Shoeless Joe Jackson was a phenomenal baseball player for the Chicago White Sox. But he was caught up in the Black Sox Scandal, where he and a few teammates conspired to throw the 1919 World Series. A young fan, seeing Shoeless Joe emerge from the courthouse, gave us the immortal line, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” I have much the same feeling when I read the speech to be delivered this morning in London by Toni Muzi Falconi, a highly respected European PR executive, who is receiving the Alan Cambell-Johnson Medal for outstanding service to international public relations from the Council of International PR.
Let me give you an excerpt of the speech: “Over the last century or so the US based model of public relations practice has not only been predominant but unique. Exported and adopted, like many other models, throughout the world with considerable success, it has however failed to instill the idea of a profession with a reputable identity. In its glass half full version this model is based on marketing, on third party endorsement, on media relations, on organization of events and mostly on persuasive one to few, one to many and asymmetric communication practices. The evaluation of its effectiveness is still predominantly based on advertising value equivalent indicators and more recently on intelligent and always more sophisticated media content analysis. In its glass half empty version, the same model is also based on one way, asymmetric, manipulative spin and propaganda practices. And in many cases the two versions of the same model are thoroughly integrated, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. The limits of this predominantly ethnocentric model of public relations appear ever so vividly in the last decade of the 20th century and the first five years of this one…The academic consensus now seems to be there is a European public relations model more committed to the enlargement and enrichment of the public sphere, communicating in public with the public, for the public.”
So let’s list the charges against the defendant:
1) PR is a marketing discipline
2) PR is a one to many model that is one way communication, in short just like advertising
3) PR utilizes manipulative spin and propaganda practices
4) PR as currently practiced is a uniquely American phenomenon based on hype
I’d like to address these charges systematically, beginning with a spirited defense of marketing public relations. I believe in a world of consumer choice based on full information, not one of government control and a docile nanny society. PR is a valuable means of projecting a brand into the spotlight based on objective analysis by the media. PR builds brands and credibility before advertising can truly be effective. The use of third parties such as academics and doctors is even more critical in a world lacking trust in institutions, whether business or government. Our Trust Barometer indicates that articles in media are nine times more believable than advertising! We are in a world of empowered consumers who control and are self-seekers of information. We need to satisfy their desire to make decisions based on fact, not image.
PR is no longer a one way street in the same sense as advertising. There is a critical distinction. We are not selling, we are seeking to co-create brands and corporate reputation. Smart companies are showing their products to enthusiastic consumers well in advance of launch, allowing them to be citizen journalists, listening and modifying the beta models in response to the constructive criticism. These same smart companies are making their employees their most credible spokespeople by telling them in advance of corporate intentions. Employees of Starbucks were given advance notice of the company’s move to purchase of only sustainably grown coffee.
There is a threat to all of us for instance, from spin and propaganda. The behavior of the US Government in failure to properly identify the source of video news releases on behalf of the US Department of Health and Human Services is frankly unacceptable. That is a far cry from a blanket denunciation of marketing PR as a propaganda operation. There is much more use of campaign style PR, which originated in the political wars in Washington, in public affairs than in marketing PR. We should all reject the black arts of leaks and subterfuge. Nor can we accept the characterization of PR executives as spinmeisters, whether on the European side (Max Clifford) or US side (James Carville).
The disdain for a society based on conspicuous consumption is a view held by many Americans, not just Europeans. Many of us are uncomfortable with the excesses of American life, whether the halftime show at the Super Bowl or the Michael Jackson trial. Yet we are tolerant of those who hold different views on what constitutes a “good life.” I will confess to watching TV shows like “America’s Top Model” and understand it to be part of the hype that is modern America. I know what is happening to me as a consumer but I believe I am smart enough to discount the information being conveyed.
The implication of the speech is that PR outside of the US has a more serious purpose, “to enrich the public sphere.” The logical conclusion to this thesis is that PR focused on social responsibility to stakeholders is the only worthwhile branch of the profession. In fact, in a free society with intelligent consumers operating in a wired communications environment, there is as noble a purpose in providing information that enables private decisions.