If we want a glimpse of where PR might go over the next ten years, we should examine Japan. The world’s second-largest economy’s property bubble burst 20 years ago. Since then deflation, recession and reality have broken the country’s commitment to consensus building, as Leo Lewis argues in “Japan’s harsh new reality” in today’s Times.
The supposed great tenets of the Japanese way of business – cosy relationships with customers, consensus-based decision-making and the social kudos of protecting jobs – have been exposed for what they always were: conceits that would never survive a hideous economic crunch.
Lewis highlights how reality has been a tough teacher in Japan:
“…suddenly, a good number of Japanese companies do not look benign and paternal but brutal and pragmatic. They are exploiting labour laws and sacking vast armies of temporary staff taken on in favour of permanent employees. They are terminating contracts with suppliers and reshuffling managements with an aggressiveness that nobody foresaw.
Lewis adds that a psychological transformation has taken place among Japanese companies. They now feel more ideologically capitalist than their battered brothers in the West.
Let’s get this straight: in reality hard times make people appreciate the realities of capitalism. As President Obama said yesterday: we’d better stop knocking the get-up-and-go of greedy bankers. We’ll be out of this hole when they rediscover it.
The lesson is surely that companies will be quite brutal as they fight for survival, which is their first duty. They want – they have – to be around to fight another day. Altruistic self-sacrifice is for heroes not firms.
Is our PR industry ready for such a transformation in capitalistic practice? Well, the language of Mutual Social Responsibility, stakeholder engagement, aligning stakeholder values, corporate social responsibility and even word-of-mouth advocacy comes from another age to the one we are entering.
As I have argued before, the future is going to see more different – and angry – messages flying around. Our clients are going to be fighting harder for much more differentiated positions which are sharper-edged. The arguments will be fiercer, more aggressive, less obvious.
The reality check is on. Frankness, honesty, robust communication rather than fluff, flannel and puff are what’s called for in future from communicators.
These were issues I took up in my recent WSJ Editorial & Opinions piece, which those who missed it can read here.