Categories: CSR reality check / Opinion research / Trust and reputations

16 February 2012


PR should help leaders lead, not listen

Here’s a manifesto in favour of decent top-down adult leadership rather than the febrile fashions of the crowd.  

My profession seems to be obsessing on stakeholder relationship management. I see why. When the angry mob is howling at the gates (actually mostly not so much a mob as a media, protester and Twitter scrum), it seems sensible to pretend that crowds have wisdom. Like politicians, media and most bosses in the West, public relations professionals are terrified of seeming elitist. They believe that leadership is no longer possible, or is toxic.

I have often banged-on about how PRs fear that corporations are seen as evil, so now mistakenly believe they must wear a bleeding heart on their sleeve. That’s not my point today. I want to stress here that it is a profound problem that PRs and many organisations – from firms to political parties – dread leadership and responsibility.

There’s a shortage of adulthood

What I’m on about today is related to a wider social problem. I think it’s time the grown-ups behaved like adults.

We live in a society in which people strut about in a macho culture of bullying, slap-head, hyper-fit, scowling aggression, but at the slightest set-back everyone’s weeping and in therapy.

Big cars, sharp suits and watches the size of dinner plates don’t confer anything worthwhile on a person. Aren’t you struck by how fragile the self-esteem of so many modern pseudo-adults seems to be?

We have watched stars, CEOs and politicians behave like greedy, petulant, hysterical teenagers rather than heroes. But what is striking about many of them is that they have so little fortitude. Most CEOs disappeared from view when the credit crunch struck. We have heard how former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s inner circle phoned bullying help-lines to complain about him. Their self-confidence was revealed as being wafer thin.

At the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos we are repeatedly reminded that profit, shareholder value and shareholders are no longer priorities because all stakeholders are supposedly equal. Such talk comes from Western leaders. The bosses from the East generally hold their nerve and sometimes express disbelief. The split between the two world views has become so stark that Richard Edelman reported enthusiastically from the 2012 WEF gig how Ian Cheshire of Kingfisher, Europe’s leading home improvement retailer, opined that: “we have to get consumers in developing countries past wanting the “American Dream of more.”’

We need corporations rooted in a solid culture

It’s this bifurcation I’m after. I want to try to make it understood that ordinary decency, a workable sense of fairness, a sellable ideal of enlightened self-interest – proper trust between firms and employees and customers and wider society – has to flow from a far deeper sense of corporate culture than can ever be achieved by becoming a weather vane.

Today I want to try to get a proper handle on this particular concern: that our clients cannot afford to aim to become whatever the media or ether-mob, the gobby bloggers, the placard-wavers fancy. They can’t pick up a self-definition by triangulating the top three or four messages they get from a consultant. Even if they did, they’d have to live it and that involves sticking with it and that involves ignoring the next fashion which hurtles into view out of the mists.

I am tolerably sure that floating along on public opinion is never good. It sometimes leads to rushing weirs and crashing Niagras, but more often to long dreary shoals where no-one’s boat floats.

The public says  – or rather the media and campaigners say so supposedly on its behalf –  it wants to humble corporations and corporate bosses, just like it says it wants to humble political parties and politicians. So it has created the risk that firms, parties and institutions become rudderless (sorry, I couldn’t resist another water analogy).

In fact though, if there’s one thing the public fears and distrusts more than strong, mean, unaccountable and self-serving public bodies and leaders, it’s bodies which are too weak to do their job.

Before we can have listening and flexible firms, we need to have firms which are quite strong and quite clear about what they actually want to be.

So the perpetual self-abnegation involved in stakeholder relationship management is a folly. It is a chronic abdication of corporate responsibility. It constitutes a surrender of leadership to instrumentalist short-termism, which causes a loss of vision and direction, encourages low-ambitions and, ironically, undermines public confidence in modern corporations and institutions.

It is a myth that the best reputations must be sustained by stakeholder management crowd sourcing. Good reputations are not based on living within limits set by consumer or voter research and stakeholder engagement, but on breaking down barriers and achieving something significant.

Reputations, trust and success

The best reputations arise from doing things and from keeping promises and delivering results and sometimes from managing failures well. Reputations that endure do so because they inspire.

Great companies and governments transform the world by creating demand and conditions that didn’t exist before. They often do so at great risk in the face of fierce opposition.

There’s more for PR to do than to get their clients to reflect what audiences say they expect or claim that they will accept. There’s more for PR to do than to try to forge consensuses before advising firms to make decisions. Good PR acknowledges that what’s wanted in society is not fixed. Great PR helps society transform the prevailing perceptions of sustainability on business, cultural and environmental matters.

