Honestly, PR is dishonest

Symmetry and storytelling are fine but only if they improve competitive advantage

Op-Ed by Alan Kelly, MA

Bored of the alchemy of reputation metrics, the insincerity of authenticity and other communication terms du jour, I am often entertained at public relations conferences by counting the utterances of words like compete, rival or opposition. Never have I needed more than the fingers on one hand.

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that the field we hope will be a profession is intellectually dishonest and anti-competitive. It needs a fresh start: one that’s based on the truth and real intentions of its function.

I don’t mean anti-competitive in the sense of antitrust or the restraint of trade. I mean it in the sense that PR practitioners and their myriad supporting associations and accredited degree programs willfully resist the idea that their practices and scholarship are rooted in winning and taking.

As a consequence, most practitioners can’t (and don’t) vie for marketing-sized budgets or McKinsey-like retainers because they won’t position their work as a means to prevail. They won’t admit to the reality that PR and communications is, however subtle, an exercise in positioning, re-positioning and de-positioning. Thus, these same practitioners are denied a seat at the proverbial Table because what they do is perceived to be prophylactic and compliant, not proactive and competitive. They are do-gooder scouts knocking on boardroom doors.

Symmetrists will wag their fingers that PR excellence is based not on winning but on aligning mutual interests.

I’d like to think that’s true.

I’d also like to think that Arthur Page, the pioneering communications chief who helped build one of U.S. history’s most successful but ill-fated monopolies, AT&T, was right when he observed that an organization operates at the pleasure and permission of its publics.

In my mind, it’s an essential principle—though not to be confused with the seven Page Principles, which the eponymous Arthur W. Page Society derives from his writings. In fact, Mr. Page’s premise is only a strategy to advance an organization’s relative competitive advantage; it’s not a goal.

Likewise, symmetry is fine if what it delivers is success in a contested market, a point of my video debate with James Grunig and a subject I present in a feature article in The International Journal of Communication, “Dancing with the Giant.”

I am mindful of the merits of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and new models to tease out and trigger corporate values. They offer some benefits, but their adherents know better than to invoke virtue.

CSR is more often a guilt gift wrapped in corporate values, and corporate values are a dog whistle to harness employee advocacy. Each is packaged and presented for its mutual upside, but each is employed for its competitive potential.

Practitioners and educators of PR and communication have largely failed us, their clients and students, not for their good intentions, but for their wishful thinking and dismissal of their disciplines’ base value and purpose.

PR and communication exist to advance the relative competitive advantage of brands and—dare I say it—reputations, but only then.

Let’s talk less about storytelling and more about what we really do, the strategies we employ to get it done, and the actual units that define the work and research.


Alan Kelly holds an MA in communication research from Stanford University and a BS in public relations from the University of Southern California. Currently founder and executive director of Playmaker Systems, LLC, his Washington, DC-area consultancy specializes in strategy and simulations for global corporations. He is author of The Elements of Influence and a weekly contributor on SiriusXM POTUS124.

Kelly has taught strategy courses at George Washington University and the University of Southern California. From 1992 to 2003, he was founder and CEO of Applied Communications, an award-winning San Francisco-based PR and research firm. Kelly began his career in PR in 1980 as the national president of PRSSA. From 2002 to 2013 he was a member of The Arthur W. Page Society.

Follow Alan Kelly on Twitter or his company’s Facebook account or contact him by email.


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98 Replies to “Honestly, PR is dishonest

  1. I and some 90 percent of the voices in this discussion definitely agree with Jim Macnamara’s position.

    Clearly this does not de facto make it right, but it it does mark a rather surprising and comforting (as long a not too comfortable…) consensus that would have been hardly likely only eight years ago when this PR Conversations blog began. As much as parts of the original post (and some comments) made me rise up my arms in despair… I commend current PRC curators for having provoked this discussion.

    1. Unfortunately, the other 10 percent tend to be a very vocal and cantankerous minority. I hasten to add that if this thread is assumed to be representative sample of the PR community.

    2. To underscore my comment to Jim M., my view of PR and my conclusion — that it is inherently dishonest or at least delusional — is based on a variety of things, my education and professional experience as examples. But what has crystallized this thinking is an ontology that I have developed, tested and vetted with major companies, on four continents, and at two universities. It has even been awarded a patent in strategy decision-making.

      We are overdue for an “atomic” description of the industries of influence, particularly PR. In my opinion, practitioners and educators have sailed past the obvious step of defining the most basic units of our practice and, as such, operate on subjective metrics and soft theories that are more aspirational than objective. If PR is to be taken seriously, it should be utterly transparent about its moves and motives, symmetric and asymmetric.

      If you disagree with my accounting of PR’s elements, per se, I am enthusiastic to know what you believe them to be.

  2. This post presents clear evidence that there is an identity crisis in PR – or perhaps, more specifically, a split personality. On one hand, the commitment to dialogue, relationships, coorientation, negotiation with stakeholders to try to achieve a ‘win-win’, and presenting a human face of organizations. On the other, Alan calls for a PR “rooted in winning and taking”.

    Voices across the Altantic and across the Pacific who increasingly criticize American PR are actually referring specifically to the latter kind of PR – a PR ‘rooted in winning and taking’, nailing competitors, maximizing consumption and consumerism. In this PR, others are ‘competitors’, ‘rivals’ and the ‘opposition’. People are ‘consumers’.

    I do accept that Alan gives some consideration to CSR and working with publics. But his overall contention is that symmetry and relationships with publics are only relevant if they lead to ‘success’. What is success? In this argument, success is the organization winning – beating its rivals, competitors, and opposition.

    Winning means there are also losers – lots of them, in fact. We have seen that demonstrated very well recently by US business. The behaviour of Wall Street bankers who managed to destroy $1.5 trillion of value in people’s savings, superannuation, and homes in their self-focussed drive to win and succeed.

    While I have debated with Jim Grunig and others, often strenuously, on some aspects of Excellence theory and questionned some elements of the current dominant paradigm of PR, I don’t believe that Jim Grunig calls for or expects ‘symmetry’ in organization-public relationships. Rather, the theory seeks a commitment to two-way ‘give and take’ interaction. I am certanily not one pushing an idealistic, unrealistic model of society in which total harmony prevails. But if PR becomes what this post says it should be, what is the difference between PR and marketing, advertising, and business strategy?

    Furthermore, here’s the interesting thing. Before supporters of the view advocated in this post decide I am the opposition and a competitor to be beaten, take a close look at the latest thinking in leading business consulting firms such as Gartner, KPMG, Pottinger, etc. Gartner has published a book on ‘The Social Organisation’ calling for a new approach in business that integrates businesses into society in a way that achieves a ‘win-win’. IBM has declared itself a ‘social business’ committed to collaboration with its stakeholders. A newsletter from a leading business consulting firm that came across my desk just this week says:

    “Gone should be the mindset of winners and losers. We need to think collaboration … If you want to be sustainable, then morals and ethics need to be at the core of your organisational DNA.”

    If PR heads in the direction advocated, it is heading backwards, or at least mired in 20th century rampant neoliberal capitalism. Leaders of the business world are actually rethinking their approach and recognizing the importance of communication, collaboration, and engagement (albeit slowly). Governments in democratic countries are also recognizing that citizens have disengaged more than ever with politics and that they need to change, and trust in CEOs, business leaders and politicians is at its lowest ebb in history.

    What is called for in most PR theories and models is not ‘warm and fuzzy’ “do-gooder scouts” , but skilled specialist communicators who can create and maintain dialogue between organisations and their stakeholders to resolve problems and reduce opposition (rather than treat everyone as the opposition), build and maintain relationships, facilitate the collaboration that businesses now recognise as essential, and rebuild the trust that governments and business desperately need in order to maintain legitimacy and achieve sustainability. That is a huge opportunity.

    1. Jim,

      Thanks for this very thoughtful comment. I’d like to clarify two things:

      1. I do not necessarily counsel against a code of competition. Like so many on this blog, I too, harbor a certain distaste for the organization-centric mindset. I have, in fact, resigned major clients for this very reason. That I am cast as having American, capitalist, and zero-sum game preferences is, to me, more a lesson in argumentation than in fact. It’s akin to saying something conservative to a liberal and then being called a wing nut. But I deserve it for having proposed a model that clearly goes against the preferences of the dominant paradigm.

      2. The system I have developed is the result of a simple question that occurred to me in 1995. It was in reaction to a provocative statement that my client, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, leveled un-rehearsed at a Microsoft and Bill Gates. I asked myself, “What did he just do? Specifically? Was it a strategy? A tactic? A ploy? Was it an outcome? An outtake, etc.?” Biologists and chemists would know precisely. What I have been attempting to define since that time is a framework that like any good ontology or classification system houses a complete set of irreducibly unique stratagems of influence — what we informally have dubbed “plays.” A REASON that I am concluding that PR is dishonest is based on myriad identifications of “plays” by organizations and professionals who otherwise present themselves as equalists and reputation caretakers. I cannot come to any other conclusion than this at this time, however unpopular.

      To you and others engaged in this excellent debate, I ask a simple question: “What are the irreducible unique units of the practice of public relations?” What are the analogies to chemical elements, species and musical notes, as examples? My answer is that there are 24 influence strategies, none of them with the hard edges we find in the physical sciences, but each being described in detail and each being understood for their benefits and deficits and the means by which they can be helped or hindered.

