Categories: Trust and reputations

16 June 2009


McKinsey spins PR – badly. Ouch

Some of the remarks about PR’s need to reform in McKinsey Quarterly journal (Rebuilding corporate reputations) are OK if hackneyed. But the wider thesis is very shaky. Here’s why.

The authors (Sheila Bonini, David Court, Alberto Marchi) state that some companies have violated their social contract with consumers, shareholders, regulators, and taxpayers. They argue that now more than ever, it will be action—not spin—that rebuilds strong corporate reputations.

They also point out that companies will struggle if they rely on PR alone, with little insight into the root causes of or the facts behind their reputational problems.

They state that CEOs have an obligation to bolster the reputations of their companies. That’s a point Richard Edelman usefully made when he said recently that CEOs should lead new business pitches and run client accounts themselves.

The McKinsey authors highlight three areas in which rapid change is taking place:

… the growing importance of Web-based participatory media, the increasing significance of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other third parties, and declining trust in advertising.

They insist that third party endorsement is vital. For instance, they identify a need to push back on big government in favour of the private sector’s freedom. They point out, however, that CEOs are not the most credible force to advocate this course right now.

All of the above are remarks worth making, even if much of it is motherhood stuff, and even if the authors overstate the role NGOs had in the recent fall from grace of corporate reputations.

But the authors step beyond the excusable when they say PR needs, “to go beyond traditional PR by activating a network of supporters who can influence key stakeholders, with an emphasis on two-way dialogue.” We can leave aside for the moment the deeply controversial nature of “third party PR”: it has often played to the darker side of the Dark Arts (think of the controversy Exxon courted with its support for think-tanks, etc.).

Taking account of the broader picture by conducting two-way communication has always been at the heart of good PR practice. Here are three quotes from our industry’s founders to make the point for me:

Publicity is a one-way street; public relations, a two-way street                                        (Edward L. Bernays, Public Relations, University of Oklahoma press, 1952)

Travel and trade, the mails, the wires, and radio, railroads, highways, ships, motor cars, and in the coming generation aeroplanes, are, of course, of the utmost influence on the circulation of ideas.                                                                                                                                                (Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, BN Publishing, 1921)

It (PR) takes account not merely of the individual, nor even of the mass mind alone, but also and especially of the anatomy of society, with its interlocking group formations and loyalties. It sees the individual not only as a cell in the social organism but as a cell organized into the social unit. Touch a nerve at a sensitive spot and you get an automatic response from certain specific members of the organism.                                                                                     (Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda, Ig Publishing, 1928)

At the very least, much of the PR industry’s modernity guff is mere recycling. The trade can hardly show that it is reforming its ways, or learning new tricks, by recycling some of the oldest wisdom it has available. Of course, spinners often do that: old wine in new bottles, etc. But it’s a bit cheeky, or ignorant, or disingenuous, or patronising to announce as radical departures ancient dogma from past PR theory and practice.

It is good fun to be able to point to some quite grand support for my kind of dissent from McKinsey’s line. Weber Shandwick’s Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross argues here that the authors don’t understand what the business of public relations is about. The FT’s Michael Skapinker is here very disparaging, too. I’m sure that’s not the reputation and thought leadership discussion that McKinsey was seeking.

2 responses to “McKinsey spins PR – badly. Ouch”

  1. Alan Braverman says:

    “They argue that now more than ever, it will be action—not spin—that rebuilds strong corporate reputations.”

    Public relations is – and always has been – about what you DO and not what you SAY. The fact the authors even say that line shows a gross ignorance of what the practice of public relations is.

  2. Heather Yaxley says:

    Paul – thanks for picking up on this. McKinsey seems yet another voice that is ready to bash PR rather than bother to find out how it is actually practised, ie strategically to build relationships, in many organisations.

    I suppose given that our old friend Bernays largely recycled the views of others – even claiming Lippmann’s genius as evidence of his own competency – nothing much changes.