Successful countries from the democratic UK, America and India to today’s undemocratic China (I’ll defend democratic accountability another day) were not built on the back of listening and forging an instrumentalist-driven consensus. They were built on the back of courageous leadership and innovation that won the trust and confidence of their people. This gave the masses things of value  to believe in, such as the American Dream.

Now let’s review a few more conundrums and case studies that highlight how current wisdom is flawed, before I propose my manifesto’s alternative approach.

According to Edelman’s trust survey, trust in business and government today is strongest where stakeholder relationship management matters least and weakest where it seemingly matters most. By a significant margin, China leads the world in both categories and its media are supposedly the most trusted on earth, too. India, Brazil and Indonesia score highly. While Russia records trust levels for both business and government that hover around the same level year-on-year as France’s and Germany’s.

Meanwhile, the PC, the internet and Google’s search engine are all examples of top-down disruptive innovations, not ones driven by bottom-up demand-led engagement-based consultation. They did not arise from listening to the market or to stakeholder groups.


Google’s search engine was an innovative marriage between algorithms and computing power that created its own demand.

The motto of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin was “question everything”. As this review of recent books on Google explains, they were like postindustrial Henry Fords, using digital technology to eliminate all inefficiencies in traditional economies.

Ironically, Google’s Eric Schmidt advocates in a Washington Post piece, Erasing our Innovation Deficit, bottom up crowd-sourced innovation. In it he underestimates the risk-taking top down investment and leadership which helped Google succeed, the internet take-off and the US put a man on the moon: see here. However, that weakness should not detract too much from the mostly timely, insightful points Schmidt makes.

Unloved Microsoft and lovable Apple

Microsoft at its peak never won our empathy; it didn’t need to differentiate itself through branding while it was transforming successfully how we all worked and played on our PCs. Microsoft hardly consulted anybody as it developed what some viewed as monopolistic tendencies. Bill Gates wielded Microsoft’s power like a blunt instrument against all comers, including customers and partners. But if Microsoft was always unlovable, Apple is its polar opposite. Its fans adore it (almost uncritically until recently), believing it to represent an anti-corporate, culturally-fresh, arty sort of an entity. That’s mostly nonsense, but in any case Apple achieved this myth-making with top-down communication and command and control management. Apple’s path was classic old-style branding designed to attack and differentiate itself from a dominant incumbent.

Rock ‘n’ Roll

The electric guitar transformed music. It created new possibilities by creating new sounds. It helped spawn Rock ‘n’ Roll, including Punk, that outraged public opinion. But its hall of fame contains some of the greatest reputations of the last century. But as Simon Cowell shows, even this grass-roots business is managed from the top, even if it draws inspiration and talent from the bottom. It created its own space and its own demand.

Ryanair: nobody’s friend

Last, Michael O’Leary’s Ryan Air’s low-cost digitally-networked business model revolutionised the airline industry. It was an achievement of an aggressive innovative genius, not of stakeholder collaboration, which he despises.

These examples provide evidence of Joseph Schumpeter’s law of creative destruction that drives the capitalist market. They support my argument that PRs who think our trade is all about aligning values, listening, engagement and relationships need a reality check; though I’m very pro using those techniques in the right context and more importantly for the right reasons.

Key manifesto messages

In contrast, I say PRs should be more prepared to defend, advocate and promote risk taking. They should be less concerned about what’s acceptable and what’s popular. They should be more willing to celebrate elitism and success. They should be less concerned with the crowd as it is currently constituted or inclined to emote and opine.

PRs should be more willing to celebrate the arrogance of the change-makers who bring innovation to society. We should be less concerned with bad headlines and with tyranny of media produced crises. Instead we should focus our campaigns on achieving positive outcomes and on getting things done. We should be the torch bearers honing the narratives and messages of the people and forces which challenge or ignore society’s constraints. In that game PR plays a transformative role: we could start by making economic growth our focus.

The blog which got me going

Here’s the article that inspired this manifesto: To listen, to engage: empty buzzwords? Let’s discuss. It sums up the risk adverse stakeholder relationship management approach of mainstream academic PR. According to this school of thought progress depends on winning the public’s trust by establishing empathy. For them it is all about connecting with stakeholders by gathering sense:

“The consequences of the interpretation-of the comprehension-of the gathered sense need to be explicitly related to the listener’s decision making process and are inherently fuzzy, non linear and situational. The competencies are creativity, feasibility, and time framing with their respective tools.”

This piece of gobbledygook is typical of current PR thinking. It springs from a misplaced faith in Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model of PR and an addiction to jargon and spin. Amusingly the author is so sure of his ground that he asks What comes after Grunig? and replies, “the answer to that looming question is that after Grunig…comes Grunig.

The danger here is that Grunig’s supporters have ended up trying religiously to make reality fit the theory. That’s the trap, if I’m any judge of PR-related text, that the Stockholm Accords, arising from the Global Alliance’s World Public Relations Forum debate, fell into.

