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Richard Laermer

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You don't want to help, you just want help: A rant

Posted: 10/17/10 01:28 PM ET

My PR agency, which creates and manages campaigns for technology firms and entrepreneurial ventures, has been around for 20 years. We've got 15 staff and about $2 million in annual revenue. I've also written 12 books and spend half my time doing speaking engagements, and so I've made influential connections. I'm guessing a lot of people view me as an authority in a bunch of fields, and so I get sought out a lot for plain old everyday advice. The trouble is the Internet has made it too easy to contact people and that ease translates to inherent laziness.

Back when we sent messages through the U.S. mail, about a million years ago, we all needed to think through what we wanted to say. Now our written communication is disposable. We push buttons -- our thoughts appear and vanish like spit on a griddle -- and we rarely, if ever, consider how our messages are received. As a result, I lose half of my day dealing with emails from time-wasters who have nothing to offer to me or to my company. So I've made it my mission to reeducate the writers of crap email on the etiquette of basic communication.

I make it my job to "scour the waterfront" and to research the latest trends in media and other areas that I'm immersed in, looking for material that I can point out to my clients and contacts. So I'll often send an email with some thoughts on an issue, or a link to a news story that might interest a fellow executive I've met or befriended. It's amazing how many of them don't even bother to respond with a "thank you" -- this is just the way it is now. Then two years later they'll email me asking for work or an introduction on LinkedIn or Facebook. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, "Where were you before -- or is that not the issue?"

Other times strangers will write me with the vaguest of requests. One guy sent me a message on Twitter the other day with: "I'm trying to move from real estate into the film PR industry, and someone [I don't even really like] said you could help me."

How does one respond to that question? I attempted anyway, asking, "What do you mean I can help you? Do you want me to write your resumé and take you to Brooks Brothers for a fitting? How about an actual question that merits a realistic answer?"

He unfollowed me.

What about me?

I'm a busy guy -- I am proud of my social life; who the Hell has one these days? -- and I just don't have time to help anyone unless I stand to gain something (anything) from them. So when people write asking me for favors -- like help with finding an agent or writing a book proposal -- I'll write back with the Dictionary.com definition of quid pro quo: "one thing in return for another." Sometimes I'll just send them to the fabulous site Let Me Google That for You.

I don't care how important they are. I've sent the same advice to CEOs who've asked me for help after ignoring me when I solicited their companies for PR work. They rarely appreciate my bluntness. They inevitably complain in a passive aggressive way via a third party; it turns out they'll never work with me. I'll write them -- often in the form of a note card in the mail -- with, "Hey. Can you have the person who replaces you call me? Please."

I'm very polite, see. I really am.

There's no such thing as a favor in business. Clients pay in cash and in G-d we trust. So if a stranger or acquaintance requests a favor, I'll shoot back, "Why? Really, why? Is there a reason I need to help you?"

If that person lobs a good answer over the net, then I'll lend a hand. It is, after all, just time. But I want to make sure he knows what it is he's asking, and that it requires a sacrifice on my part.  People forget. It's almost as if there's this "You're there, why not?" attitude.

I'm well-versed in how people respond to communication -- that's what I think and write and tweet about every day of my young life. I am half of The Bad Pitch Blog, where we rain all over PR reps' (and journalists') awful writing and horrendous behavior. I know what makes people laugh, and I know what pisses them off. So if someone's angering me, I'll make sure she knows it. (I also tell people when they crack me up. Quid pro quo and all!)

The vast majority of people get ticked off when I tell them that they're being rude. They're not used to their obnoxious behavior being called out. What they don't get is that I really want them to get better at business -- or at least a little better at being a person.  No one else is going to tell them the truth. Life is short.

My long-term partner always asks me "Why bother? You can't wizen up a chump."

But I've found that one out of every 50 lazy-asses can be changed -- there are a lot of old dogs out there. Every now and then, one of my, ahem, pupils will say, "Thanks for telling me that. I didn't realize I was offending anyone." That, to me, seems worth the effort.  Man, I hope I'm not kidding myself.

Twitter @laermer. Let's get this debate started.

 
 
 

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