    2. Very well stated, Jim. Thanks for contributing this post. My views are identical to yours.

      For Alan, I would say there are many “irreducible, unique units of the practice of public relations” that are not included in your taxonomy. Most of your units are asymmetrical strategies, as I have pointed out to you many times. I haven’t seen any dialogical, two-way, symmetrical, or collaborative strategies in the taxonomy yet. In addition, most of them are message strategies and not behavioral strategies. As I have said many times, public relations is more than messaging (what I call the symbolic interpretive approach). It is more about strategies designed to cultivate relationships between organizations and publics (what I call a strategic management approach). Some of these cultivation strategies might involve messaging, but they also include listening, research, joint problem solving, networking, sharing of tasks, being unconditionally constructive, etc.–many of which scholars such as Flora Hung and I have cataloged in a taxonomy of relationship cultivation strategies.

      One other point I would like to make. You define these “irreducible units” as influence strategies, but I don’t believe I have seen you define “influence.” To influence means to “affect or alter,” according to my Webster’s Dictionary. But what are these units supposed to affect or alter? To measure and evaluate these units, you need to define an outcome. In an organization-centric sense, that usually means to affect the cognitions, attitudes, or behaviors of publics. What evidence do you have that one of these outcomes has occurred as a result of one or more of your units. In an organization-public-centric sense, this usually means changes in cognitions, attitudes, or behaviors of publics, managers, or both. In a longer-term sense, it means changes in relationships or reputation. Again, I would like to see evidence of the effects of these units on any of these short- or long-term outcomes. I suspect there are many outcomes that are not desirable, such as poor relationships, poor reputations, disgust, cynicism, distrust, and the like.

      So, I ask again, where is the evidence that these strategies actually improve the competitive position of the organizations that use them?

  3. Don, you say “Now my argument is, would a firm that with prior PR counsel in reputation management, stakeholder concerns — where regulatory agencies and law enforcement agencies form part of enabling links to the firm, have dared to commit the fraud? Yes throw in the whistle blowing. I think not.”

    I say: Enron was the most reputation-conscious company of its time. It invested more time than most companies in PR counsel and PR campaigns. It had the best PR advice money could buy and as a result its image for promoting CSR and stakeholder relationship management was second to none. It also operated in a highly-regulated sector. Its core message was that it was an innovative pioneer of risk-adverse contracts. And yet….

    Oh, and it published its fraudulent books and dodgy dealings in its annual report – transparently – but nobody bothered to read it (not until it was outed).

    Enron’s demise was a complex affair. It deserves proper research. I think you do not take this case study seriously enough.

  4. Don, we need much more debate about this subject (ethics and morals) and to express much less arrogance about how simple it is to grasp. The law, for instance, differs in every country; and in Switzerland in every canton. So, one cannot set one’s moral compass by the law. But obeying the law is an imperative. Ask Google in China. Talk to any female executive who works in Saudi Arabia and is denied the right to drive a car. But ethics and morals have a universal application. Perhaps I’ve read too much Aristotle and Kant. But…

    The lack of any (ok much) understanding of such issues and thinkers explains, I maintain, why PR pros so often fail their clients. My point is that ethics and morals matter much more than your dismissive comments seem to suggest. This is far from argument for argument’s sake.

  5. Lyndon, it would take a court of law to decide conclusively who knew what. However if the PR department (not to mention PR agencies) acted in ignorance that’s truly revealing. In fact it is even more worrying – in many senses – than if they were shown to have known what they were talking about. We PR pros cannot be seen to take comfort from the claim of our industry’s ignorance in such circumstances. Trust in what we communicate forbids it.

  6. Lyndon, Enron’s prosecutors did not seek convictions for the crimes you list and they committed. The actual accounting crimes of off-balance-sheet (book) this and (and fake company) that was not pinned on them directly. Instead they went for and got convictions for the easier to stick (prove) crime of lying and misrepresentation. That is they were found guilty of the age-old misleading PR-led claim that all is well, when in reality all is kaput.

    Like I said – this requires proper discussion based on informed opinion.

    1. Paul, either way your implication is that in some way the PR/IR teams were complicit in the deception – and I see no evidence of that. If you have some evidence then I’d love to see it. My understanding is that, as far as PR and IR knew, all was well. Had there been any evidence to the contrary it would have, at the very least, warranted conspiracy charges; to my knowledge there were none [please correct me if I’m wrong]

      Best wishes, L

  7. Don, the discussion here about ethics and Enron mostly betrays a complete lack of understanding of what ethics is about. Enron broke the law. The choice between legal and non-legal compliance does not create an ethical dilemma (choice of action) that requires moral reasoning to resolve. That is to say obeying the law is an instrumental imperative. The issues ethics concerns itself with are intrinsically rather than instrumentally normative. Ethics comes into its own whenever there are choices about how one ought to behave in a given circumstance to achieve an end. And ethics is about discovering answers through the use of moral reasoning to ensure that what we do is the right thing in the circumstance.

    If anybody here wants a serious debate about ethics and or Enon: you’re on.

    Meanwhile, I think it fair to say that too many in our ranks wrap themselves in the comforting (spinning) language of ethics without having paused for thought. They would do well to read Kant.

    1. Paul,

      You’re trying to provoke a debate for its own sake and I won’t oblige. Is it ethical or unethical to willfully break the law? And please don’t start building a watch factory so that you can tell the time.

  8. Mercy. One thing is certain: there are many of us who care deeply about our practice/profession, and there continues a massive divide regarding its purpose. The adherents of “integrated marketing communication” defend their position by saying that in the end, it’s all about selling more stuff. I reject that notion as insufficiently nuanced, even as I admit that the end result may be selling more stuff. Perhaps this is the high-toned perspective that Alan finds objectionable. What I will wholly agree on is that our organizations must come out better than the competition. Symmetry often seems zero-sum, but every business considers its stakeholders when enacting strategy, no? Improving margin means raising prices and/or driving down costs. So my supplier stakeholder will suffer and so will the customer. But if my Wall Street stakeholder is unhappy, we might go out of business. Alan’s plays, in my view, are more about recognizing situations and adjusting strategy than about such lofty matters as the theoretical basis that underpins them. So the positioning and repositioning is logical to me.

    The debate over symmetry, though, seems overstated. As I interpret Prof G, and even when I teach Excellence, there will be times when persuasion is crucial. The idea is to, as much as possible, consider whether developing allies among stakeholders makes sense. The American Bankers Association often carries the rhetorical load for the industry, saying things that no one bank would. But the mutual agreement among competitors carried by the trade association allows for a more symmetrical approach. The competitors get some kind of “win ” if not 100% for each…

    OK – so defining what constitutes a win is also critical — Objectives are everything, which happens to be my main message in teaching PR measurement. The strategy — whether purely persuasive a la Heath, or mutual a la Grunig/Hon and The Dozier Continuum — is situational. That supports Alan’s playmaking…

    Can’t we all get along?

  9. A couple of comments to add in the hope of complementing (and complimenting) this useful conversation: one on titling the profession; the other on sustaining and lifting its progress on the job inside an enterprise.

    As to what the profession is called, I favor communication rather than public relations for two reasons. One reason is that the term, and its shorthand PR, have been diminished toward disdainful negativity, overwhelmingly by journalists (for whatever reasons of disdain and professional ego drive them). The other reason is that communication describes the profession better.

    You are right, Jim Grunig; communication is what we do and not who we are; but I find that comfortably consonant with the professional branding accepted in lawyers who provide legal counsel and services and physicians who provide medical counsel and services. I am qualified in the rank of communicators who provide stakeholder connection counsel and services. Lawyers, doctors, communicators: we address and help solve problems in our respective areas of expertise. I must add that I cringe, now that I’ve thought about it, when I hear “public” relations almost to the level at which I abhor the credentialing of some communicators in their ability to reach “audiences” as if there were seated, attentive groups waiting for the word. Well, while in this tangle, I may as express a need to drop the “s” from communication, to be clear that we do not (as Arthur Page did not) install communication devices.

    With regard to what we do, Judith Muhlberg and I have just written a book, now in the publisher’s hands, expressing our belief that communicators, specifically enterprise communicators, are in the practice of conveying and receiving information, to influence toward agreement. We love the point that you have made, Jim, that what is conveyed must be true, supported by proofs. It’s always been that for the practical reason that what is said is less important than what is done.

    Our professional stake in influential communication is supportable by observed behavior. John Kotter of Harvard Business School described it in one of his books: “Behavior that is contrary to the vision overwhelms all other forms of communication.”

    We don’t have the latitude even if we had the attitude to be shape-shifting “PR” people. Judith and I were lucky to have our profession’s stalwart, Bill Nielsen (who headed communication at Johnson & Johnson) tell our Georgetown students in a lecture this year that the CCO has no choice: he has to communicate only what he holds in his heart to be true.

    Judith and I, having been there, done that, tell these young, earnestly seeking leadership opportunity, that communicators lead with purpose. We say that to start each day in the realm of leadership communication, a CCO could have no better reminder than this: to participate effectively in enterprise leadership, what we say must be consistent with what we believe and what we do.

    1. Nothing in a symmetrical approach to public relations says that you can’t respond to distortions about your organization (i.e., what you call competitive threats). Setting the record straight is an important component of symmetrical communication–as long as you don’t equally distort what your competitor says or believes. Debate can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. Nevertheless, asymmetrical debate just confuses everyone and makes it difficult or impossible to solve organization-public or societal problems. The debate about the U.S. healthcare system, which you mention in another response, is a prime example. Symmetrical debate occurs when each party both attempts to influence the other and opens itself to potential influence from the other party (i.e., striving to listen and understand each other.

