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PR Must Embrace the Hacker Ethic

In a Communications Environment that Prizes Expertise over Authority, the Hacker Ethic Offers the Way Forward

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A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

There’s an important difference between “expertise” and “authority.” Expertise connotes a deep level of specialized knowledge while authority describes a characteristic of people or groups that might wield power over you. While it’s true that we might say, “Bob Jones is an authority in bovine endodontics” or “Bob’s view is authoritative” what we are really saying is this person has a high level of expertise. Any real power Bob possesses is likely limited to others within that narrow field.

This distinction is important because expertise is increasingly valued in today’s world, authority not so much. The findings from the annual Edelman Trust Barometer continue to bear this out. For at least the past three years, our global results show that the two most trusted people were “academics or experts” and “a technical expert within the company.” At the bottom, we have two parties with certainly enough authority to both giveth and taketh away — CEOs and government officials.

When it comes to the value of expertise versus authority, hacker ethics (as developed over time by students at MIT and Stanford several decades ago) double down on the former and strongly resist the latter. This code, in fact, posits several recommended behaviors I believe are central to the evolution of public relations. For the sake of compression, here are three.

“The Hands-On Imperative: [Access to] anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total”

A lofty goal? Perhaps even a risky one? Our oft-ridiculed and mistrusted trade won’t fix that deficiency unless we aspire to things that might scare us a little. If we are to build lasting bonds between organizations and stakeholders, we need to facilitate access and remove barriers; we must allow stakeholders to put their ears to doors that they might not otherwise be able to reach. Secrets? Sure, I recognize that they are critical to any business, but just make sure that you’re comfortable with them not staying secrets for very long despite your best efforts. As the oft-misunderstood axiom goes, “Information wants to be free.”

“Mistrust Authority – Promote Decentralization”

Networked communities react to authority by valuing and promoting decentralization. Your company’s website may be the authoritative, canonical place for it to publish its views but I’m guessing it’s probably only that — a microphone or billboard. A company needs to be where its audiences already are and to help those communities do what they do better in a way that promotes a mutual advantage. An engagement posture that largely relies on a kind of “digital Rose Garden” strategy risks losing mindshare to competitors who are already seen as members of a community and can benefit from those insights and relationships regularly.

“No Bogus Criteria, Such As Degrees, Age, Race or Position”

The hacker ethic rejects any notion of status beyond what’s evinced by the shared knowledge and abilities that someone contributes to the overall community. To participate effectively, communicators must put away the blunt, reflexively over-used tool of status and authority (e.g., “Let’s get our CEO out there!” or “This community should be happy that we’re acknowledging them!”).

In such an environment, the best thing the typical sources of authority can do to cultivate lasting and mutually beneficial relationships is to operate with a level of “humble confidence,” a term coined by former Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell. As referenced in his “growth manifesto” for the company, Isdell said that humble confidence meant that the company “recognize[d] that [it has] sometimes acted with arrogance in the past.”

All of this — and a whole lot more — underscores my lasting conviction that public relations must adopt some elements of the hacker ethic if it is to remain at all vital or even important over the long term. This ethic that drove much of the creation of the modern networked age — a recognition of the limits of centralized, authoritative control — has yet to permeate our trade to any real degree. This change in overall mindset is long overdue and we ignore it at our peril.

Based in Chicago, Phil Gomes is a senior vice president in Edelman’s Digital practice. This and other essays in this series are expansions of his talk “Hacking Public Relations.” You can review the core principles of this philosophy on EdelmanDigital.com.

Image by William Grootonk.
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