In summary, my point is that PR is a multi-faceted, flexible profession. Sometimes it is top-down and one-sided. Sometime it is a two-way interactive real-time force. In whichever way it does its job, however, PR is an objectives-driven art rather than a science that’s reducible to orthodox formulas. My take home message is that PR makes its most useful contribution to society when it advocates transformative risk-taking on which great reputations are built.

This is an updated piece that was first published in February 2010

7 responses to “PR should help leaders lead, not listen”

  1. toni muzi falconi says:

    Paul, nothing like what you call ‘gobbledygook’ hey?
    ‘Advocating trasformative risk-taking on which great reputations are made’ is certainly, in my view, less clear and more banal than the paragraph you cite entirely out of context, which does a disservice to your readers.

    In any case, be assured that true leadership is based on ‘listening’ throughout any decision making process.
    What I attempted to do, in the post your refer to, is to move from today’s consolidated lipservice and mainstream approach to ‘listening’ as a core and integral part of any communicative process, to a cautious dissection of what ‘listening’ requires in terms of skills and comptetencies.

    I am sorry I could not count on your normally collaborative contribution to the discussion by criticizing and adding to the attempt, instead of the wandering around in a circle of generic humpytdumps, and also gratifying our work in prconversations as a current mainstream tendency.
    I wish it was, but it certainly is not, at the very least not as current and mainstream as your inconclusive and vague considerations.

    cheers my friend,

  2. Tim Beighton says:

    Seems to me that this boils down to clients being risk averse; and who can blame them! its a scary world out there, especially to a client who is bombarded with a PR telling them that all these stakeholders have a stake in their business and they should be communicated with. Sometimes it can be easier for a client to bury their head in the sand and hope it all goes away. The PRs job would be to coax the ostrich out and make it run around: I suppose your transformative risk taking comes in here.
    However all too often in real terms not theory the client (after all a client isnt interested in theory, just results with the least risk) will not budge so the PR is forced to work within the confines of the very small whole they have dug for themsleves in the sand and gradulaly show them it can be widened.Its a slow laborious process out there in the trenches and one that all the theory in the world cannot hope to change.

  3. Richard Bailey says:

    Even when I don’t agree with you, I just love reading your words.

    ‘We live in a society in which people strut about in a macho culture of bullying, slap-head, hyper-fit, scowling aggression, but at the slightest set-back everyone’s weeping and in therapy.’

    Great rant!

  4. Mandy Queen says:

    Elitists and risk-takers have their place within some brands but would fare badly in others. For example, Ryanair’s Michael O’leary’s leadership works because it fits with the Ryanair brand, it’s cheap. People put up with the abuse that Ryan dishes out because they don’t care, customers almost expect a bad attitude and service from the company for the price they pay. There is no way he would be successful if he ran a premium airline. Simon Cowell is another example, he is successful due to is brutal honesty and we expect him to be the baddie. But he wouldn’t fair very well being CEO of a charity or leading parliament. PR’s place is to build that reputation within the core values of the brand, sometimes that means taking risks but mostly it’s about managing relationships internal and external through listening to and engaging with stakeholders.

    “Customers are not recipients, they’re participants.” Coke

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    Mandy, the success of Ryanair’s business model nearly destroyed BA’s premium alternative. For too long BA ran its business using your logic. Now it is in head-on collision with its cabin crew which it for too long listened to, built relationships with and engaged (that same cabin crew now feels betrayed).

    Of course, each business has its own culture and Michael O’Leary and Simon Cowell would not be suitable for most of them (though direct honesty certainly would be suitable). My point is that the pressure of competition calls for constant innovation and reinvention of nearly every brand all the time and that calls for risk taking and leadership. There’s no escaping it.

  6. David Rosen says:

    Paul, this piece is nicely written and provocative piece in both senses of the word. Nothing wrong with a little elitism to offset the rampant mediocrity that envelops us. I agree with you that good reputations (and I would add successful businesses) are not based on living within limits set by consumer or voter research and stakeholder engagement, but on breaking down barriers and achieving something significant — in other words by innovating and leading.

    Still, as public relations professionals we cannot ignore entirely the roar of the crowd, especially in today’s over-saturated social media world in which incredible damage can be done very quickly. We must take stock of what’s out there and incorporate and/or respond in ways that support the goals that our companies and institutions have set. This doesn’t mean embracing or responding to every trend or demand du jour. It does not mean changing direction when the tide seems to running the other way. It means being ready to alter tactics and even strategies when indicated, even as goals remain constant.

  7. […] Trust Barometer conclusions, and in initiatives such as the Stockholm Accords (see here here here here and here). It is an outlook which pretends that all stakeholders are equal. It is an arm […]