      1. Jim,

        I’m not sure I’ve heard or seen these words from you: “Nothing in a symmetrical approach to public relations says that you can’t respond to distortions about your organization.”

        This is crucial and I believe a forgotten aspect or your theory. Competitors are the principle contributing stakeholders to the meaning and messaging of any marketplace, and as such they must be researched, monitored and fairly engaged. To ignore them is to let them set the agenda and misrepresent one’s organization and its interests.

        I can sleep now.

        1. Alan, I disagree that the organization’s principle contributing stakeholders are its competitors. In most cases, the customer base is the single most important stakeholder group.

  10. Great commentary and much food for thought. Even while I enjoy the banter, this quote from Jim Grunig really says it all.

    “I’m absolutely convinced that an approach that is both organization-and-public-centric is more effective than an organization-centric approach.”

    1. I agree that this is the money quote. But for me it’s the smoking gun. It is the sentiment/philosophy that stops pros and students from exploring anything asymmetric. And it is central to the broader problem of honesty.

      So what about a competitor that is eating your lunch? What about a lawmaker that is in your way? Does the two-way communicator sit by and do nothing? Sit down and try to reason? Or stand up and do something?

      Chances are they pass, invoking the ageless excuse that the high road is better, that no competitor should be dignified, and gosh they’ve got so much other work to do. In doing so, they ignore both their power as practitioners and the discipline of communications to slow or stop the threat. They cede the obligation to do something to people and functions who are less skilled at taking on the public problem, like HR VPs and lawyers.

      I am not sure that you or Jim or others will disagree that PR won’t mount a defense about specific competitive threats. But what I believe has happened is that the practice of PR is using the ethic of mutuality as a crutch and, over time, has denied itself of the means and best practices by which to use communications as a competitive asset. As such, we are operating with half the manual and half our brains.

  11. To be fair to Alan and in the interests of full disclosure, I attach a link to Alan’s arsenal of “manipulative tactics”. It could be argued that both parties in an interaction should deploy the tactics in any negotiation.
    There is no room for mutual understanding because this is impossible. The fields where they can be employed is also extensive; communication, social media, marketing, sales, politics, military information operations across industries, governments and cultures. No wonder the conversation here sounds like a dialogue of the deaf: http://www.playmakersystems.com/the-playmaker-system/the-system/?play=SN

    1. Don,

      Readers should understand that what I have developed is a descriptive ontology. It is not, inherently, an endorsement of influence strategies, but an articulation of what exists.

      The methods by which my system was observed and developed are well documented in my book and the white paper that details its second iteration. That you see it as an arsenal and its components as manipulative is unfortunate, but I understand your perspective. In any case, these are expressly not tactics. They are, I contend, strategies — the simplest forms thereof in the discipline of influence.

      Take, for example, the Red Herring, which is undoubtedly an ethically-challenged and asymmetrical play. It’s essential purpose is to draw attention away from a player’s vulnerability and there are, of course many ways (i.e., tactics) by which to do that.

      Take, as another example, the Trial Balloon, a fairly accepted, ethical and symmetric strategy. Its existence is owed to the concept of testing ideas, and indeed there are many ways (i.e., tactics) by which to loft such things.

  12. Alan, a breath of fresh air compared to the myriad of columns written about our industry – thank you.

    I, sadly, am not convinced that mutual interest comes in to many PR ‘professionals’ consideration – when setting budgets or pitching the media [as so many firms do in the name of PR]. Or, most importantly, when it comes to evaluating the success, or failure, of a program. The agency has the retainer fee irrespective of how satisfied the customer is OR whether or not the objectives [if they were even set] have been achieved.

    Nor do I think that many understand the concept of positioning, repositioning or de-positioning. As for talking less about storytelling and more about what PR professionals really do… I’m not sure most understand enough about the fundamentals to have a meaningful discussion – sadly. We can live in hope.

    Best wishes,


    1. Thanks Lyndon. I’d say that we can live in hope that our educators will provide a more balanced view of the applications and strategies that undergird the craft.

      1. Alan and Lyndon,

        Do you mean those who may disagree with you don’t understand the fundamentals to have a meaningful discussion with? I interpret Alan’s position to be organization-centric, a position he now seems not to want to be associated with in his exchange with Jim below.

        The honest thing to would be to restate these “fundamentals” that others apparently don’t understand instead of obliquely referring to other positions expressed elsewhere. Jim does this eloquently below, restating his symmetrical notion.

        I do concede that there are PR people who are guilty as charged, but it is dishonest to leap from there and conclude that you’re not understood because your interlocutor doesn’t understand the fundamentals.

        Alan: Since you now say you don’t want to be associated with organization-centric position and you seem to have diparaged the symmetrical approach, what is your “repositioned” stand now?

        1. Don,

          I take the position that PR is not honest. As an industry it has sought to beautify its function for decades.

          I remember as a PRSSA student listening to the late Joseph Awad of Reynolds Aluminum, then the PRSA president, telling us that PR is “noble.” But I wonder if his modern counterparts in raw materials mining believe this too. This is an example of PR not being honest.

          I think of Edward Bernays, in whose study I sat years ago, and his delight at having saved the velvet industry. He created a need that was not needed to create a need for velvet. Velvet. This is an example of PR not being honest.

          I think of Arthur Page and his stewardship of AT&T. He’s a celebrated figure in PR today. But for what? That he played an instrumental role in the creation of a business model that expressly misserves the public interest? This is an example of PR not being honest.

          I have a great deal of admiration for the practitioners whose compass is symmetry or, if that’s somehow archaic, fairness and transparency. Though I think they constrain themselves with such oaths, I don’t believe they are dishonest people or practitioners. Quite the contrary. But I know from my work and the systems that I’ve proposed that no one in the realm of influence can be effective without the ongoing use of influence strategies. They seek to influence, which is inherently not a symmetric concept. And that suggests some level of conflict that is seldom disclosed. Thus, a form of dishonesty.

          It may strike you oddly that I don’t care to be affiliated with organization-centric companies. But describing how the game actually is played does not necessarily make me a fan of it.

          1. Alan,

            Thanks for your substantive response. I have downloaded a hardcopy of your article: “Dancing with the giant” about your influence decision system and debate with Jim.

            I have also linked to your page below. Your system sounds fascinating and would love to see a case (maybe you already have one) where the protagonists were both versed in the system. Intuitively, I suspect it would have to be something like the US Presidential election where money and cebral resources aren’t in short supply.

            Playcaller app is also installed and I look forward to fun weekend. You may have perfected Machiavelli’s system — but the jury is still out on that one.

        2. Hi Don,

          I’m suggesting that the majority – not all – PR professionals do not understand the fundamentals of their profession. When you read articles that suggest that content marketing is the future of PR, social media putting the public in public relations, and others that consistently talking about media pitching it is hard to draw another conclusion in my opinion.

          If the majority of PR ‘professionals’ don’t understand that PR is about building relationships with an organizations publics [audiences], that marketing is about getting the audience to take action on the organization’s behalf and that publicity/promotion is simply the communication of information without the intent to build a relationship or motivate an audience to take action, it’s hard to talk about anything more in-depth.

          To be clear, I’m not talking about contributors to this stream, but to the industry at large. The fact that most PR companies [again, not all] sell publicity/media relations under the guise of PR is, to Alan’s point, dishonest – either deliberately or through ignorance.

          Best wishes,


          1. Lyndon,

            Thanks for mentioning Enron above. My take is that the Enron excesses happened because of the abscence of ethical restraint — that is often advocated (but not exclusively) by effective PR counsel. In this case it would cover potential negative effects of relationships with powerful stakeholders (investors, regulatory authorities etc). And more importantantly the grave reputational consequences of breaking the law.

            Others, including at least three contributors to this thread, have a different take; that the Enron fiasco happened because PR was complicit in the fiasco by either not giving correct counsel or by pouring petrol on the mess by excessive media hype and spin.

          2. Good morning Don,

            WOW! I hope you – and the other posters – have evidence to support your belief. Actually, I’d love to see it… are you seriously suggesting that you think PR was complicit or attempted to cover up the frauds?!

            Just as a refresher the charges brought were:

            Conspiracy to commit securities and wire fraud
            Securities fraud
            Wire fraud
            False statements to auditors
            Insider trading
            Bank fraud
            Making false statements to banks

            Looking forward to seeing your supporting evidence!!

            Best wishes,


          3. Lyndon,

            As noted below my take is that the lack of proper PR counsel led to the Enron fiasco.
            Others have argued PR exacerbated the situation.


          4. Morning Don,

            Yes, I understand that. What I’m trying to figure out is how you draw that conclusion. What evidence do you have for coming to that conclusion, other that the fact that you think PR didn’t blow a whistle on what was happening?

            Best wishes,


          5. Lyndon,

            It is getting (technically) tricky to respond to posts. I don’t know whether it is inbuilt that after a number of responses the post-loop closes.

            My approach is holistic, Enron is an example that everyone has heard about. I do not know the legal details of the case and I think that is not the focus here. Suffice it to say that it was a fraud. Now my argument is, would a firm that with prior PR counsel in reputation managemen, stakeholder concerns — where regulatory agencies and law enforcement agencies form part of enabling links to the firm, have dared to commit the fraud? Yes throw in the whistle blowing. I think not.

            Entangling oneself in the legal issues is not productive in this context.

