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Tall poppy syndrome – the antithesis to effective PR

Jamie Brownlee | 07.09.2022

Tall poppy syndrome, which can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman times but more recently to Susan Mitchell’s 1984 book, Tall Poppies, is a societal attitude and phenomenon whereby people’s success and achievements are resented or criticised rather than celebrated. Like the flower, people can be cut down and unconsciously demoted, overtly or covertly.

In the UK we can be particularly guilty of this phenomenon. In May I wrote about how clients need to stop being so British as we prepare them to face the media. Brits can squirm at the idea of sounding the corporate trumpet, showcasing their company’s milestones or highlighting their own personal achievements. At times there is a fear of being seen to be too confident or to boast, creating missed opportunities to propel the brand’s media profile, but perhaps this inbuilt anxiety is as a result of potentially being cut down or brought back down to earth by our peers.

We see celebrities and successful personalities continually dissected and scrutinised mainly through the tabloid press but we see this increasingly permeating into the broadsheets. And it’s not just in the UK.

In the US financial world, we recently we saw twenty-year-old Jake Freeman make roughly $110mn by selling a stake in struggling retailer, Bed Bath & Beyond, after its stock price soared. An incredible achievement that initially gained very positive media coverage but then came the put downs. Patrick Jenkins at the Financial Times questioned whether he was a lucky gambler. Others asked how was he able to raise $25 million from friends and family? Did he really go to college where he said he did? Does he have inside information, etc?

In politics, the 36-year-old Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, reached the pinnacle of political power by becoming (until recently) the world’s youngest prime minister. In August she was subjected to a tirade of abuse for a video of her dancing at a party in her official residence in Helsinki, Kesaranta. The initial response from both press and her opponents was to berate and question her political acumen. Were there sexist connotations – a sort of tall poppy syndrome plus? We see this time and time again towards successful women where the fall from grace can be far more swift and violent than that of successful men.

Interestingly while some doubted Marin, ordinary Finns expressed support for the prime minister for having what most younger people consider to be a normal, relatable life for a younger woman, outside of her high-pressure public office. The response, which included Marin producing a negative drug’s test, was a flood of viral videos of women dancing and enjoying themselves on social media in solidarity.

In both these specific cases, we are talking about young, highly ambitious people that could form the leaders of the future. PR is ultimately there to promote interesting characters, stories and consequently brands. In financial services, it is even more important to stand out from the corporate crowd. Great spokespeople that are comfortable to talk about their success and achievements are good for society – others can learn, aspire and dream. While we should always challenge, question and test our leaders and influencers, the somewhat sinister shadow of tall poppy syndrome can shackle the creation of characterful PR programmes, hindering others from possibly learning and copying success stories.

At Greentarget we sometimes see hesitancy from clients to ‘sell themselves’ or their brands, concerned they might be dangerously raising the corporate head above the parapet. These fears can at times be justified; however, any successful media spokespeople that we see today have built themselves a profile that resonates with the public. At Greentarget, we prepare our client’s spokespeople to be personable, specific, credible, empathetic and to raise the thought leadership bar.

From our bespoke communications programme development, challenging mock interviews where we will pose hard hitting questions that put spokespeople on the spot, to writing workshops designed to take a team inside the mind of a journalist, we offer an array of expert support that upskill experts, help them become better advocates and fulfil corporate compliance requirements. Whether they require a singular refresher class in engaging with the media or ongoing executive support, we offer expert training and customised counsel to suit specific business goals. Fundamentally, our aim is to create authentic and resolute spokespeople and brands that stand the test of time.

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