"Celebrities Are People Too": Meet The Folks Behind "Snark Free Day"

by Brendan O’Connor

The PRConsultants Group (slogan: “National Strength. Local Power.”) has declared October 22nd to be “Snark Free Day.” We emailed with the members behind the endeavor — Atlanta-based restaurant publicist Melissa Libby, of Melissa Libby & Associates, and Louisville-based Nicole Candler, of Nic Creative — about their hopes and dreams for the national discourse.

What started all this?

Nicole Candler: The idea developed out of a discussion among our PRCG Directors. Melissa and some others were commenting on how ugly online communication has become and the role that PR consultants must play in helping clients prevent it, monitor it and respond (or not respond) to it.

Melissa Libby: It kind of boiled up at our last PRConsultants Group conference in January. Started with us complaining about complainers and ended with us deciding to do something about it.

What are the kinds of complainers that PRC folks have to deal with?

Melissa: Everyone with a smartphone can be a complainer and so many of them are. PR people are often tasked with helping our clients keep a positive image so we are concerned about what is being said and whether it is accurate and/or fair. I am not referring to people with a legitimate, constructive complaint. That is completely acceptable. I am talking about people who are just trying to be funny or mean and hurt a company’s reputation in the process.

Are any of your clients involved in the project?

Melissa: I have several clients who are “attending” the event, as do many of our PRCG colleagues. I represent Chef Kevin Gillespie (“Top Chef” finalist, Season 6) and he was lamenting the negativity on social media at our meeting on Friday. I told him about Snark Free Day and he said he would absolutely support that!

Nicole: Our clients aren’t specifically involved, but we are glad to see that among the 400+ people who have signed up for the Snark Free Day Facebook event, many of them are our clients, vendors, family, high school buddies and much more.

Do you have any personal examples of snark impacting your lives?

Melissa: Personally, it wears me out. My Facebook news feed is full of it every day, from snarky comments about what someone is wearing on “Good Morning America” to all the hateful arguments about the government shutdown and/or healthcare.

Nicole: Snark hurts. Developing this campaign has certainly put me on notice to watch what I say and write and remember who I’m speaking to. We don’t claim to be perfect, we just hope to create a new awareness about how we communicate with one another. I’ve had to apologize for my sarcasm on more than one occasion and there are probably many times that I didn’t even catch myself doing it.

Totally. I see (and perpetrate) plenty of it myself. But isn’t it sort of harmless? It doesn’t hurt the person on GMA’s feelings when somebody tweets something mean. Plus, they’re in public! Aren’t you running the risk of criticism anyway?

Melissa: Celebrities are people too and it does hurt their feelings. It’s true that they are in the public and that they have accepted this risk. But does that make it okay? Does that make it nice? When is making fun of people acceptable? I think it was funny at one time when it was few and far between. I used to laugh about it. But after so many people doing it for so long it’s kind of a drag.

What about your jobs? Does the prevalence of snark make doing PR harder?

Melissa: I represent restaurants and snark is prevalent in this industry. It’s so easy to take to the Internet to criticize a chef or restaurant, rather than just speaking to the manager about what can probably be fixed while you are still dining. It’s amazing to me that people will post a negative review on Yelp from their chair at the restaurant but won’t give the manager a chance to make it right. It’s like that would spoil all the fun. So as a PR professional I am left to deal with all of these people and comments. In a broader sense, all of the PRCG members find ourselves stuck between wanting every single member of our clients’ audience to be happy but realizing that this is impossible. It would be so much better without all the snark. Then we could spend time where it’s most effective.

Nicole: Responding to criticism is difficult and teaching clients to step back and think about their response before they say or write is a challenge. Biting back is a natural reaction, but it doesn’t produce the results we would like. This was most difficult for me to coach when I worked with political candidates. People are highly critical of candidates and elected officials and hearing negative feedback is tough. It’s even tougher to craft a calm response since most media want a witty and snarky sound bite.

There’s something honest about snark though… “derision” is a Real Feeling. Whether or not it’s helpful is a different question, but it’s not inherently insincere. Is it the customers’ job to make your job easier?

Melissa: While we are a group of PR professionals, we did not develop Snark Free Day to make our jobs easier. We saw a negative trend and wanted to find a way to make it better. I honestly believe a day without snark could be a day when most people will feel happier.

Are you optimistic that you might change people’s thinking?

Melissa: Sure! As a group we’ve all taken a look inside and realized we might be a little more snarky than is good for the world. So if has changed us a little then surely there are others. Plus we plan to keep this up. Next year there will be t-shirts and awards and more surprises!

Nicole: I think that Snark Free Day can have a great impact because it gets people thinking. If that’s all it does is get people thinking about what they are saying and how they are saying it, then we’ve been successful.

What is PRCG’s stake in this issue?

Nicole: Just like we would coach our clients to stop and consider the impact of their words, we think that asking everyone to do the same will bring a little bit of kindness to the world on Tuesday… and maybe beyond.

Secondly, PRConsultants Group does amazing things every day for our clients and this project has been great fun for us to work on together. We pride ourselves on being National Strength. Local Power. Snark Free Days lets us show how each of us in our own little local markets can start a national movement when we work as one.

Melissa: We want people to stop being so mean.

Brendan O’Connor is a writer living in New York.