  13. Quite the robust debate and discussion, sometimes sharp-tongued (sharp keyboarded?) and always edifying.

    How much of this is political? PR in a preponderance of cases is taught as a part of journalism/mass comm (at Kent State, advertising is in there too, but not marketing…), so there has been a natural tendency it seems to reflect the left-of-center perspectives commonly associated with journalism. Marketing is taught typically in business schools, particularly as part of MBAs, and could be said to reflect the more right-of-center business perspective.

    Journalists became journalists to save the world. MBAs become MBAs to make money. Not the most simpatico pairing. This might account for the disagreement here — regardless of how one might describe his or her politics, it is rampantly idealistic to strive for symmetrical outcomes — which can be useful as an aspiration for a better world.

    To Alan’s, Don’s and Paul’s points (Both Argenti and Seaman) making your organization successful is a PR’s job. The form of and path to that success will be defined by the organization — and the PR may influence that, which may be the aspiration of the PR-as-profession, PR-as-management-function, measure-outputs-outtakes-outcomes both financial and non, crew.

    Yours in continued exploration,

  14. I’ve resisted commenting on this thread so far, simply because I find the headline rather sad. It is also inherently damaging to a profession I love, so in the end, I’ve taken the bait.

    Anyone who works regularly online will know that this headline will stay around for years. Today’s online behaviours lean towards fast scans rather than long reads, so it will remain as a link from an authoritative industry blog (which PR Conversations has become over the years) that will probably be used as superficial support to arguments that present a negative view of the work we undertake, to the detriment of honest, ethical and dedicated practitioners around the world.

    As to the opinion expressed, I find it somewhat outdated, echoing exploitative business models prevalent in the last century that are now at odds with today’s relationship economy.

    The purpose of public relations is to build and sustain the relationships required to maintain a licence to operate. No licence – no competition. Bad relationship – no competitive advantage. What makes today’s organisation more competitive? Simply this. A sound and workable relationship between our organisation and those we encounter, be they customers, legislators, rivals, suppliers or employees.

    Organisations that align their values with their communities and stakeholders will, in today’s world, be more competitive and, more importantly, are more likely to endure rapidly changing environments. The consumer revolution in mobile and wearable devices, the generational shift in expectation from product to experience, the move away from transactional relations between a company and its customers to experiential and value-driven interactions all take us to a point of change. Today’s customers will pay for a great experience with a company they like and trust – and which listens to them – rather than simply forking out for a mass-produced product imposed on them via business models developed centuries ago. Commercial concerns that fail to respond to this change will simply disappear.

    The practitioner’s role in all this is clear, honest and transparent. Understand the organisation, its purpose and values. Identify and understand the critical relationships required to build and sustain the licence to operate. Understand the shared economic, social, cultural, digital and political environment everyone is working in. Then devise and implement an approach that will serve all those involved and achieve the defined outcomes – which could be profit or societal good – depending on the organisation.

    It is a proactive role that requires a range of skills and competencies and one which is at the heart of the success – commercial or otherwise – of the organisation.

    The PR academic’s role is also clear, honest and transparent. Research and explore the emerging and evolving relationship models, track and document the changes to economic and social engagement, delve into ‘where next’ rather than ‘what’s been’. Study how organisations can find ways to put stakeholders at the heart of their operations and develop values that are actionable, demonstrable and profitable for all concerned.

    As to your final assertion Alan, that PR and communication exist to advance competitive advantage, I would have to disagree. It is a bigger picture than that. We exist not so our organisations get a quick fix or make a fast buck. We exist so that our organisation’s licence to operate is sustained and continuous. Because without that, there’s no contest. Honest.

    1. Catherine – thank you for joining the conversation. Yes, the headline here will be cited by those who have read no further – but I trust others will engage with the comments and see that it stimulated a robust discussion.

      Indeed, the concept of ‘honesty’ per se is not discussed here in terms of whether or not PR is more than morally or ethically neutral overall. Rather, I see Alan’s post as yet another ‘definition of PR’ piece. Is his viewpoint any more or less honest than anyone else’s? I think when we peel away the provocative veneer, it probably isn’t.

    2. Catherine, it would be great if you wrote more often….

      I basically agree with your criticism, but was attracted much more by the provocative title than to the content…… a rehash of things that, as Heather notes following the peeling process, have been said hundreds of times.

      Of course public relations is successful if and when it achieves the organization’s legitimate objectives. There are some 4 million persons in this world that make a decent living in this profession. Save exceptions, we cannot seriously believe that there are at least as many philantropists that pay us to NOT achieve their objectives…

      If one is in sales, success comes from selling; if one is in public relations success comes from improving the quality of relationships with stakeholder publics.

      How does one increase sales? By persuading and pitching.
      How does one improve the quality of a relationship? By reinforcing trust, committment, satisfaction and power balance in that relationship.
      And how does one persuade and pitch? By listening to prospective consumers to improve the quality of one’s communication-to approach.
      And how does one improve that relationship? By con-vincing (etimology: vincere-cum,, winning together.

      Honestly…where is the issue?

      1. If there are four million people in the world making a decent living by listening, reinforcing trust, winning together and generally having bubble baths with stakeholders then I’m not surprised that PR’s identity crisis is so profound. What you’re broadly describing, Toni, is a compliance function and that’s no achievement.

        Where is the issue? It’s that PR practitioners are glued to a mindset that their great value is as some kind of public conscience (aka, the do-gooder scout). That gets them to the Table for every crisis, maybe, but not for every meeting. Their commitment to comity is so one-sided that they are closed out of the ongoing wars and skirmishes of every marketplace.

        Communications’ greatest potential is to position and de-position. It is not exclusively to make friends but, equally, to use others as foils — all for the purpose of sharpening an organization’s value and strategic position. Sadly, in the context of PR, it has been tucked into a happy-talk function that CEOs broadly view as a preventative capability.

        Four million practitioners shouldn’t be happy about that.

        1. Obviously you misinterpreted me.

          I did not say what you attributed to me.

          I said either the clients and employers are philanthropists or they think that we help them achieve their objectives.

          And this is so obvious that there is no need to reiterate the concept.

          I also said there are some of these four million that identify themselves as public relators (improving relationships with publics) and many more who prefer to embrace other interpretations.

          Your other considerations are unhelpful to a serious dialogue….

    3. Catherine,

      We are on different ends of a spectrum, perhaps, but yours is the best description I’ve every read (or heard) of the dominant model. My apologies that the headline offends.

      My assertion that PR is not honest is rooted in the experience and observations that how the industry is portrayed is not how it’s applied. An oil company engages with an environmental NGO under the pretext of collaboration. But it’s primary strategy is to nullify a potentially hostile constituency. A developing nation retains an agency, which casts the engagement as reputation management. But the retainer is paid to obscure the young nation’s misdeeds. Everyone gets an award. Everyone’s happy. Yet what’s just been done are forms of muffling and manipulation.

      PR people are VERY good at what they do. Too good, I somethings think. The cleverest are a realtime blur of positioning, re-positioning and de-positioning, capable of running plays that do much more than monitor and ‘relate’ to publics.

      We know in our bones that PR is a form of manipulation. Even the act of collaboration, even the process of two-way symmetry, even the attempt at mutual benefit is a strategy to help are companies prevail in their marketplaces. We are all too clever, and thats fine, but we should be truthful about what we are really doing and how it’s done.

      1. Alan

        The examples you give do suggest muffling and manipulation and personally I consider them to be outside the bounds of ethical practice. I suspect there exists a multitude of such examples and to ignore unethical practice or pretend it doesn’t exist would indeed be dishonest. We can seek to reduce such instances and professional associations as well as individuals have a significant role to play in this regard.

        However, I would argue that today’s organisational outcomes are driven by carefully determined values. It is the genuinely good intent behind the outcomes that will develop a competitive environment in which the organisation, in conjunction with its myriad stakeholder groups, will be able to achieve a sustainable future and consistent growth.

        All relationships will, at the outset, involve persuasion, listening and dialogue but if manipulation is employed and then unmasked as a strategy, undertaken to force a hand or intimidate opinion, then the illusional relationship dissolves into an acidic mix of reputational damage, soured social capital and, of course, an inability to compete as the licence to operate will be withdrawn. So I would have to disagree entirely with your comment ‘ we know in our bones that PR is a form of manipulation’. Maybe those who practice manipulation and call it PR rattle such bones beneath a deceptively benign exterior but for the rest of us – drawing on long experience working in both the northern and southern hemispheres – the intent is certainly not manipulation. Again, professional associations, academics and individual practitioners have a responsibility to explain and convey (action and words) the role ethical public relations practice plays in organisational and societal success.

        The other thing that struck me in your commentary, and which more than anything else leads me to concur that we are at opposite ends of the spectrum, is you seem to use ‘do-gooders’ as a pejorative term when, in fact, most humans err on the side of good and, I would suggest, doing good is something to be praised rather than cynically decried.

        We all must earn a crust and when people are establishing or managing a business my experience has been that most wish to earn some money, do some good and provide opportunities for others to do the same. The exploitative – and manipulative – industry models of the past are fragmenting, hastened by a changing view of how society and business should interact for the good of all, rather than the profit of a few. Even large corporations recognise this shift and many look to different ways of interaction and reporting – perhaps the International Integrated Reporting Council is an indicative example of a future, altered state of engagement based on carefully considered relationships that create benefit, do good and encourage competition based on ethical entrepreneurship and sustainable organisational development.

