Honestly, PR is dishonest
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.