Categories: CSR reality check / Trust and reputations

3 January 2015

2 comments

How to defend PR credibly

I know I’m late getting to this story (it’s thanks to a recent Twitter exchange with @josifmck, @prconversations, @greenbanana and @ggSolutions123). But better late than never. Back in April last year, Emma Jacobs published a piece in the FT titled Publicity is free with no PRs. Now I feel obliged to engage.

In it Jacobs says that hiring PRpros is expensive and often counterproductive. She stresses that more often than not PR pros do material harm to their employers by making them sound prosaic. Or as she puts it, we communicate in corporate-speak to espouse “an anodyne, flat colourless” or “bland” message.

So according to Jacobs, many employers would do well to employ no PR pros at all and to talk freely to the media instead.

Her attack was reinforced in June by the BBC’s economics editor Robert Peston in his prestigious Charles Wheeler Lecture. He opined that, “I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy”. He moaned about how increasingly “PRs seem to have become more powerful and effective as gatekeepers and minders of businesses, celebrities and public or semi-public figures”.

Then in August Nick Cohen, a leading UK journalist and commentator, put the boot into my beloved trade in Standpoint Magazine in a piece amusingly titled Propaganda Shouldn’t Pay. There he writes:

Let me explain how they [press officers and other PR pros] are the nearest thing to prostitutes you can find in public life. You might say that biased reporters look more like sex workers, as they try to satisfy their readers’ every whim. But there is a small difference. The biased journalist occasionally tells the truth.

You get the picture, I suspect. But what concerns me here is the response to such attacks made by leaders of our industry. That brings me to Richard Edelman’s rebuttal of Emma Jacobs’s Publicity is free with no PRs, which was titled A Fundamental Lack of Understanding.

In his piece Mr. Edelman casts well-directed doubt on Jacobs’ assertion that employers don’t need PR pros because “you don’t get in trouble with the press if you’re open and honest”.

Manifestly, plenty of corporate and government people get into big trouble when they are naively honest, just as some others do with inadequately canny duplicity.

Mr. Edelman also seems to be on pretty good ground when he says the “fundamental role of the public relations counselor is to advise a client on policy and only then on communications”.

Actually, this view may both overstate and understate the role of PRs. What bit of policy is it, exactly, that PRs are wise about? Few of them would be much good at running anything as grand as their clients manage. True, the best of them can think strategically about the way an outfit is perceived, and may be bright about nudging their employers toward creating a better reality for the world to look at. And of course, there is valuable work to be done by quite humdrum PRs who go forth and deal as best they can with the press pack and the Twitter horde.

But it is when he substantiates his large point that we find Mr. Edelman shooting himself and, more damagingly, his clients’ reputations in the foot. He writes:

PR executives are the conscience of the corporation, making connections to groups such as non-governmental organizations that can be brought into issues of supply chain or treatment of employees. PR people are often the ones insisting on transparency, from social responsibility reporting to public release of ingredients and their sourcing.

The logical conclusion of Mr Edelman’s remarks is that institutions need the PR profession because they lack a conscience of their own. That pessimistic premise is a slur on the character of modern organisations that I wholeheartedly reject.

It is fair to say, however, that a lack of professionalism was at the heart of recent corporate scandals and failures within the business world. But I figure these ongoing failings in the quality of leadership are not likely to be fixed by listening to the hubub of social media or the disingenuous perfectionism of most campaign groups. (see: my No More Mr Nice Guy op-ed in WSJ-Europe).

Even in those cases when an organisation’s leadership is proven to have lost its moral compass, such as at the supposedly ever-so-ethical Co-op Bank (see: Co-op: the real fraud is ‘ethical banking’), outsourcing the organisation’s “conscience” to PR pros should form no part of the remedy.

Outfits which try this outsourcing approach are precisely likely to miss the point: they will perhaps improve their message, but their performance may remain rotten.

Responsibility for an institution’s morality and conscience cannot be outsourced. Neither can such matters be delegated to one particular department within the organisation concerned. Issues governing behaviour have to be intrinsic to be meaningful; they must be self-directed, rather than Other directed by professionals obsessed with image making.

And in so far as the intervention of third parties is required, that’s the job of regulators, the law and politics, perhaps influenced by public opinion and, sometimes, campaigners. I mean here to get at the idea that ethical performance needs to be a norm whose terms are established within the rather formal (and rather despised) institutions of society. We need to see decent behaviour embedded in democratically mandated structures, rather than hustled by self-appointed – if noisy – casual voices.

I do fully accept that PR plays a crucial role in managing such tensions, to mitigate their possible negative repercussions on behalf of self-interested clients.

The same principles stand when it comes to managing relationships with stakeholders. They too should be governed by intrinsic values and business needs rather than the extrinsic ones, managed by Others, as Mr. Edelman seemingly suggests. And then, here’s my twist.

In my book we need to cut the crap completely. The first responsibility of business is to ensure sustainable profitability. The first responsibility of PR is not to be the conscience of any organiation but to help their clients achieve profitability or to achieve their other objectives if they are not-for-profit. Our job is to present the best case we can for our masters, and that will surprisingly often be an honest one. We may have a role in helping our masters be more professional in finding the necessary balance between ethics and profit. But we shouldn’t overstate our likely role in their improvement, or defend them only when they are at their best.

Note: special thanks to Joseph McKeating’s PR: An Industry That Can’t Die But Must Evolve

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2 responses to “How to defend PR credibly”

  1. I’ve been reading Lamentation, the latest Tudor detective novel by C.J.Sansom (http://www.cjsansom.com/Shardlake) and was pondering the role of Lord Paget as Master of Practices, which is contrasted with the earlier approach of Thomas Cromwell (and Cardinal Wolsey before him) as Master of Policy.

    Paget was seen (according to this fictional tale at least) to have been enacting the wishes of Henry VIII, albeit whilst providing some counsel. His remit was therefore mainly operational. This was argued as being a ‘safer’ position than that of seeking to influence the monarch and be responsible for policies.

    Your post reminded me of this discussion. Whilst PR practitioners may be in a good position as Master of Practices (I’ve thought of us previously in relation to the Master of the Stool or the Jester/Fool in terms of closeness and influence), it is dangerous territory to seek to see PR as responsible for corporate policies.

    As you argue, we are not equipped generally to be able to offer counsel across all business practices and it has to be the organisation’s ‘rulers’ – who are after all accountable in law – who need to be recognised as responsible for the policies that are enacted.

    Rather than risking losing our heads (to continue the Tudor metaphor) for claiming to direct policy, we should use our access and counsel to offer strategic insight and advice that helps leadership to find that balance between ethics and profit (or other strategic goals).

    I agree with you entirely that overstating (or understating) the role of PR is stupid. We are counsellors not court magicians after all…

  2. Toni muzi falconi says:

    Better late than never. I entirely agree with you and cannot imagine myself as the concience of anything, let alone an organization. By the way…what is this?
    Well done.