        All of this takes time – we’ve heard before that a big ship cannot change direction instantaneously – but with the help of the professional practitioner, larger organisations can navigate this uncharted ocean and find a direction that results in new discoveries and new opportunities.

        Manipulation is the sorry bedfellow of power, and its cousin, control. This slippery triumvirate is out of place in today’s world. The first systemic risk listed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2014 concerns ‘instabilities caused by an increasingly multipolar world ‘and, it states in summary, ‘minimising this risk will require flexibility, fresh thinking and multistakeholder communication’. Such communication, I would suggest, will not be manipulative but transparent, cooperative, honest – and for societal good. Anything less and the resulting hysteresis will be catastrophic.

        1. Catherine, I love your writing: “Manipulation is the sorry bedfellow of power, and its cousin, control.”

          I realize in these comments I have created considerable confusion about what I observe to be true and what I condone. To that end, I agree with your position that mutual coexistence (my translation) is better for everyone. But it’s not the default. In my experience it is an inconvenient policy that corporations only begrudgingly endorse. More often, their MO is to find work-arounds. To some extent, I can’t blame them, because while the forces for mutuality, transparency, etc. are gathering, the most basic rules for marketplace survival have not changed.

          Were I a CCO, I would be riveted to your lucid counsel. But I’d have a hell of a hard time selling it into my organization because the underlying fairness of your approach is at odds with the games my competitors are playing. To retain you, I’d ask for a balance of symmetric and asymmetric programs, both to keep my company and opposing forces in line.

  15. Alan,
    I’m not sure we have much to debate overall here. As you know from my writing, I believe that corporate communication (and that’s the term to use, since to me, PR is archaic) exists to execute the strategy of the firm. I don’t see it as a profession, but a business function that should be run like any other function in the organization by business people, not specialists. This function is not like the law.

    Where we do disagree,however, is on CSR. I think the connection between values and society is profound, and that businesses exist and thrive when they are in line with the needs of society. Even Michael Porter agrees with this idea in his work with Mark Kramer on Shared Value.

    I guess I also disagree with your comments about storytelling. You can’t execute it if you can’t communicate it, and that usually is achieved more easily through storytelling.

    Next time, pick something more controversial! I’d love to debate you. Maybe someone can give us a live venue to do so.

    1. Paul, I wasn’t expecting a debate from a business professor. Thank you, nonetheless, for your comments. I agree that PR is archaic and that we can move on to more, well, authentic constructs. CSR of course has its merits; it is just that in the majority of my engagements I see it too often used as a form of placation. Reputation is likewise a wink and a nudge for patting down, rather than leveraging, controversy. We can do better and, to the point of my post, we can be more truthful about what PR/comms is here to do.

    1. Judy Gombita asked me to weigh in on this discussion. I’m not sure there is much that is new that I can say. Alan and I have debated this topic in the video described above. It’s obvious that I disagree with him. Catherine Arrow and Toni Muzi Falconi have responded in ways that explain my views quite accurately, and thetr is not much that I can add.

      This eternal debate seems to center on the question of whether public relations should be organization-centric, public-centric, or both. Critics of my symmetrical model typically misinterpret it to mean that public relations should be totally public-centric. That’s not the case. That would be asymmetrical. I believe that public relations should represent the interests of publics to the organization and the interests of the organization to publics–in doing so engaging in responsible behaviors (i.e., social responsibility) that result in good relationships that in turn result in a good reputation among the publics affected by the behavior. Doing so increases the competitive advantage of the organization vis-a-vis other organizations that only try to bully publics to serve their own interests–which is what I think Alan is advocating.

      Michael Porter has pointed out in several of his books that organizations that comply with government regulations gain a competitive advantage over organizations that do not.

      Dejan Vercic and I extended this notion to suggest that organizations that build good relationships with their stakeholders gain a competitive advantage over organizations that do not (see p. 444 of Excellent Public Relations and Communication Management [L. Grunig, J., Grunig, & Dozier, 2002]).

      In short, the question is not whether public relations helps organizations gain competitive advantage. The question is which approach to public relations is most likely to build that competitive advantage. I’m absolutely convinced that an approach that is both organization-and-public-centric is more effective than an organization-centric approach. At the same time, if public relations as a profession is always and inherently organization-centric, as Alan seems to suggest, then my response would be that I want nothing to do with that profession. Public relations can be practiced in different ways. If others choose to practice the profession as always organization-centric, so be it. I will continue to think about how public relations can be practiced as both organization-and-public centric. In the long run, I think my approach will be more professional, better for organizations, better for publics, and better for society.

      My interpretation of Alan’s theory also is that it is less about how organizations respond to publics than it is about how organizations respond to each other. I have urged him to think more about developing “plays” that are based on listening to and collaborating with publics as a response to the “plays” of competitors that ignore the interests of publics. So far, I haven’t seen any of those “plays.”

      My final note is about the term public relations. Some may see it as antiquated because of the irresponsible ways in which “public relations” has been practiced around the world (thus tainting the name) and the misrepresentation of the practice in popular and media use. Nevertheless, it still describes the profession better than any other term: the practice though which organizations cultivate relationships with strategic publics (i.e., publics that affect and are affected by organizational behaviors.) Emphasis is on “publics” and “relationships.” Communication (corporate, organizational, strategic, or whatever) is a tool used in public relations but the term is too narrow to describe the profession.

      1. Thank you Jim for responding to my (LinkedIn shoutout) request! After all, who better to “interpret” your thinking on symmetry than you….

        I really appreciate your distinction between organization-centric and public-centric, too.

      2. Jim,

        I delight in the fact that you are open to these discussions; it’s a privilege. You have taught me many things, most notably that theorists fall in love with their theories and that you and I approach with different world views.

        My article explains our differences better than a blog comment so I leave it to the most curious to have a read. But I will add, perhaps to your surprise, that I also do not care to be associated with purely organization-centric clients/employers. The mutuality that so many on this thread endorse is wonderful. I simply believe that it is neither practical nor accurate as a kind of north star.

        As to your challenge for collaborative/symmetrical plays, it is an ever-present idea, also voiced by our mutual friend Craig Carroll. My contention has been that it is the variables of influence that moderate the symmetry of influence strategies. It is, as others here have suggested, the practitioner who runs the plays that determines more if the client shall be a bully or benevolent.

        1. Thanks, Alan. Always great to have this friendly conversation with you. In contrast to what you think, the symmetrical idea is both practical and relevant–as my research and that of others shows. I would like evidence, however, that your approach is effective–i.e., some evaluative research using outcomes such as relationships or effects on the cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors of both publics and managers. And, media clips or other output variables don’t count. I also think most public relations practice is not effective–just a lot of smoke and mirrors designed to please clients but not to have any real effects.

  16. Don, the point I’m making is that the lessons from Enron and subprime mortgages contradict the point you, Sean Williams and others repeatedly make (something Sean conceded last time around). PR has made matters worse. But contrary to what you just said about my views, I argue PR-behaviour mostly merely reflects other trends and is rarely responsible for them.

  17. There’s much that makes sense in what Alan says. What he doesn’t discuss however is how deep-rooted self-denigration is today. That is to say PR trends reflect wider ones. The will to win is not what it was. Take how GDP is often regarded as a less important measure of success than happiness. There’s a culture of low expectations. Leadership is mostly seen as toxic. So all stakeholders are now supposedly equal.

    And I’m sorry to have to remind Don that Enron and subprime mortgages are case studies that reinforce Alan’s argument. It was their lack of concern for business fundamentals that did for them.

    And Heather’s talk of academics having moved on from Grunig’s thinking is an evasion (happy to debate this at length another time). For now I say, Alan is right, business, profit and risk and winning need better PR.

    1. Paul: when you have that debate with Heather about moving on from Grunig being an “evasion”, count me in on the discussion — I like a good argument! Stakeholder salience is more effective now than symmetry – but that shouldn’t be an excuse to say that every business needs to use a limited number of KPIs.

      Skilled PROs can do more to respect a business’s culture and be a little less judgmental, if they want to be effective. Leadership is not seen as “toxic” in any PR I’ve seen.

    2. Paul – lovely to debate with you! I wasn’t evading Alan’s points – but picking up on what seemed to me to be at the heart of his criticism of educators/academics.

      As you well know, I’m no acolyte of the Grunigian way, although I will take from this body of work what I feel is helpful and appropriate. There is still much merit there – although again as Jim articulated previously at PR Conversations, the symmetric dimension of the Excellence study was not meant to be the primary focus it has been given (and he admitted also that the term Excellence was more to do with the book by Peters and Waterman, In Search of Excellence at the time).

      Our academic body of knowledge has built on this from critical, cultural and societal perspectives most recently. It seems ironic that much of PR practice is 20 years behind so isn’t even aware that although some practitioners they are just discovering the Model of Excellence and critiquing it, in academia (at least in Britain) we have largely moved beyond this – honestly!

  18. As another practitioner turned academic in the UK…I’ll add my two pennyworth to Heather’s comment. Symmetry is not the issue, and firing off headlines like “PR is dishonest” does no one any favours. Boardrooms need communicators who can converse in C-Suite speak. If that happens to be the all-American eat-em-alive stuff, then so be it. Other boards seek balanced scorecards that reflect a wider range of stakeholders. Even the most successful companies in winning both customers, sales and rising share prices can still be blindsided by government actions based on broader societal perspectives.

