subjects, and he has public relations types breathing into paper bags because of the fear that Holiday’s lies will smear all professional communication. (Gini Dietrich’s take on the matter — and the accompanying comments — is well-thought out, but her take is a typical of the general hand-wringing.)
Here’s the reality: Holiday is a gift to anyone who deals with the media, anyone who dabbles in social media or communications or PR. He so wonderfully embodies everything bad about the industry that he has made himself into an excellent straw man: few in the business world take his worldview seriously, and it gives the rest of us a chance to better define what we do. Here are the eight ways the Holiday is helping communicators:
- He’s a walking ethics lesson. If you mislead people in this industry, you lose credibility. And — especially now, in the Internet age — if you lose credibility, you’re sunk. Holiday might be able to promote himself going forward. (There is always a market for colorful jerks, as his old boss Tucker Max has demonstrated.) But he’s now radioactive for any serious business. Which is what happens when you mislead.
- He’s demonstrated why you hire professionals. I don’t want to imply that large agencies can’t have ethical lapses. But having an organization run by grown-ups, with checks and balances, makes out-and-out lying that much more difficult. Holiday has proven that a twenty-something with no moral compass can generate press. But there is a cost to doing business that way.
- He’s demonstrated it’s about metrics, not ink. Holiday has taken credit for provocative American Apparel ads, conveniently missing the point that the much-discussed ads didn’t seem to do much to prevent the company from entering into a free-fall from which it’s only just recovering. (As Jim Edwards put it in November: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but [doesn’t] AA currently possess one of the worst reputations in the retail business?”)
- He’s demonstrated it’s about strategic directions, not ink. And while we’re on the American Apparel ads, it’s probably debatable whether having a porn-star-centered campaign is wise when the company was in the midst of a number of sexual harassment lawsuits. It’s hard to imagine that Holiday’s ads didn’t add fuel to part of the company’s reputation that was already ablaze.
- He’s demonstrated experience matters. The other hot story in the communication world this week is a verging-on-parody post by a college kid arguing that social media managers shouldn’t be over 24 years old. Holiday makes the counter-point nicely, if unintentionally: if you haven’t built 5 or 10 or 40 years of trust in your business, you’re a potential liability to your clients.
- He has raised the bar for reporters and sources. No one likes to be duped, and reporters are going to be twice as vigilant now to ensure they don’t fall victim to Holiday-style hoaxes or manipulation. Who does that favor? People who have already established a reputation for trust.
- He has generated attention for “Help a Reporter Out.” This is a fantastic, thoughtful service — which Holiday abused though blatant falsehoods in pulling off his stunt — and if this whole escapade means more people become aware of HARO and that the community policing of HARO gets better, then we all win. (Check HARO founder Peter Shankman’s take on the situation, too.)
- He has probably screwed up his ability to deliver his best messages. I haven’t read the book yet (I’m hoping my library gets it, so I can avoid padding Holiday’s coffers), but I’m willing to bet there is some decent advice amidst the stupidity and bravado. And I’d be willing to bet that — no matter how much press he gets – any focus on the bits of good counsel will be totally swamped by the stunts. Which is the best possible punishment for this kind of guy.
Communications can be a hard field to define. Integration means that we’re a little bit advertising, a little bit marketing, some advocacy, some public relations, some HR. But what we’re not is whatever Ryan Holiday is selling. And by allowing us to make that distinction, he’s doing us all a great favor.