    Of course, we in the profession don’t do enough to prove Return on Engagement. That’s why evaluation is crucial. Take a look at the AMEC VMM and realise that it’s all about proving business objectives- which, by the way, are more than just “make money”.

    1. I stand by the headline, Catherine. The profession is clearly not clear on what it is here to do. If I take your own example of the AMEC VMM, a simple search for the words compete, competition, rival, oppose, opposition and foe yield precisely zero results. How could any scorecard be taken as balanced if the imperative of competition is not taken into account? As I have said in other comments, it is as though we are teaching and practicing from a half-written manual. It is as though we refuse to read past the parts our priests suggest we ignore.

      1. Alan, I fear that your search for competitive terms is flawed since organizations are loathe to speak directly to the competition in public view.

        1. Natalie – in the automotive sector there are some legal constraints over discussion of competitive matters in private more than in public. However, that doesn’t mean that direct engagement with competition doesn’t occur through trade bodies and in training and best practice activities such as those we organise within the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association). What is important is to ensure that no legal boundaries are covered by careful moderation of such events. Also, increasingly any such discussions are made public through social media with Tweeting and other online updates.

          1. Understood but doesn’t is seem as though the terms that Alan is seeking to find associated with public relations work are not commonly used in our strategic briefings, strategies or public action?

        2. Just because organizations lack the courage or competence to confront competitors is no excuse to avoid the measurement of a competitor’s influence and strategy. Understanding how a rival or some opposing force is positioning itself, re-positioning others and/or de-positioning you (particularly in social media) is critical to a full and actionable understanding of the matter at hand. The real problem, I fear, is that the users of these metrics are incapable of knowing what to do with such data.

        3. Natalie – I agree with you that much of PR practice does not necessarily consider how to directly tackle competitive environments – and of course, it may not be relevant in all fields. The culture of some sectors/organisations would also mean such aggressive, competitive strategies would result in problems ranging from removal of licence to operate to public approbation.

          I find it difficult to agree with Alan’s sweeping criticisms though as those I meet and work with (clients and in-house practitioners) who have a strategic remit are well aware of the broader context and do consider where different approaches are appropriate. This will include standing up and arguing a case both within the organisation and externally. In my view though, the best PR practitioners are capable of doing this more subtly than Alan suggests. After all, being offensive in strategic terms doesn’t necesssarily need to involve being aggressive or hostile. There are many ways of winning a war – and not all involve annihilating others.

          1. Absolutely. It’s hilarious to think about setting a public relations strategy based on a simple desire to crush the competition.

          2. Heather and Natalie,

            Crushing competition is a dangerous business. So is being aggressive. It’s not what I advocate in my system or my work in consulting. You may be reaching this conclusion because you are not familiar with my system and my work or your paradigm prevents it.

            Addressing competition (not just rivals, but opposing issues and institutions like, say, a regulation or an influencer) is critical to the advancement of an organization in its market — dead-center to any PR program. Indeed it requires something more than a binary understanding of advocacy (e.g., pause or punch), which I believe you are inferring is my principle.

            I am mystified as to why you would think that PR programs would avoid the competitive component since, more than any others publics, it is competitive elements that actively shift the platforms and positions of a focal client. Despite that, and for the record, there are many examples of PR programs whose singular goal is/has been to crush a competitor. Ask Intel (Operation Crush), the U.S. Republican Party (Repeal Obamacare), and Greenpeace (stop polluters).

      2. Competitive analysis is certainly part of the evaluation toolkit in my own industry (automotive) in respect of the primary PR role of consumer and trade media. Perhaps this is because a purchase is a winner takes all position. This is also evident in traditional media coverage. After all, there is only one front cover image per edition. Likewise, efforts to secure leadership positions are clear in PR activities relating to customer satisfaction surveys and awards (only one winner of Car of the Year).
        Likewise there is competition in positioning and securing endorsement from influencers such as celebrities. Social media metrics are normally considered in relation to the competition – and data makes this easier than ever to assess.

        However such measures are not relevant in other areas where collaboration is more effective (particularly in working with government as an industry). Also, it is important to look at variables that influence outcomes – budgets, national interests, comparing like-with-like and so on.

        1. Alan, can you not see the irony of responding to Heather and Natalie in this manner?

          “So is being AGGRESSIVE. It’s not what I ADVOCATE in MY SYSTEM or MY WORK in CONSULTING. You may be reaching this conclusion because you are NOT FAMILIAR with MY SYSTEM and MY WORK or YOUR PARADIGM PREVENTS it.”

          Not sure if this is the persuasive “positioning” you want to hold in a global, collective blog called “PR CONVERSATIONS.” 🙂

          1. Judy – I am struggling to totally understand what Alan is presenting via this blog post that is so different from the myriad of concepts and approaches that we have studied and practised (at least in the UK) previously. His work is not something that I have come across in over two decades working in public relations and a decade of studying the developing body of knowledge.

            With the provacative post title and the ongoing criticisms of PR practitioners, academics and educators, it seems he is positioning himself at a counter, competitive force. But much of what he seems to say when digging down is that there are different ‘influence strategies’ that organisations should be employing in various situations – which need to be addressing situations where competitive forces impact on the organisation. This is where his ‘plays’ come in.

            As you know, I don’t have a fixed paradigm for understanding or practising public relations and welcome debate and different viewpoints as a way of developing my perspective on the field. So it is useful to have Alan introduce his concepts here and other people’s contributions to the discussion have been equally helpful (not least having Jim Grunig’s input).

            I suppose my confusion is why Alan feels that others have not already understood the concept of competitive (and broader situational) analysis, and various strategies (for influence or other desired outcomes) and their importance in public relations. We do not simply practice or teach the original concepts of 2-way symmetric communications or the Excellence Model (indeed, criticisms of that largely originated with scholars based in the UK).

            We draw on management and organisational theories, historic and contemporary research into influence (which would cover rhetoric, persuasion, game theory and much more), and specific strategic and tactical planning, implementation and evaluation across a host of areas from internal communications to media relations to marketing to public affairs to risk and crisis management, social media and digital communications and more.

            Competition (in its broad and narrow definition) is inherently part of that. Indeed, I have a student who is just completing her dissertation focusing on applying competitive strategy models (including Porter’s work) to an examination of British broadcast companies – notably the BBC and Sky.

            But we also focus on the wider societal perspectives, which includes viewing PR from a non-corporate, non-capitalist perspective. We look at other cultures (not the dominant US-UK one), work emerging from other disciplines etc etc etc.

            As you know, my own PhD studies have taken me into over a century’s worth of study and practice in the careers field which has opened up lots of new conceptual and practical ways of envisioning PR and the changing world in which it operates.

            I find it amusing to be accused of ‘binary understanding of advocacy’ which I think is what is implied by Alan attributing this criticism of him to me (which I haven’t ever said here). I’ve certainly never argued that PR programmes would avoid any competitive component – unless that is not appropriate to the nature of the position required. It is perplexing when I’m picked up on discussing the annihilation of others, yet then given examples of where this is evident in PR programs.

            So overall, I am not persuaded that that the world is defined solely or primarily by competitive forces. For me, organisations operate in an environment where pressure for change comes from many directions (not all of which could be deemed ‘competitive’ unless using that term very loosely). As Jacquie L’Etang has argued, it is such change that creates an imperative for PR action as it is not required in a position of status quo. My view of systems thinking (derived from studying von Bertalanffy) is that complexity and chaos are important to understand – as much, if not more, than standard linear or adaptive, modernist and post-modernist, systems thinking.

            But this has certainly been a lively PR Conversation and I thank you and Alan for your contributions to that.

  19. Alan – thanks for the post. I fear that in many ways your argument is outdated – at least from my British educator’s perspective. We have largely moved on from presenting the 2-way symmetric model (and the fuller Excellence Model) as the only perspective on public relations. However, this move is accompanied by a wider consideration derived from a bigger societal perspective not just the narrow organisational one. Any organisation that today only thinks of itself in aggressive competitive terms is unlikely to get very far in the face of a more active public, legislators and other constraints. Indeed, a total focus on competition particularly in areas such as CSR only seems to lead to competitive advantage becoming legislated compliance (as per Martin’s Virtue Matrix).

    There is also an irony in your call to step away from the storytelling in that this seems to me to be the same message that Jim Grunig has written recently (including here at PR Conversations). What he critiques is the “symbolic interpretive” message-oriented approach being institutionalised in PR where communications are managed primarily to create a positive reputation regardless of the reality. This is contrasted with the “behavioural strategic” approach (the white hat good cowboy to use Don’s cowboy metaphor). reflecting the Excellence model and PR as part of strategic management in making decisions, forming policy and helping management understand the consequences of actions on publics.

    Surely storytelling is also simply a strategy – indeed one that supports what you claim to be PR’s remit in the exercise in positioning, re-positioning and de-positioning?

    I agree that there are many in PR who buy-in to the feel-good approach of engagement, authenticity, empowerment and all the other buzzwords. But at the same time, there are those who hang onto a mythology of the ability of PR (and management more widely) being able to control and achieve their goals at the expense of everyone else. There is a more pragmatic way that certainly comes from an advocacy and self-interested (even competitive) basis, but also recognises the benefits (dare I say virtues) of co-operation and even sometimes genuine altruism. Furthermore, acknowledging that organisations operate in a wider society enables early recognition of issues and where PR can help with a shift in position that maintains, even advances, competitive advantage.

    1. Thanks Heather. To be clear, I am advocating for an ‘expansion’ of the paradigm in practice, not the elimination of collaboration, symmetry, etc. It is confounding to me that in taking a stand for competitive advantage, my position would be construed as that of a cowboy, or American or a zero-sum-gamer. But that’s life in any rhetorical sparring match. Those who take a side are seen to be on one side, not others.

      As I explain almost daily to my clients, the act of competing is not binary. It is not a choice between doing nothing or rallying a public smack down. There are, as explained by my system in detail, many gradations (many of which the feel-gooders ignore) that effectively and appropriate advance an organization’s interest in a marketplace. Their effect is to ensure competitive advantage. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will have laid waste to stakeholders.

      1. Alan – thanks for your clarification. Whilst we’re on that, I don’t think that I sought to construe you as a cowboy, American or a zero-sum gamer. My points were that (a) Grunig positions ‘behavioural strategic’ PR from a white-hat perspective, (b) my perspective is that of a Brit and (c) as you indicate in your further comment, we can be more pragmatic than either/or.

        I’m certainly not arguing against competitive advantage, but I do think that keeping your eyes only on the competition is not necessarily a winning position. I’ve often worked in organisations or for clients who obsess about ‘the competition’ instead of taking a clear leadership position themselves. My role in PR has frequently been to develop the differentiator, the winning narrative, ensure strong relationships are in place (better than all the rest – to cite Tina Turner) and that the organisation’s reputation is head and shoulders above the others. That’s competitive advantage in my book.

  20. Alan:

    I would like to believe that your pugnacious tone is for dramatic effect.

    Your post reflects the cowboy winner-takes-all, take-no-prisoners business model that gave us Enron and the sub prime bank crisis. In the latter case it is the taxpayer (public) that had to foot the bill.

    Effective PR counsel ensures that rogue business people are reminded that they operate within a society. Profit without ethics is neither good for them nor the public.

    1. Don, I am sincere that the institution of PR is dishonest. With itself and its users.

      Enron offers a pithy example of PR gone awry, but what of the Dove soap campaign that seeks to embolden aging women? This is not honest. It’s a strategy by a for-profit company to gain the affections of buyers whose affections they don’t deserve. At the end of the day, they want only their money, not their thanks or smoothed wrinkles. It’s a deception and an abuse of privilege. What of the viral Thai insurance company commercial that features a young man paying forward various deeds? It’s not honest either. It’s a strategy to sell insurance policies by a company that cares far less about paying forward than just getting paid.

      Where PR gets its traction is not in the moralists that executives shut out, but in the strategists that help it move forward. This is not necessarily good, but it is reality and, as such, I believe we are in denial as to why we even exist. Denial, when held with such conviction against so much contrary evidence is, in my mind, a refusal to be honest.

      1. Alan, I applaud your sincerity. The Dove campaign you refer to was primarily an advertising campaign — and there is a difference between PR and advertising.

        You, like Paul elsewhere in this thread seem to blame PR for Enron’s and subprime mortgage excesses. Like any profession PR has its fair share of charlatans and spin doctors. Blaming PR for the errors of comission and omission in these two extreme cases would be like blaming doctors in the emergency ward for traffic deaths. More often than not PR folk are called in when the patient is being wheeled to the ICU.

        1. Again, Don, we are simpatico in our thinking. It is imperative that professionals understand the imperative difference between marketing messaging and public relations. In fact, before I read your response to Alan’s comparison of the Dove soap advertising campaign, I was completely aligned with your thoughts and comparisons. We appear to be of the same ilk!

          1. Dove may be a favourite case study of Richard Edelman, but its origins were definitely in the advertising realm–(female) Canadian creative in fact from Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto, Canada.

            I don’t know if you were following Heather Yaxley’s latest post from the 1948 book, Your Public Relations, Alan, but Toni Muzi Falconi provided me with some valuable insight when I asked how it was “public relations counsel” from the mid-last century had been lost in the focus on “marketing PR” in recent years. Toni puts much of it squarely at the feet of Richard’s father, Dan Edelman (a man with whom Toni had a long-standing professional and personal relationship of mutual respect and liking, I might add).

            Here is an excerpt from Toni’s comment:

            “Let me advance my interpretation:

            ° in the fifties of the last century public relations was a highly senior, recognized and legitimate counselling profession, positioned at the highest levels of organizations, well beyond marketing, while advertising more than often reported to PR;

            ° then… the practice of marketing (developed by Ed Bernays well before Kotler… the former’s scientific persuasion approach innovated by prescripting the need to listen to publics to improve the power of communicating–to them rather than the quality of the product, let alone the organization…) expanded with TV and mass consumption and expanded throughout the Western hemisphere as US corporations expanded and invaded the rest of the world accompanied by the exportation of the so-called ‘American Dream’ (one of the two or three most effective PR programs in history..definitely killed in Iraq, but after decades of success).

            ° Professionals like Hill preferred to continue in the tradition of top management counselling, public affairs, crisis management et al; Dan Edelman instead jumped on the marketing wagon carefully remaining distinct from advertising and inventing, as an example, the groundbreaking Toni Twins campaign; while Harold Burson and his (often forgotten…) advertising partner Marsteller went for a delicate intermediate line. Harold also says today that the name PR in the seventies, mostly because of the Nixon Watergate tapes, convinced a huge group of senior VP’s for public relations to change the name to communication…. and that is when it all started to crumble.

            ° Public Relations became (mostly thanks to Dan Edelman) marketing PR, and although Dan had always remained at arm’s length from advertising, most of his followers were less independent and caved in attracted by the big dollars required by advertising.”

          2. Enron and Dove in the same sentence… I admit to not knowing enough about Enron, but as far as I understood it was an operational issue, not a PR issue. I’ve never heard anything to suggest PR was complicit in perpetrating the fraud…

            Judy, in terms of Dove, are we not confusing the discipline and the delivery mechanism? In the same way that a magazine or website can be used for building relationships with an audience, as well as for marketing and publicity purposes, so is it not possible for a billboard, TV and magazine advert to serve multiple purposes [PR, marketing and publicity].

            Which it actually serves depends on the desired outcome of the company and, in turn, the copy and creative.

            [btw, I know this is above your comment, but I couldn’t find a way to add it below!]

            Best wishes, Lyndon

          3. Lyndon, the parent company of Dove (Unlilever) chose and spent significant money (at least at the front end) with an advertising agency.

            Just because you want the campaign to fall under the banner of “public relations” doesn’t make it so. Even in its most recent iterations, I believe it is marketing, not public relations. (Which is part of the reason why Richard Edelman would be so fond of it.) Amongst other things, a public relations-oriented initiative would emphasize the parent company, Unilever, not the one set of products.

            Regardless, you focusing on this (or the definition of public relations that you embrace) is wandering quite far afield of Alan Kelly’s OpEd. Although I do appreciate you considering PR Conversations a platform worthy of your attention and not subject to a lot of the stereotypes you find rife in “PR companies” (by which I’m assuming you mean agencies). Cheers.

            P.S. The wonderful CBC Radio show “Under the Influence” (which focuses primarily on advertising and marketing) has covered Dove numerous times. And I know that its producer/host, award-winning advertising executive (and bestselling book author–his text is used in many university marketing programs), Terry O’Reilly, recognizes the differences between advertising/marketing and public relations.

          4. Hi Judy,

            I don’t want the campaign to fall under any banner – I was merely posing a question and offering an example for clarity… [is it possible that a campaign or medium can serve more than one purpose]. I think Dove is an example because it made the audience aware, but also used values in an attempt to to build an affinity between the company and the audience.

            I wasn’t arguing that it wasn’t advertising/publicity/promotion; or that it was PR rather than advertising/publicity/promotion.

            As for embracing a definition of public relations, it is the one that the PRSA uses as having been crowdsourced by its members. It’s not something that I’ve come up with randomly.

            On PR Conversations, this is exactly the sort of conversation that the industry at large needs to have. It’s the only way that PR will remain relevant. I’m a fan of anything that promotes the exchange of ideas and passionate and heartfelt views and opinions. 🙂

            Best wishes,


          5. Regarding the PRSA “crowdsourced” definition of PR, Lyndon (although the crowdsourcing came at the front end only), I’m not sure why you would apply it to this Alan Kelly OpEd on PR Conversations. Alan didn’t. (Not to mention given that none of the current principals are members of PRSA, you shouldn’t assume it’s a definition we collectively espouse). For that matter, the only post relating to a national PR association’s definition of “public relations” came from Terry Flynn, and he wrote (primarily) about how the Canadian Public Relations Society arrived at its definition (which preceded PRSA’s btw). See: A defining moment for public relations

      2. The problem of Dove for me is that although it is a very effective positioning campaign (call it advertising, marketing, PR or integrated marketing communications) and taps into the 21st century issues around female identity and body image etc – Unilever is also the company responsible for Lynx. And of course, Lynx is clearly positioned around a tongue-in-cheek young male perspective of women which is at odds with the Dove ‘real beauty’ stance.

        This is a situation that I have often discussed with students over the past 7 years or so since the Dove campaign first emerged. We have what Dove apparently believes on the one hand and what Lynx believes on the other – but if we’re being really honest, these are BRANDS and of so they don’t have values just marketing positioning.

        And Unilever has the predictable/expected ‘values & standards’ statements (Integrity if the foundation on which we do business) on its website: http://www.unilever.com/sustainable-living-2014/our-approach-to-sustainability/values-and-standards/ – with no consideration of how its brands may reflect a different or conflicting positioning.

        But this isn’t simply evidence or a question about the honesty or dishonesty of PR – it is about how organisations are willing to position and reposition themselves however they feel will best resonate with their primary stakeholder. In the case of Dove/Lynx – that’s the customer (with clear competitive differentiation particularly for Dove vs L’Oreal’s celebrity ‘Because I’m Worth It advertising slogan). In the case of Unilever, that’s the stakeholder mainly.

        So we have strategists in the (marketing) consultancies advising the brands, and strategists (probably in-house) at the corporate level busy positioning to best suit what they feels plays to the ‘audience’. Not a drop of integrity, authenticity or true values in any of it.

        Does it matter? Probably not – and more fool the customer or the shareholder for believing in any of it.

        1. You were able to weigh in before me, Heather, although I was thinking of the Axe brand of products (not Lynx–perhaps it’s the same products but sold under a different name in the UK/Europe? ). And that is where I think Unilever does have a public relations “problem” in that it is happily “marketing” two clashing images of value/worth to young women and young men (at least the younger generations appear to be Unilever’s primary target markets).

          1. Yes – Axe is known as Lynx in UK, Australia and Ireland. Sorry I knew that and forgot to add in for clarification in my comment.

            Interesting to look at how Unilever discusses both brands on its corporate site:

            In the former, Axe helps guys get the girl and in the latter link, it states: “Dove’s Social Mission is to help encourage girls to develop a positive relationship with beauty, helping to raise their self-esteem and thereby enabling them to realise their full potential.”

            One wonders what happens when a guy empowered by his Axe shower gel aims to ‘get’ a Dove empowered girl whose self-esteem has been raised by her shower gel!

            Have to say that I’ve never eaten Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream since Unilever bought the company. I could find some credibility in its brand values before, but not after it became part of this brand-phony conglomerate. But that’s a whole other discussion for a future post maybe.

    2. Don: Thank you for your courage to point out the “pugnacious” tone of Alan’s originating commentary, “Symmetry and storytelling are fine but only if they improve competitive advantage” inspired by the previous discussion of “Honestly, PR is dishonest” by another individual. I could not help but suspect while reading it that it was written with an excessive use of a thesaurus to disguise an inability to convey a viewpoint concisely about a ligament topic worthy of consideration and debate. I believe that that Alan’s contribution is designed to be provocative in order to draw attention to himself in the world of social media. I agree with Don on all his points thus far. I particularly like his statement that “Effective PR counsel ensures that rogue business people are reminded that they operate within a society. Profit without ethics is neither good for them nor the public.” PR executives’ role at the table is to ensure that marketing and sales techniques remain authentic and not deceptive, which is a very difficult position to convince colleagues whose jobs depend on profit and loss statements. I will leave my comments as stated and not opine further than I have. Alan, my assessment is not personal, just some “honest PR” feedback on your behalf and for your benefit. Also, Alan, I have not read all of the response thus far, but will endeavor to do so. Thank you for initiating this discussion.

      1. Q: A few thoughts: Yes, my contribution is designed to provoke, but I am quite serious about the headline and any meaning it conveys. This post will accrue to what I do; I don’t know how it could not. My work was originally spurred by the observation that PR/comms have willfully ignored the fundamentals, like biologists snubbing the phylogenetic tree. They operate like alchemists, not too interested in the most basic units of their work. Even the most notable research seems to skirt what my friend and scholar, Don Stacks, calls ‘the dark side of PR.’

        If you read my book or visit my website you will discover an exhaustive and stable standard for influence and communication strategy. This has never been done before, and its novelty is confirmed by a patent.

        For the record, I was invited to submit this blog and I generally don’t conduct business development in the PR arena. Perhaps I should, but it is exhausting when what I have to offer is so solidly contrasted to the prevailing preferences for story-telling and symmetry.

        1. Yes, I invited Alan to submit his own OpEd post @TheQLover when he first became familiar (and a quite active commenter) with PR Conversations and (in particular) Sean Williams’ recent, The endless fight for the (PR) power post.

          If you check out our About section (which is our Vision for this global, collective blog in its Redux version), you’ll see we welcome a variety of opinions and voices, from different parts of the world.

          1. Judy: Thanks for the refreshing flashback to Toni’s professorial treatise about the historical genesis and eventual parting of ways between PR and advertising. It puts the Dove and other related borderline cases into perspective.

            Q: Thanks for your nice words. Since you write under a penname I sincerely hope you’re real person and not some google algorithm out on a “do good” mission 🙂

            Alan: It would be nice if you could address the serious issues of balancing societal concerns for the environment (take the example of Australian strip coal mining) making huge profits while endangering our planet with CO2 emissions that accompany burning coal.

            Will profit and shareholder ROI alone be the guiding principles. There is a whole raft of other ethical issues — take your pick, if you’re really honest.

  21. Alan — thanks for continuing your perspectives from the earlier discussion. Whilst I wouldn’t describe myself or any of the practitioners I know as “do-gooder scouts”, I will aver that there is an idealism, a vision of something beyond simple persuasion, behind that PR impulse. The “Anti-Excellence” crew are right to note that lo these many years later, PRs are still lamenting their plight, like a knot-hole gang outside Ebbets Field. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfzcIwW8zPY)

    It’s interesting that many of the organizations that are least strategic in their corporate communications define it most narrowly; I can’t name names, but you’re probably aware of the “it’s all about media relations” crowd, or the “it’s all about social media” crowd. Unfortunately, my own personal experience of the most enlightened corporate communicators is woefully short. Instead, it’s Sisyphusian — a near constant attempt from within to fortify the cause for tactical improvements like measurement. (It’s quite a bit easier from outside, I’ve found.)

    But I digress — the question is whether the concept of 2-way symmetry can possibly happen, and whether we PRs should continue to strive for it. I know that if we ask too much sacrifice of the organization for which we toil, we’re doomed. But isn’t zero-sum business doomed also? Maybe that’s the underpinning of Excellence – we’re a management function, and we advocate, but we also raise issues with stakeholders (ala Rawlins) according to some defined criteria. They don’t have to lose for us to win, do they?

    Thanks again for your usual thought-provoking commentary.

    1. Sean, I’d sincerely like to think that two-way symmetry were the correct and most effective default. That would make our world better. But that is not reality. Contested markets are reality and, as such, there exists the sheer necessity for organizations to prosper or hold even, at least. No, they don’t “have” to operate in the zero-sum-game mode. They can collaborate. But collaborations, too, are designed to yield competitive advantage — and usually at the expense of those who didn’t join the coalition.

      What I’m seeking is a certain admission by the leaders of the craft and educators, too, that we are practicing and teaching PR with a mere half manual. We default to what I call “high fit” strategies that seek to endear when, in fact, “high friction” approaches do more to spur debate, draw interest, guarantee relevance and drive — I’ll write it again — competitive advantage.

      Rose-colored glasses are pleasing to the eye. But we are fooling ourselves, our clients and students as to our real intentions and capabilities.

      1. Having been schooled in PR and marketing, I don’t see a great divide in the framing of the organizational purpose of these practices. Since PR is used to advance the organization’s interests, its mandates are nearly always framed in a competitive context. That said, PR professionals are not as apt as marketers to see themselves as brand warriors or to measure their effect on the business in brand metrics. I think that’s because PR mandates are often in the realm of high fit needs, i.e. smoothing the way for the organization to operate without impediment, by building necessary public support.

        1. Hi Natalie,

          PR and marketing are two very different disciplines… PR is about building relationships and marketing is about using the relationships to get an audience to take action on your behalf [because they want to].

          I find that PR companies seem to want to blur the lines – either because they have an advantage to gain as a result, or because there isn’t a clear understanding of the fundamentals of either.

          Best wishes,


  22. Alan:

    Your POV is interesting, logical and likely controversial. Certainly your headline will evoke a fair amount of consternation.

    Let’s be clear though. It is PR people and how the function is practiced that is susceptible to dishonesty. And you are right, the industry is over the top on story telling. Story telling is important but it is not the end all and be all. What we do as a professionals is to advocate for our companies, organization and institutions or their points of view. It can be honest, dishonest or somewhere in between.

    In my view, the PR professional is about advocating for the organization that pays our salary and also advocating for the oragnization’s constituencies, be they friend, foe or in between.

    Keep up the good words.

  23. Very well put, Alan! The objective of business is to capture and retain customers better than the competition–grow share and make it more expensive for competitors to acquire our customers. This creates profitability and creates shareholder value.

    PR practioners are guilty of the same soft approach to business as employee and customer “delight” advocates, who believe that these are an end in and of themselves. They are, in fact, a pathway to profits, only when channeled appropriately. Banks delighted customers in the early part of the 21st century with low interest loans. How’d that work out for the banks or the customers?

    All this talk about “aligning interests”. To what end? How do we align interests that cannot be aligned? By creating imbalances (coalitions, collaborations, partnerships, M&A) that change the market dynamics. I sometimes think PR seeks market equilibrium rather than winners and losers–unless it is about an intellectual argument.

    Great post!

    1. Elliot, to a certain extent does it not come down to whether you think public relations is a distinct management function (involving both senior-level counsel and communication) or whether you place it under a (somewhat tactical) corner of The Big Marketing Tent?

    2. Elliot, I like your point that ‘PR seeks market equilibrium.’ Odd that it would do so in marketplaces that are, by definition, contested and never guaranteed. This is the veneer I hope to peel away. PR needs to snap out of its dream and be honest about its base value and purpose.

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